Why it's okay to go back to school

Tips for Translators: Why It’s Okay to Go Back to Language School

Once you’re working as a professional freelance translator, there’s this idea that you should be a walking bi-, tri- or polylingual dictionary.

That you should know absolutely everything there is to know about your source language(s). And god forbid should you ever make a mistake.

But the reality is that, over time, language skills fade if they’re not constantly practised. And, realistically, you’re probably never going to be in an environment in which you’re constantly flexing all of your language muscles.

In my case, my native language is English. My two source languages are Spanish and Portuguese. I’ve been living in Spain for the last two years so my Spanish takes care of itself, but I currently need to make a conscious effort to maintain my native English, as I’ve talked about before.

But where does that leave my Portuguese?

As is the case with a lot of linguists, there was a time, after a year living in Brazil, when my Portuguese was pretty damn good.

But jump ahead five years, and I’ve spent two years in England, one in Mexico and two in Spain, and haven’t had much of a chance to speak Portuguese.

Whilst my understanding of the language is unchanged, so I can still translate with no issues, my level of speaking has fallen off a cliff.

Which isn’t good news when you find yourself needing to sell your services to a Portuguese-speaking client.

I’ve been trying to keep up my spoken Portuguese in all the classic ways, watching plenty of films and series (if you have any good Portuguese series to recommend, please let me know!).

I have lovely Brazilian friends that I occasionally Skype with, but they have lives, and time zones can be tricky. I’ve advertised for tandem speaking buddies, but got nowhere. And whilst there are some great language apps out there, I just don’t have the discipline for them.

So at the beginning of this year, I realised I needed to go back to class. I struggled with my pride, which was telling me that as Portuguese was one of my working languages, going back to school would reflect badly on me.

But I bit the bullet and signed up for an advanced class at the local university, and I’m very glad I did.

If you’ve been considering going back to school for one of your working languages, then here are a few reasons it could be one of the best decisions you make all year.

Translator = walking dictionary

It gives you structure

When you make the decision to work on a language independently, it can be tricky to know where to start or what to focus on and your studying can be a bit erratic.

Often, you’re not the best person to impartially judge what your weaknesses are. You need a teacher to be able to pick up on areas that could do with improvement and provide materials that will help.

Signing up for a class will mean your learning has some structure to it and you can keep better track of the progress you make.

It means you’re consistent

I don’t know about you, but as a freelancer I often find it hard to squeeze in anything that’s not client work.

Work you’re actually being paid for always takes priority and side projects or studying you plan to do keep getting pushed back for “when you have a quiet period”.

(And then, of course, you spend the whole of that quiet period freaking about the fact that you’ll obviously never work again, and never get anything on your when-I-have-time list done.)

Signing up to and paying good money for a language class is a sure-fire way of making sure you’ll practice it consistently.

We never stop learning

You’re never going to know everything there is to know about your native language, let alone a foreign one.

So if, like I did, you feel like going back to class would be admitting that you’ve ‘failed’ to keep on top of your foreign language, then it’s time to reframe.

A language isn’t something you can ever know every inch of. The learning process is never-ending, and no matter how good you are there’s always more to discover. That’s the beauty of it.

The fact that your speaking skills have suffered doesn’t mean that you’re any less good at your job, but investing time in building them back up is an investment in your future.

It’s a way of meeting people

We all know that one of the best ways of practising a language is making friends with native speakers.

But that can be easier said than done, and it can sometimes be tough to put yourself out there, especially if you’re one of those freelancers that can happily spend a whole week in unintentional self-isolation.

I personally have struggled to find any likeminded Brazilians living in Granada, and I have to admit to being a bit of a hermit.

Taking a course is great as it gets you out of the house and is an easy way of meeting other language learners who you can practice with, even if they’re not native speakers.

Language schools often organise language-specific exchanges, which is good for less widely-spoken languages which often aren’t represented at general language exchanges.

It could reignite your passion for language learning

If you’re a translator, then you’re a language lover. If you’re not, then you’re probably in the wrong job.

But when languages become your bread and butter they can start to lose their mystery and charm.

Going back to school to consolidate one of your existing languages could remind you why you fell in love with it and inspire you to add another one to your collection.

I’ve got my eye on a couple of different beginners’ courses for the autumn term. The hard part will be choosing just one of them.

Have you ever gone back to school to refresh a working language? How do you maintain your foreign language skills? I’d love to hear from you.

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