How to maintain a rather advanced level of proficiency

One of the members here at lingq (Peter from Australia) asked me to explain what I do in order to maintain a rather advanced level in my working languages. Actually, Peter asked me to make a video about this but I thought I might try and outline some of my daily language routine here in this forum.

The key element is consistent usage of the language. I use my working languages on a daily basis. If I do not translate and/or interpret in one of them on a specific day, I try to make sure I spend at least 15 to 20 minutes reading, writing or listening in that language.

I consider reading and writing crucial. I seem to retain information better when I see it written and read it aloud, while I prefer listening to work on my pronunciation. Before a conference, I practically always read some texts aloud in the language I am going to work in. Very much like a singer who trains his voice before he goes on stage.

Since I am lucky enough to be very busy with work, I get enough exposure to the languages I use professionally. So I use them on a daily basis. Translating a text automatically involves reading and writing. It is not enough to just absorb information but you also need to process it and that probably is one of the most important factors. I do not just take a sentence and try to render it in another language but I actually work through the content of the sentence and the entire text for that matter in my mind. I’m immersed in the topic of the text and that sometimes also requires further reading on a specific subject (both in the source and the target language).

I still enjoy writing by hand and I do so on a regular basis. Mind you, not every day but I probably write about 50 to 80 pages per month (in several languages). I find this to be extremely useful and as strange as it may sound I also very much enjoy doing it.

I mostly copy books and/or articles from newspapers and magazines.

I rarely revise grammar but I do when I’m in doubt as to the proper usage of certain structures. I also enjoy reading good dictionaries. I read them like I would read a novel. However, for this exercise to be useful the dictionary needs to be one with example sentences.

I often try to expand on the examples given, changing the subject or the object of the sentence and sometimes even making a little speech out of one entry in the dictionary which I use as some sort of starting point. So, a short and simple sentence like “Yesterday it was raining heavily” may lead to a “speech” about the damage caused by floods etc. This is an excellent way to see how comfortable you are with using words in context.

Should I find it particularly difficult to express my thoughts or realize that I lack important vocabulary when talking about a specific subject I have no trouble talking about in my native tongue, I look up all the words I need to fill these gaps. The more often I do this, the less frequent I run into this kind of problem.

I also enjoy “creative writing”, i. e. I write essays, even poems, in some of my working languages. This helps me to explore all facets of the languages instead of just concentrating on the kind of texts I work with as a translator and interpreter.

What it basically comes down to is a lot of exposure and active usage of the language. Of course, I cannot do the same with all the other languages I am interested in. I have to set priorities. This is also why I don’t think I’ll ever be able to achieve the same level in all languages I have set out to study, at least not on a permanent level.

Whenever I can, I try to speak the languages both with native speakers and fellow learners.

As time goes by, you will be able to reduce the amount of daily practice to keep an advanced level of proficiency because you will have created a sound basis for your mind to work with.

I think a generally positive attitude towards the permanent learning process itself (I will never be able to say I really “know” a language, I can only hope to keep learning) is also very helpful. I consider learning not a burden but a very enjoyable task. And I try to put things into perspective.

When I have to prepare for a very technical conference, I know I will have forgotten about 80 % of the vocabulary I am studying just for that conference after a month or so and this does not bother me in the least. If I need it again, I will simply go through the same process again without getting all upset because I don’t retain the meaning of words I probably hardly ever use in my native tongue.

I do make sure, however, that I regularly repeat high frequency vocabulary. I know there are quite a few people who don’t consider these lists of words very useful. For me they are some sort of a safety net. In my line of work the topics and/or vocabulary I’m dealing with may sometimes be rather specific and thus limited.

In order not to lose the ability to use standard structures typical of daily life conversations I make sure I practise the aforementioned “core vocabulary”. For this purpose, I mainly use books that contain 5,000 - 7,000 words with sample sentences.

I go through these books like every 3 to 4 months. The more often you do that, the quicker you’ll be. Sometimes I just take a glance at an entire page and go through the sentences in my mind, sometimes I walk around and read them aloud.

In doing so, I often “play” with the words by putting them in different contexts.

Well, this is about all I do.

And, of course, I also make sure I get enough rest, I normally need my 8 hours of sleep :wink:

I also try to spend as much time outside as possible. That gives me the energy I need for my work - besides, I absolutely love hiking (mostly alone, so I can rest my mind for a while).


Thanks for the wonderful input.

I have a question regarding books with “core vocabulary” for practicing “standard structures typical of daily life conversations.” As a German language learner I would be interested in recommendations of any books that meet this criteria for German.

@ lovelanguagesII
superb post

“I write essays, even poems, in some of my working languages. This helps me to explore all facets of the languages instead of just concentrating on the kind of texts I work with as a translator and interpreter… …In doing so, I often “play” with the words by putting them in different contexts.”
I knew poetry and playing with words had something to do with it, Imyirtseshem xD

This is immensely helpful. I’ve been wanting to badly to start studying Russian but I’m afraid it will cause me to lose all the progress I’ve made in German. I’ve been trying to think of ways to semi-keep my level of German strong(ish).

Rewriting existing texts sounds like a powerful exercise that I need to start doing. I recently read a fascinating article by Luca over at (maybe the link was posted here? I don’t remember how I found it). In it he outlines a method for translating a text from a foreign language into your native one, and then back again. Copying articles does seem to be a useful but often overlooked method.

Thanks for mentioning that, Lilac. Here is the article you referred to, I think
[ edited ]

Thanks so much Robert!

You said: "In order not to lose the ability to use standard structures typical of daily life conversations I make sure I practise the aforementioned “core vocabulary”. For this purpose, I mainly use books that contain 5,000 - 7,000 words with sample sentences. "

Can you tell me what book you use for this for Spanish? Or is this something that you’ve made up yourself over the years? I think that something like this could also be good to use to reach a level of feeling comfortable in a language.

@Aybee: I can’t speak for Robert, and I would say that he is a superior Spanish speaker than I am, but La Sombra del Viento is a popular recently written book that I personally enjoyed reading, but of course his opinion would be better than mine! Best of luck!

La Sombra del Viento uses quite a bit of low frequency vocabulary. I think it is difficult to find " books that contain 5,000 - 7,000 words with sample sentences. "outside of language learning materials. Newspapers usually use fewer low frequency words and are easier to read. Beyond that I always find it best to follow my interests in reading.

@aybee77 “Can you tell me what book you use for this for Spanish?”
what about “The Ultimate Spanish Phrase Finder”? - YouTube . I know it’s not exactly what you’re looking for but…

and of course, Wiktionary:Frequency lists - Wiktionary

on the other hand, if you need some context:

ad aybee77 et al.: First of all, thanks for your nice feedback. I’m sorry but I’m at a conference right now and will be back only on Thursday. I will then try and name a few books (although I’m afraid most of them will be English - German, Spanish - German etc.) and answer any further questions you may have. Need to go to bed now, though, or I’ll fall asleep in the booth ;-).

Moving from Intermediate Toward Advanced

btw, have you ever try to search or ask the same question on the HTLAL forum? maybe even he-who-must-not-be-named try and answer your questions (maybe xD)

eng-germ/spa-ger would be perfect for me xD

For the opinion that you should not expect to feel/be fluent until you "immerse yourself "in your language, after plenty of hard work such as you have done, take a look here: Goldlist Method - Original Explanation with supplementary corrections/explanations - Huliganov.TV , the paragraph that starts: “22. Need to activate”. He says this in various ways in different places, and he generalizes it beyond his particular system more clearly in some of those other discussions, but this is what I’ve found at the moment.

@Imyirtseshem “For speaking, nobody seems to be able to give me any sort of advice.”
are you kidding me?.. what about ProfASAr audio lingual pattern drills suggestion?

I don’t think there is a problem if you don’t have an extreme high level of fluency after 4 years. Look at Steve and Luca, for example, when they were just starting to get into languages, they were hooked and addicted to their first foreign language experiences. After listening to Luca’s story, it sounded like it took him a great deal of time to reach that true, upper level fluency. It seems a lot people are missing that and want to move onto the road of polyglottery too quickly.

Imy - first off, are you speaking to native speakers regularly in real life, on Skype or whatever, and do you realize that, regardless of what certain youtube polyglots claim, it takes hundreds of hours to become an excellent speaker? If so, then what specific problems are you encountering?

I don’t think you need to move to the country. I think you can learn well anywhere. I learned Mandarin in Hong Kong where people spoke Cantonese. It is easier in the country, that is all. You just need to put in the time, be patient, enjoy using the language and stop second guessing yourself all the time.

@Imyirtseshem “I’m not sitting back and allowing myself to be beaten by it. I will master Dutch.”

Imy, I hope that your learning gives you pleasure.

for German /English have a look at:


Thanks a lot for your comments Robert, I’m going to consider which of those tasks I’m willing to include in my language learning routine. Lately I’ve been leaning towards trying “reading out loud” more seriously, particularly when at a more advanced level in a language. I think I will also try more “writing by hand”, be it a “Gold List” or just copying a text. I’ve got a feeling that it helps in ways that no one has been able to pinpoint yet. Although your routine sounds like it requires a bit of daily work (and discipline!), I’m sure it’s all worth it for you. I wonder, however, if you’d keep maintaining these languages at this level if you weren’t working as an interpreter (or, for example, when you retire).