We often hear about people being “rusty” in a language. But what does that mean? How do we measure rust? Can we scrape the rust off and make it shiny again?

Rusty? Really?

I totally identify with the issue of have a language that is rusty. Basically all it comes down to is not having access to the words and grammar as readily as you had them previously when you come to use the language. Nothing more to it than that. In your brain, it feels a bit like a wheel that needs oiling. To get it to go round again and work…well…it simply makes squeaky noises and needs more muscle power to push it around. It is no longer a smooth process.

When can a language rust?

When you don’t use it. If you are not using a language for a long time and not thinking about it, it can rust. It can rust in different ways too. You may stay nice and fluent in some circumstances. But when you try to talk about something you’ve not discussed in a while, you simply need time to think about the words. Just like using really specific words at school that you no longer need. You need to access the words more consciously if you don’t use them anymore, right?

Can you scrape the rust off? 

I certainly think so. You simply need to use the words and language patterns again. Like a muscle, it will build up strength again and become strong once more. Sometimes it feels like you’re learning all over again, but usually it is a lot easier than studying a new language. You simply need to mend the connections in your brain and trigger the memories and links that were once active.

How do you know? 

I have been through this several times myself. As someone who has been through the language learning process many times, de-rusting my languages from time to time is just part of my life. After all, how many languages can you keep up at the same time without picking up a bit of rust? There are only so many hours in the day, aren’t there? And the other work you have it not going to do itself!

So how do you do it?

Recently I did an interview with Jimmy Mello, ahead of a trip to Brazil for some Polyglot Workshops. I noticed during the interview that this language I once studied at university, but no longer actively use, had gone rusty. I felt less confident than usual using it. I felt the words were not at my fingertips and the grammar even felt a little weird.

I’m forever studying something new. I simply enjoy the thrill of a new language as much as I love to improve and work on languages I have already studied.

So, folowing the successful italki Challenge with Norwegian for one month in June, I have now made a commitment to myself to scrape the rust off my Portuguese. My goal is to speak it with confidence again when I land in Brazil. I have three weeks until I get there and over one week in Brazil too. To make it more interesting, I am also looking to convert my European Portuguese to Brazilian Portuguese.

So I am making the following promises:

1. Find a tutor on italki

2. Schedule regular lessons until I leave for Brazil – 10 lessons in total

3. Read a news article a day on my Euronews app in Portuguese

4. Speak Portuguese as much as possible in Brazil

At the end of my stay in Brazil, I will do another interview with Jimmy Mello to see what a difference a month of de-rusting makes. I’ll post the results on here for you to see and hear!

Fancy joining me?  What will you be de-rusting from your language collection?

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