Advice on retaining the ability to speak a foreign language

On Friday, I am moving to China. I’m excited and scared about learning Mandarin, but I think I’m up for the challenge.

However, I am worried that my hard-won ability to speak French will suffer. I worked my ass of to learn that language (and I’d like to keep up with my Fulfulde, too, because I love that language) and I’m afraid that I’ll forget it all.

So, who has advice on how to retain a foreign language. I know I’ll be pretty occupied learning Chinese, so there will only be so much. One thing I’d really like to do is clean up my grammar, which is tres West African and would probably get me laughed out of Paris. FWIW, I am a very experience oriented learner. I get almost nothing out of books and lists, and really only learn new words when i have to use them.


Find an expats group, possibly through the French Consulate?

Keep exposing yourself to the language. Get a nice collection of french-language films, music and audio-books. Try finding an internet-streamed french news channel (I swear I’ve come across one at some point).

Practice is really the only way. Books and conversation. My French has grown rusty in the 10 years since I studied in France.

It is interesting though how quickly it comes back. We went to Montreal for a long weekend and after a day or two, I was able to speak it comfortably.

Don’t worry about it too much. You will probably experience “interference” when you start learning Mandarin – which is to say, when you are groping for a word in Mandarin, you’ll think of the French word instead. Eventually this will lessen. Then, if you learn Mandarin well and are one day trying French again, the Mandarin may interfere with the French!

But if you’ve truly learned the language, should you ever need it, you’ll recall it. I was reasonably fluent in Indonesian, then moved to Egypt and didn’t use it for over 5 years. Now I’m back in Indonesia and my skills, though rusty at first, have returned pretty fast.

If you can find a Francophone or two to converse with, that would be ideal. Barring that, reading in French can help a lot. Podcasts can be really helpful, too - may I recommend Radio Canada International or Radio Canada ? I’m sure there are ones from the continent as well.
Hope this helps.

IM with French-speakers. That helped me a lot.

And speaking of podcasts:

Alliance française de Shangahai.

Congratulations on your new adventure.

When I started learning Dutch in earnest, I lost my French entirely, which I found distressing. Then it appeared only involuntarily when, if I didn’t know a Dutch word, my brain obligingly supplied me with the French one. Happily the Dutch mostly speak French also. It seems that all later-acquired languages are treated more or less the same by your memory – or maybe it’s just me. But my idiot brain never, for instance, slipped me a portuguese word or an english word (both of which I spoke as a child) when I couldn’t “find” the Dutch one. Only French ones, and I first learned French in high school and Dutch in my thirties.

I have to confess, just gave up. To my great surprise, my French all came back (and remained politely seperate from my Dutch) shortly after I became proficient in Dutch. As though it had never disappeared in that unaccountable way.

you may not realize that there are quite a number of african students studying in china. although probably not in your peace corps area.

lots of french speakers in shanghai. my kids go to the sunrise montessori pre-school, which has a french track.

Here is a list of francophone streaming Internet radio sites; you may of course find that some of these are blocked to Chinese IPs.

If you’re in a university environment, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find students – or teachers like yourself – from France or francophone Africa.

I’ve managed to maintain a reasonably high level of French fluency (after living in France for four years and now in the US, but without day-to-day contact with francophones) by regularly watching French-language DVDs, as has already been recommended upthread. I find that the overall linguistic mood is helped by cooking French (for you, West African should provide the sensory link) and drinking appropriate wines (YMMV in China). Use the DVD subtitle options as needed – ideally, you should try to watch without any subtitles, but if it’s a film with unusual accents or a great deal of slang, watch it with French subtitles and follow up later on unfamiliar vocabulary. Only use English subtitles as a last resort, if you find that you’re really out of your depth.

I’d also say that for the first couple of months at least, don’t worry at all about the French. You probably won’t lose much in that time, and it’ll be confusing for your Mandarin uptake. When you do get around to experiencing French again, it’ll seem like an old friend whom you haven’t seen in a while.

[Bon voyage, sven, and I hope that your staging goes well – it should seem like old hat to you at this point!. Don’t forget to stay in touch with the SDMB once you make it to China. Do you know at this point whereabouts you’ll be located?]