Sometimes it’s not easy to keep our source language skills polished, especially if we live in our target country and if we work in more than one language pair.
Someone might argue that, by definition, a working language is something we use and we’re exposed to on a daily basis for working purposes, what better exercise could there possibly be? Fair enough. However, some language pairs are more in demand than others, unbalancing somehow the work load. An example: I translate from Japanese, English and French into Italian but more than half of the requests I get are for the English-Italian pair, therefore, while my English keeps improving, I find little time to practice and hone my linguistic skills for what concerns Japanese and French.

Usually, the golden rule is to read a lot, possibly different kinds of texts, even better if pertaining to our specialization field. As an avid reader myself, I agree 100% with this and I try to keep on my desk a book in each of my languages. Let’s be honest though, who has the time to read something in each language every day? We have work (ours is a 10 in 1 profession after all), commitments, appointments, errands to run, we don’t have much free time and when we do, we might want to spend it with our families, partners, friends… it’s totally normal and understandable. So it’s easy to fall behind and leave that poor sad book on the desk covered in dust. At least it happens quite often to me, that’s why I came up with a series of alternative strategies that can be implemented in our busy routines.

#1 Library books: I started borrowing books from the library primarily because I live in a tiny studio apartment and, for the time being, I can’t physically store more books than the ones I already have. However, I discovered soon enough that borrowing books helps me a lot in keeping my reading schedule regular. How? It’s the power of the DEADLINE. In my case, 21 days with a max of 2 renewals, which means about 60 days at most. Having a deadline, I usually calculate roughly how many pages I need to read every day to be able to finish the book (ideally) in 21 days. Doing so, I found out that I can actually make time for it. I read a couple of pages while doing my daily stretching, while commuting somewhere, or while walking to the groceries store (generally not recommended, unless you are an irresponsible person like me) and voilà! It turns out that I can read the book in 21 days if I want to. I know the objection: reading is a hobby and should have no deadline, especially considering the stressful ones we already have for work. However, if perceived more as a guideline than a deadline (no complaints from angry clients if you can’t finish your book), you’ll find that it really helps to keep you on track and make time for something you enjoy doing. And honestly, being the only one on the bus with a book instead of a smartphone feels pretty transgressive and cool.


#2 Podcasts: I came to appreciate the great value of podcasts only recently. Despite my mum being a huge fan of radio shows and podcasts, I was one of those kids who would complain if forced to listen to boring radio programs in the car instead of a nice CD I could sing along with. But it turns out that, in the end, mums are always right. Podcasts are not only a great source of information in general, but they are also a really powerful tool to hone your listening skills in another language. There are hundreds of thousands of podcasts out there about a wide variety of topics and in a wide variety of languages. You can listen to it while jogging, running errands, doing chores (it works wonders for me when I’m cleaning, as it keeps my mind away from my deep dislike for the task), in your car when you’re stuck in the traffic, etc…

#3 Music: I bet most of us fell in love with a foreign language by listening to some records our parents had at home or to some tunes on the radio or on TV. Music is powerful, it often bypasses the language to go straight to our hearts. Some people are happy with that, some others feel a compulsive need of knowing what the lyrics mean and from there it’s a spiral with no return. My story started with a Green Day record, my big Ragazzini bilingual dictionary and a bunch of pieces of paper where I translated diligently the whole cd by hand. I still remember, not without a bit of pride, being the only one in my English class to know what “bishop” and “to make up one’s mind” meant and also wondering for a long time what “novacaine” was (I couldn’t find it in the dictionary!). Quite a few years later, I still believe songs to be great tools for interiorizing new words, especially when dealing with non-alphabetic languages, like Japanese, where trying to remember how to write the words you’re singing becomes a kanji revision exercise as well. And, after all, who doesn’t like to sing in the shower or in the car? Since we do it anyway, we might as well do it in one of our source languages!


#4 TV shows/TV series: Quite a few translators (with a special mention to subtitlers) are secretly TV series nerds. They are the ones who, after finishing a big job, reward themselves with a big tub of ice-cream and a marathon of the last ten seasons of The Big Bang Theory, CSI or Grey’s Anatomy. Now, all you have to do is to go the extra-mile and find TV series in all your source languages. Google nowadays could find you a documentary on Patagonian albino ferrets in ancient Aramaic, so I’m sure you would be able to find something of your liking. Chances are that they won’t be as “spectacular” as the American ones, but they are a very useful listening exercise as well as an excellent way to keep up with new slang and linguistic trends. Language is in constant evolution and falling behind is really easy.

#5 Meetups: Translators are shy creatures by nature, therefore this one might be the most difficult to implement in our routines. However, meetups are useful not only to practice the spoken language, but also as marketing tools. They are language-focused, most of the times free, they allow you to meet people with all kinds of backgrounds and jobs (some of them might need translation services one day, you never know!), to get out in the outer world and improve your socializing skills and to just have fun and relax a bit. I know, if you live in the middle of nowhere meetups are not really an option, but there are many online communities that could work just as well via Skype, etc…

#6 The language happiness jar: Last but not least, the ultimate instrument, a mix between flashcards and the happiness jar: the language happiness jar. When you’re exposed to your source languages, it’s very likely, unless you are either perfectly bilingual or an absolute genius, that you will find words that you don’t know. Well, that’s precisely the moment when you need to look up that word/expression/idiom, write it down on a piece of paper along with its translation and put it in your jar. Then, once a day (while you’re cooking dinner or just before going to bed or whenever) pick a word (or two, or ten) from the jar and try to remember its meaning and usage. Your vocabulary will improve steadily, taking you one step closer to the dictionary-with-legs that the world expects you to be.

language bowl
[Mine is more a bowl than a jar, but it’s the purpose that counts]
These are my top 6 tips, if you have more feel free to share, I would love to implement new solutions as well. I’ll be waiting for pictures of language happiness jars 😉