In the previous article I talked about why you should not neglect your mother tongue when you want to learn a foreign language.
Today, I put together a list of 9 ways you can improve and maintain it.
This one is as simple as it sounds. Read. Read often, read what you like, try new things. It is the best way to maintain your mother tongue while enjoying it.
I will talk about being curious later, but I want to expand on this for reading specifically.
Let’s say you love reading the classics. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it. The level of speech they are written in is beautiful, rich and complex. But we are talking about languages here, and languages evolve. This is why they are called living languages as opposed to dead languages (like latin). New words, rules and concepts (new concepts need new vocabulary) keep emerging and you cannot master them by only relying on books that were written such a long time ago. If you stumble across new ideas and concept in your target language, you need to know them in your mother tongue.
You don’t have to do it all the time but occasionnaly, read something that you normally wouldn’t. I hate reading the news, especially anything economical or political. But by ignoring things we do not like, we miss a whole part of our world which also means a part of our language as well. Trying new genres, books, or subjects that you don’t like or never considered before, can be a great way to find new passions and interests.
From time to time you can also analyse what you are reading (no matter if it’s a fiction book or the free newspapers you get in the subway). Why does the author use that ? How does it make you feel ? Would another word do something different ? Remember or write down sentences that you liked. You will eventually be able to use them, the vocabulary, or maybe the structure. You will familiarize with ways of using the language that you like and learn from all of them to create your own.
It is a more active way to use it. Have you ever noticed, whenever you are learning a foreign language than listening/reading is always easier than speaking/writing ? That is because your brain just focuses on recognizing the words, remembering their meaning and understanding what is being said. When you have to express yourself however, there is a bigger effort needed : you brain has to find the right word, the right grammar, the right collocations, your memory and reflexion are highly solicited. In one word, delivering a message is something active while receiving the message is passive.
The same thing happens when you are using your mother tongue, it is just that you don’t realize it because you’ve been writing and speaking it your whole life.
Write things you like, write stories, write a blog, write letters to your friend and family, make an extra effort when you write in your journal… Options are endless and you will find something that resonates with you.
Check doubts right away
Whenever you are speaking, or reading, or writing, or that you hear something that makes you wonder or go « wait, what? », even for the slightest second, check it right away. It can be anything, whether you’re doubting the spelling of a word, the construction of a sentence, the tense being used, something that just does not sound right to your ear, anything. Check it. It takes seconds. Minutes at the most.
We are lucky enough to live in a world where answers are just at the tip of our fingers. No more skimming through thick books and dictionaries (unless you like it better this way!). Just type it somewhere and the answer will appear. Simple and quick, but you still have to do it !
Use remembering techniques
For this one, you’ll have to find the ones that are specific to your mother tongue, or create your own. I’m sure you know plenty already. Usually, that’s the kind of things we are told when we are kids. Just to give you an example in French :
On ne meurt qu’une fois.
It means « you only die once » and it is used to remember that « mourir » (to die) only takes one r.
Another one involves a super easy little story that helps remembering all the conjunctions, another one requires switching the verb to a verb from a different group to make sure you’re using the right tense, …
The good thing with these is that, if you don’t know them already, you will remember them very quickly.
Motivation can (and will) expire. You cannot solely rely on motivation on the long term. But being curious is something that will push you to always look for more, learn more, learn why, learn how. Fortunately, I believe that someone who really wants to learn a foreign language is already curious, even if it’s only just a little.
Being curious when you want to improve your mother tongue can mean : read books and articles ona variety of topics, form, subjects, times, style, wanting to know the reason of why a certain word is used, … the list goes on forever.
Play with it
There are plenty of games based on the use of language (Exquisite Corpse, Taboo, …). Other activities like acting will make you use your mother tongue in ways that differ from your every day talking. You will stumble across new words, ways of expressing yourself. You will see how the audience’s reactions vary according to what you say and how you say it.
Do not listen to everybody
We all know that one person who has seen everything, done everything, knows everything better than you… but when you look closely, it’s just talking. You know, that one dude at the gym who tells you how to use the machine when they never do, the one that can’t draw a stick figure who tells you how to paint your masterpiece…
Likewise, sometimes, people « correct » others… by teaching them wrong things. Don’t get me wrong, they mean well, because in their head they are convinced that they are right ! It’s not really their fault.
I remember when I was 8 or so, I would write stories and a friend of mine would « fix » spelling mistakes. I trusted her and would happily let her correct me. A few years ago, I stumbled across the notebook where I had them written. That’s when I realized she would cross words that were properly written and replace them with things filled with grammar errors. She didn’t have any bad intention, She just wanted to help me. Luckily, I would usually almost never re-read them so it didn’t affect my grammar.
The moral of the story is : trust people that try to help you, but remember everyone make mistakes. When in doubt, double check. If you know for a fact that that one person who just corrected you is not that good at grammar or spelling, kindly listen to them and check later.
Be careful though : sometimes you think the others are wrong when it’s actually you. Always check unless you’re 200 % sure you know you’re right.
Actively listen to people speak and make a conscious effort to use it right
When you’re listening to the TV, the radio, people in the street… Pay attention to the way they talk. Pay attention to the way people who express themselves very well talk, how they chose their words and build their sentences. But one of the most important things to pay attention to is the opposite : very often people will make errors, or they will use the wrong word for what they are saying, they will mix up idioms and proverbs… Pay attention to that and, instead of passively absorbing it, make a conscious effort to remind yourself of the correct way.
Don’t go correcting all of your friends or soon enough you won’t have any left. Just reminding it to yourself is enough. And when in doubt, check it.
When you are speaking, consciously use it right. We all started to use and expression or a word for fun and before we knew it, it would be part of our daily vocabulary. Sometimes we even forget it’s bad grammar or improper whatever-your-language-is. But we do anyway. I am not telling you always speak like a book, but make a conscious effort to speak and write the best you can for a time until it becomes a reflex, or from time to time to make sure it’s still fresh in your mind.
« uh… duh! ». It seems like a no brainer but there’s a reason this is in the list. The thing is, because it is our mother tongue we tend to think it is easy. But learning new words in your mother tongue, although easier to remember, requires that you use them as well. At least once or twice. You don’t need as much as when you learn a foreign language, but you still need to do it. And just like I said in my previous blog post about why you should never neglect your mother tongue, if you are living abroad, or studying or immersing yourself, it is very easy to want to only use the target language. So, remember to use new vocabulary, concepts, rules, but also old ones too. It is so incredibly easy to lose your eloquence in your mother tongue when you’ve been living abroad or when you use other languages more often. I’ve been there and it is not a pleasant situation to be in, because trust me when I say you will realize this when you most need it. When it’s too late.
If you are an expat, be careful of idioms and new expressions that are being used daily. These can be hard to grasp, so you really need to be careful and keep informed of the evolution of your mother tongue in your native country.
I hope these few tips help, but feel free to leave some in the comments, I (and others readers!) wanna know them !
Until then, remember to learn with your brain, think with your mind and speak with your heart.