For the past several years, since I decided to start pursuing interpreting in addition to translation, I’ve spent quite a bit of time keeping up my French language skills. This year, in my Master’s in conference interpreting program (which you can read about here, and here), I spent a lot, lot, lot of time working on my French language skills. I think active language skills are really important, even if you’re exclusively a translator; active language skills let you communicate with clients in their language, which can open the door to higher-paying work, for example.
“Language skills” can mean many things in our profession: definitely your non-native language, but you might also be learning a new language, or your native language might have become your non-dominant language over time. For example if you’re a native Russian speaker but you’ve lived in the US for 30 years, English might have become your dominant professional language and you might actually need to work on your Russian. Having been “in the trenches” of language maintenance, here are my top tips for anyone else looking to do this!
Buy Eve Bodeux’s book, and not just because she’s my friend!
Step one, if you’re at all interested in language maintenance, you really need Eve Bodeux’s book Maintaining Your Second Language, and not only because Eve and I are BFFs! Eve’s book is a) packed with tons of strategies so that you’re sure to find something that fits with your goals and abilities, and b) the most comprehensive resource I’ve found on this topic. I highly recommend it for anyone on the language maintenance journey.
How I started
The most basic speaking skill you practice as an interpreter is shadowing, meaning that you just repeat after the speaker in the same language. When I decided in 2017 that I wanted to prepare for the state-level court interpreter exam, I was dismayed to learn that I couldn’t even speak fast enough in French to shadow normal-speed speakers. I would constantly get distracted by trying to listen and talk at the same time, and I couldn’t physically talk fast enough to keep up. That’s how I discovered my first language maintenance hack: slowing down YouTube videos. Most speakers sound pretty normal (not distorted) at .75 speed, so that’s how I started. Even better, you can pick people who are naturally slow talkers (I recommend former French president François Hollande) and slow them down, and then you’ve really got something manageable! And yes, you can also speed up YouTube videos, which I later did to prepare for my conference interpreting final exams.
Another good resource for slow shadowing is the News in Slow… language learning shows, which are available for various languages, and are actually slow. I say “actually slow,” because some “easy” resources are really not that easy. For example Radio France Internationale’s Le Journal en Français Facile (“the news in easy French”) is actually not that easy; I’ve never timed how many words per minute they speak, but mostly, the “easy” element is that they’ll pause and explain certain concepts, like what a difficult word means.
Another go-to: reading aloud
Another one of my favorite tips from Eve’s book is reading aloud (to yourself or to someone else). One thing I’ve really noticed this year is that speaking another language is very physical; you have to actually build up the muscles for the sounds that don’t exist in the language you speak all the time. Over the course of this year, as I spoke more French than at any time since I lived in France in the early 90s, I noticed that my pronunciation of the French “r” (a perpetual problem for me) consistently got better, not because I can’t hear when it sounds bad, but because I physically developed the muscles to pronounce it better.
Reading aloud is a great way to build up this skill, and because it’s probably not something that you’re going to do for hours at a time, it’s a good “filler” activity; read a news article aloud when you’re waiting on a conference call, or waiting for the oven to pre-heat, or waiting for someone to call you back, or any of the little slices of five minutes that you have during the day.
Flood your brain with the other language
As I battled to improve my spoken French this year, another of Eve’s tips that really helped me was just to flood my brain with French, without worrying about the subject matter being academic or informative. Because keeping up with current events is a key skill in conference interpreting, I did listen to plenty of academic and informative stuff; particularly the France 24 news network, and the France Culture family of podcasts. They have tons of shows, and I particularly forced myself to listen to some of their multi-guest talk shows where people interrupt each other, talk over each other, etc. and you really have to stay focused to follow the discussion. But in addition to that, I switched all of my “mindless entertainment” time to French stuff; I got totally addicted to the French “house hunters” shows Chasseurs d’appart and Maison à vendre. These have the advantage of using more colloquial speech than one hears in a typical political show, which can be really helpful when you don’t have contact with your other language in your daily life. I tried to listen to French when I was exercising, cleaning, driving, folding the laundry, waiting for my husband to finish skiing, really any time that my brain was available while my body did something else.
Time takes time
My other top tip for language maintenance is a mindset one: it takes time, and once you get to a certain level, your improvements are going to be incremental, not meteoric. You know how, when you start learning a language, all of a sudden one day, something comes out of your mouth that you didn’t even know you knew how to say? I feel like that with Italian. My Italian is atrocious, but because of that, there’s tons of room for improvement. The first time I walked into a hotel in Italy and said, “Abbiamo una prenotazione per una camera tripla” (We have a reservation for a triple room), and the desk clerk responded as if we were having a totally normal conversation in Italian (instead of getting the “Oh geez…and of course the only person who speaks English has left for the night…” look on his face), I honestly almost cried from happiness. But yeah…that kind of breakthrough doesn’t happen anymore when you’re trying to make incremental improvements to your already pretty good language skills. Most importantly, time takes time. Give it time, and keep plugging away at it.
Additionally, tell any native speakers of your other language to be ruthless when they give you feedback. One thing I found particularly helpful was to ask the French A (native French speaker) students in my conference interpreting program to point out things that I say all the time that don’t sound native in French. One example: I realized that when I speak English, I use the expressions “things like that,” and “that kind of thing” a lot. That might be its own issue, but the bigger issue is that in French, I used to use the direct translation, “des choses comme ça” a lot. Until…one of my French A buddies very helpfully said, “I understand what you mean, but as a native French speaker, I would never say that; instead say ce genre de choses.” There really is nothing like a conference interpreting program to make you hyper-aware of all of your speaking mannerisms, but I thought this kind of feedback was really helpful. And I think all of us can think of people we know whose non-native language skills are really good, but there are certain expressions they use all the time that just don’t sound native. Make use of your native-speaker friends to give you that kind of feedback.
I hope these tips are helpful and I’d love to hear yours in the comments!