The Key to Language Retention: Deliberate, Regular Practice

"How do you maintain skill in a language?” I get this question a lot this time of year. As of this writing, it is the last day of classes in spring semester of 2014. Finals week comes next, then summer begins. Some of my students will continue taking Greek in the summer, but many will wait until the fall. That means four months of down time. After the hard work of first-year Greek, this question about retention is both logical and important. As I have gotten further along as a professor and as a language learner, I would answer this question with a single phrase: deliberate, regular practice.

I have often championed the “regular” part of that equation. Student will frequently hear me encourage them to do something in Greek every day, even if it is as simple as review vocabulary words or reread a chapter from the textbook. But I didn’t latch on to the “deliberate” part until recently. It finally clicked for me when I read What Mozart and Kobe Bryant Can Teach Us About Deliberate Practice by James Clear. In this article Clear explains very well the power of focus and intention in developing a skill. Add that to regular study and you have a natural recipe for retention of a language.

What would that look like for a Greek language student during the summer between first and second year? I think 15 minutes a day of focused study would do the trick. Focus is attained by setting an attainable goal for the study session. Think along these lines:

  • I will go through the chapter 20 vocabulary list and get all the definitions right three times in a row.
  • I will translate one verse from Philippians and along the way parse every verb.
  • I will review the paradigms of λύω in the subjunctive then write them out without any errors.
  • I will reread chapter 30 and then rewrite the key principles in my own words.

By setting a goal for the study session and then meeting it, you make better strides forward in retention than if you study aimlessly. Couple that with 15 minutes a day, and retaining Greek will become a joy, not a chore.