Worn and faded paper - language atrophy can leave you feeling your skills have faded.

Beating Language Atrophy (In The Heat of the Moment!)

I spent a great weekend of volunteering at a fun, lively international sports event. As you’d expect, there were language practice opportunities galore. I hobnobbed in German. I gabbed away in French. And – gulp – I stammered away in depressingly cumbersome Spanish. Without even noticing, I’d let my Spanish atrophy.

My first reaction was personal frustration. Spanish was one of the first foreign languages I learned properly. I sailed through it in school, college, and then university. Half of my degree was in the language, and I’d been fairly successful at resurrecting it for an event not too long back. The Spanish I was producing off-the-cuff was just-about functional, old-fashioned, bookish, laboured and uncolloquial. How could it feel so clumsy in my mouth? 

The thing is, it’s the same with any skill. The ability remains, but without regular use, the automaticity of it – the muscle memory, in a sense – will dull. Perhaps the level of skill-drop isn’t as dramatic as use it or lose it, but there’s a grain of truth in there. Even so, that’s no consolation when you’re in the line of fire.

So how do you beat language atrophy in a just-in-time scenario?

Be Kind To Yourself

The crucial first step is simple: silence the self-critic. It’s too easy to reproach yourself in the moment, but it’s also completely fruitless. Our lives are complicated. There are a million and one reasons you might have let a language slide a little. Don’t beat yourself up.

The truth is that we perform even worse when we let that inner voice knock our confidence. You challenge yourself to do better immediately, and you flounder when that just compounds the issue. Stop the vicious circle in its tracks and give yourself a break. Languages can be challenging, and you’re brilliant for having mastered them in the first place!

Don’t Be A Perfectionist

There’s a wonderful saying in Gaelic that speaks so eloquently to this situation. S’ fheàrr Gáidhlig bhriste na Gàidhlig sa chiste. It means “broken Gaelic is better than Gaelic in the box”, and it appeals to the sabotaging perfectionist in us.

When pressurising myself in the heat of the moment, everything annoyed me. I was cursing my use of a wrong verb ending, tripping up on a trilled r, using a wrong auxiliary. That is, despite all the time producing perfectly sensible, comprehensible sentences. In reality, nobody cared or gave marks, and everybody was simply happy to hear a volunteer trying to communicate in their language.

Don’t try to be perfect – you’re not a native speaker, and nobody expects you to be.

Take it back a step

When you’ve gathered your thoughts, it’s time for a mini plan-of-action. The order of the day is simplicity – revising some snappy, colloquial foothold phrases to give you some instant success in your current surroundings. Text engines like Reverso Context are a great place to get quick anwers.

My role included meeting and greeting arrivals, so obvious choices were “¡disfruta!” (enjoy!) and “¡divièrtete!” (have fun!). It was a competition, so add to that “¡buena suerte!” (good luck) and “¡mucho éxito!” (lots of success!) and you have the start of a script. They’re super simple interjections, but they gave enough of a social framework to scaffold short interactions, keep things flowing, and slowly build back confidence.

It certainly beats trying to assemble the phrase ‘I hope you and your teammates all have a really great time at the tournament’ in your head on the spot!

Use other speakers

While you’re finding your feet again, friendly speakers – ideally those non-delegates where the stakes are lower – are golden. And when you locate them, there’s no better way to practise speaking a language than speaking about it. Chat about how long it’s been since you’ve used the language, when you learnt it and so on. It’s instantly relatable, motivating to talk about, and so will get your gears going again quickly.

I volunteered alongside a couple of very fluent non-native speakers for some of my stint. Amongst other things, we found ourselves chatting in Spanish about language atrophy itself. It was low-pressure, good fun, and a godsend for between-task, forgiving, live language practice!

Language Atrophy Kryptonite

So, to reassure anyone fearful of landing in the same boat, you can turn it around. I managed to get my knocked confidence back on track soon enough to be a useful volunteer again (at least to our Spanish visitors).

And perhaps that’s the biggest lesson here – that language competence is never just about the vocab, the grammar, or the pronunciation. It’s about nurturing your confidence in order to give yourself a chance to be the best you can be.

¡Buena suerte!

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