In praise of language maintenance

no day without a word

How can I learn multiple languages at once? I think this question misses the point.

Many of us, language enthusiasts, at some point engaged in learning several languages simultaneously, with various degrees of success. Based on this experience, some have sworn ‘never again’, while others saw the light and decided this was the way to go.

For me, a more useful question is ‘how can I maintain multiple languages at once?’, which all of us face on a regular basis.

With languages, unless you deliberately maintain your hard acquired skills, you forget. Lest you forget, you need to maintain; and if you want to advance, you need to improve.

I think the secret to successfully maintaining multiple languages at once is leveraging the difference.

The languages should be different from each other. Your level in these languages should be different. Your ambitions and goals in these languages should be different. The time of the day when you study these languages should be different, the skills you practice every day and the activities you do should differ, too.

Let me give a concrete example with the three languages I am improving, maintaining, and learning right now: English, Italian, and Estonian.

Although I use other languages with some degree of regularity, this year I deliberately chose to focus on only these three. I aim at engaging with each of them daily, and I need to fit my language studies into my otherwise busy schedule.

The three languages belong to different language families: English is Germanic, Italian is Romance, both are Indo-European, whereas Estonian is a totally different story: it’s Finno-Ugric.

For English, my goal is to speak more idiomatically, to have a richer vocabulary, and to improve my pronunciation and intonation. To achieve that, I am learning idioms and will move to phrasal verbs in July and August. When I read in English, I write out words and expressions that I liked and would like to use. I have started doing a hard but extremely useful exercise of shadowing native English speakers.

Time-wise, I always read my English book in the morning: on a good day, I might have a 30 minutes sting before work; often, only 15 minutes, which is plenty to learn at least one new expression. At the week-end, I would spend some time in the afternoon writing out new idioms, revising and recalling my expressions and old idioms. I would try to shadow at least once a week, usually in the evening.

For Italian, my goal is maintaining and reviving. I used to speak Italian daily, which is not a case now. Last year, due to my intense focus on Spanish and multiple trips to Spain, my Italian began to suffer from interference – hence this year’s decision to remedy the situation.

To do so, I read for pleasure in Italian every evening (which has a huge advantage that I fall asleep thinking in Italian). Occasionally, I write out Italian expressions and idioms. I also have been learning one Italian poem a week, at the weekend.

Over summer holidays, I will work on revising some forgotten aspects of Italian grammar, such as tenses, irregular verbs, and subjunctive. Finally, when I switch my focus in English from vocabulary to pronunciation and intonation, I will switch my focus in Italian to vocabulary.

For Estonian, I am learning the language from scratch. I started last year, learning the bare basics prior to my trip to Estonia, and doubled down this year, following an online course for beginners.

I do my Estonian lesson every day, just after finishing my work. I go through the lesson, do exercises, and learn a few new words.

I have found that a half an hour a day of Estonian provides a perfect transition from work to home mood, since engrossing myself in Estonian grammar and grappling with new vocabulary is such a contrast with my work activities.

At the week-end, I spend time revising, recalling, listening and writing down useful sentences and expressions.

A final tip. In language learning, regularity is the key. If work gets busy or life happens, I might miss a day for one of these three languages, but I try to never miss more than one day for any of the three, and I never have a day when I don’t spend some time with at least one of them.

If time is really shot, I would spend as little as five minutes reading one page, learning one expression, listening to one dialogue.  No day without a line, no day without a word.

With flying colours

out of the blue

To lend colour to my English, I have been learning colour idioms. Am I chasing rainbows? Should I raise a white flag instead?

It all started out of the blue at a dinner last month, when I made a mistake in an idiomatic expression once in a blue moon. My dining companion, a dyed-in-the-wool perfectionist and English native speaker, saw my mistake as a golden opportunity to tease me about my 25-year-long English plateau. I went red in the face and challenged him to tell me expressions for every colour of the rainbow, and we came up with a meagre list of five.

Every cloud has a silver lining. As my plan for improving English includes speaking more idiomatically, I decided to learn colour idioms.

There are plenty of resources on the English colour idioms. I like this list of 90 colour idioms, this blog post from Cambridge English Dictionary, which is my go-to online dictionary, and this post, complete with a colour quiz and a hilarious colour song, which I immediately learned by heart:

I saw red coz she’d left me in the dark
She’d left me in the dark that we were in the red

Not to sail under false colours, I choose to learn only those expressions which I would naturally use, starting with those which I sort of know yet where I always make mistakes.

Each morning, bright and early, I have been revising and recalling my colour idioms.

The difference between revise and recall has been well explained by Gabriel Wyner in his book Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It:

When you study by reading through a list multiple times, you’re practicing reading, not recall. If you want to get better at recalling something, you should practice recalling it.

I find both exercises, revising and recalling, useful.

To revise, I indeed read through my list and either say the idioms out loud, write them several times, or invent a story with them, the more colourful, extravagant, and absurd the better.

To recall, I stare at a blank page before me, or lie down at night in a pitch black room, and try to remember idioms in groups by colour.

Once I am done with colours, I will move to English idioms involving animals, food, and weather, until I pass the idiom test with flying colours.

An Italian year

nell’angolo della terra

Among few positive things the lockdown has brought me, is the revival, albeit online, of the International Poetry Club. The club met regularly in the early 2000s, sporadically afterwards, and then came to halt. It was sorely missed, as its founder wrote:

If there is one thing I really miss in my life ever since it is this kind of meeting: I have never managed to establish something similar anywhere else.

All previous attempts to resume the readings had failed, because of our increasingly busy lives and scattered geography. But universal confinement means that we are stuck at home most of the time, thus we arranged to meet online last week-end.

Everyone recited a poem inspired by these unprecedented times. The one that struck me and my friends most was a short verse by Salvatore Quasimodo, a great Italian poet (1901-1968).

Ognuno sta sul cuor della terra,
trafitto da un raggio di sole:
ed è subito sera.

This powerful verse, part of a larger poem called Solitudini, is extremely famous and was translated into English and other languages many times. Yet, I knew nothing about it and next to nothing about Quasimodo!

Va bene, I said to myself. It looks like 2020 is going to be an Italian year.

Last December, taking stock of my language progress, I realised my Italian was getting rusty, and was planning to remedy this.

This year I began by reading Il Gattopardo of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, an old favourite, and then succumbing to Ferrantomania, when I casually opened the first volume of L’amica geniale.

Then, in March, as the epidemics arrived in Europe, I started reading Italian media, as they were the most reliable source of information on the virus.

Now, at the poetry event, I realised that my knowledge of Italian poetry was non-existent. Sure, I know the names of Leopardi, Montale e Pavesi, but know nothing about them, have no idea which poets I like, and, apart from ‘nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita’, I cannot quote a single line!

Dunque, what is the game plan to improve my Italian in the next 6 months?

First, learn some Italian poems by heart. Learning by heart is not for everybody, but I like it and find it an effective way to memorise words, expressions, and grammatical constructions.

Second, decide which language skills I want to improve and which knowledge gaps I need to fill, and work methodically and regularly to achieve this.

And third, read in Italian for pleasure, especially as I finally got my hands on the three remaining volumes of Elena Ferrante’ Neapolitan novels.


che diffondi la luce blu

To protect against infection, washing hands is a critical gesture, and to do so properly, the washing should take as long as singing Happy Birthday twice.

I don’t like the Happy Birthday song at all.

That’s why I decided that every week I would choose one song among those I do like but have never looked up the lyrics, and would learn them by heart, to accompany my hand washing routine.

The first song is in Italian, chosen in honour of our Italian friends, although its name is French, abat-jour, from abbattre (to through down) and jour (daylight).

It is a song from the 1960s. In a film Ieri, oggi, domani (Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow), it accompanies the famous sensual scene with Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. 

Abat-jour che soffondi la luce blu
di lassù tu sospiri chissà perchè
Abat-jour mentre spandi la luce blu
anche tu cerchi forse chi non c’è più

In some versions of the song, the verb soffondi (you suffuse) is replaced by diffondi (you diffuse). The two verbs are related, but different: soffondere means to suffuse, to spread in a manner of light or fluid, and derives from Latin suffundere, with the etymology of spreading upon (‘sub’ ). A more common diffondere, from diffundere, means to diffuse, to spread around, away (‘dis’).

You can watch the famous spogliarello scene here.

Ferrantomania and language

Latin, Italian

Ferrantomania, or Ferrante fever. After several years wondering what was this fuss about, I have at last caught the Ferrantomania bug.

I picked the first volume on a business trip to Brussels last November. Going back to the train station, I entered a bookshop to get something to read on my way back, and was delighted to discover a foreign language section.

L’amica geniale was there, and I bought it thinking that at least I should give it a try. But I did not read it until this January, when I decided to brush up my Italian in anticipation of two trips to Italy.

My Ferrante fever symptoms were the same as described by millions of readers worldwide: you buy this Ferrante book because you have heard that you should definitely read it. You read a couple of pages, and when you finally put the book down, it is after midnight, the book is over, and you desperately want to read the other three titles of the “Neapolitan Novels”.

When I started the first volume, I was not aware that language plays such a crucial role in the story. Much has been written about the use of Neapolitan dialect in the book, about sociolinguistic mechanisms, and about some enigmatic language-related metaphors, such as ‘il suo italiano che assomigliava un poco a quello dell’Iliade’ (‘Italian that slightly resembled that of the Iliad’).

Not only languages, but Classical languages specifically, play such a crucial role in the story. Thanks to private Latin lessons, Lena is able to continue her education; then, Latin and Greek (and their teachers) become her favourites, and eventually she goes on to study them at university.

A passage in the first volume struck me.

Elena is struggling with her Latin, and when she tells Lila (who has stopped the school because her parents could not afford it), Lila recommends the change of approach:

“Leggiti prima la frase in latino, poi va’ a vedere dov’è  il verbo. A seconda della persona del verbo capisci qual è il soggetto. Una volta che hai il soggetto ti cerchi i complementi: il complemento oggetto se il verbo è transitivo, o se no altri complementi. Prova così.”

Provai. Tradurre all’improvviso mi sembrò facile.

In language learning, we have moments when suddenly something clicks and we finally get it. I have experienced it myself multiple times, and now I am really looking forward to reading about Lena’s linguistic (and other) discoveries.

Last week, I went to the local library knowing that it held the entire trilogy, and indeed, volumes 1,3, and 4 were there. The volume 2, exactly the one I was eager to read, was on loan. I made a recall and am impatiently waiting for the book to become available.

Kaheksa, üheksa

üks, kaks …

These are not incantations, but words ‘eight’ and ‘nine’ in Estonian, a language I am learning.

While learning numbers, I had a huge difficulty remembering the words for ‘eight’ and ‘nine’: which was which?

Then it dawned on me that inside kaheksa hides kaks, ‘two’, in its form kahe, and inside üheksa hides üks, ‘one’, in its form ühe. Clearly, kaheksa (8), was constructed as ‘2 (kahe) out of 10′, and üheksa (9) as ‘1 (ühe) out of 10′.

But ‘ten’ in Estonian is kümme, where does this mysterious -ksa come from?

It took me some time and effort to find reliable sources of information, given that my Estonian is basic and I have only faded memories of Hungarian, another Finno-Ugric language on my list.

Estonian etymological dictionary gives etymology for kaheksa and üheksa, and proposes two explanations: -ksa derives from *detsa, a proto-Iranian (hence Indoeuropean) word for ten (compare word for ‘ten’ in other Indo-European languages). Alternatively, –ksa is interpreted as an old negation form.

Curiously, it is believed that seitse ‘seven’ might be a loanword from Baltic or Slavic languages, which are of the Indo-European family (compare Russian семь, Czech sedm, and Latvian septiņi), whereas numbers one to six are of of Finno-Ugric  or Uralic origin.

This heterogeneity of construction and origins of the first ten numbers is sometimes interpreted to suggest a base-6 system among ancestors of Finno-Ugric people — apparently, a heated linguistic debate.

Fish memories

memorable fishes

Continuing the fish theme from the last post, in some languages – English, French, Italian, and Spanish, to my knowledge – fish is attributed with short memory.

So, today’s list contains memory-related expressions in English, French, Italian, Spanish, German, and Russian.

It looks like some expressions, such as ‘memory of a goldfish’, ‘memory like a sieve’, ‘memory like an elephant’, ‘in one ear and out the other’, ‘refresh the memory’,  exist in multiple languages, whereas others, such as tener memoria de grillo (have a memory like a cricket ) or девичья память (memory of a young girl), unique to one language.


have a perfect memory

have a memory like an elephant

an elephant never forgets

to have a short memory

memory like a sieve

memory (or attention span) of a goldfish

in one ear and out the other

refresh the memory

jog someone’s memory

trip down memory lane

if my memory serves me right

mind/ memory goes blank

memory gaps / lapses

More English expressions about memory are here.



avoir une mémoire d’éléphant

avoir une mémoire de poisson rouge

avoir la tête comme une passoire (head like a sieve)

avoir la mémoire courte

rafraîchir la mémoire à (de) quelqu’un

faire la sourde oreille

entrer par une oreille et sortir par l’autre (in one ear and out the other)

en souvenir de

trou de mémoire

si ma mémoire est bonne / sauf erreur



smemorato (forgetful)

avere una memoria da elefante

avere la memoria di un pesce rosso

rinfrescare la memoria

ti entra da un orecchio e ti esca dall’altro (in one ear and out the other)

ci entrino da un orecchio per uscire dall’altro

fare un viaggio indietro nella memoria / nel passato

se la memoria non m’inganna

vuoto di memoria

avere la memoria corta

avere la memoria lunga



tener memoria de elefante

tener memoria de gallo/grillo

tener memoria de pez

refrescar la memoria

entrar por un oído y salir por el otro (in one ear and out the other)

si no me falla la memoria

quedarse en blanco



ein Gedächtnis wie ein Elefant haben


ein Gedächtnis wie ein Sieb haben (memory like a sieve)

jemandes Gedächtnis ein wenig auf die Sprünge helfen (to jog someone’s memory)

den Faden verlieren (lose the thread)

sich etwas in Erinnerung rufen

etwas geht zum einen Ohr rein, zum anderen Ohr wieder raus (in one ear and out the other)

zum einen Ohr rein und zum anderen wieder raus



обладать огромной памятью

обладать феноменальной памятью

девичья память

короткая памать

дырявая память

освежить память

в одно ухо влетает, из другого вылетает (in one ear and out the other)

если память не изменяет

вызывать в своей памяти

перебирать в памяти

выпадать из памяти

More Russian expressions about memory are here.


Don’t slam the door

puerta cerrada

I was reading in Spanish novel where a protagonist left con un portazo, ‘slamming the door’. I was left wondering how do you slam the door in different languages.

In English, we close the door. We can also shut the doorbang the door, and slam the door. We can even slam the door in somebody’s face, although this is not recommended.

In French, on ferme la porte. If one wants to slam it, on claque la porte, and if one is annoyed, bothered, or impolite, on claque la porte au nez.  In his Chanson pour l’Auvergnat, Georges Brassens sings:

Tous les gens bien intentionnés
M’avaient fermé la porte au nez

In Spanish, to close the door is cerrar la puerta, but to slam it is dar un portazo. One can irse / marcharse con un portazo and one can also cerrar la puerta en la cara. A good rule of thumb was mentioned in a dictionary as an example: siempre es mejor irse cerrando puertas que dando portazos.

In Italian, you would normally chiudere la porta (close it), sometimes sbattere la porta (slam it), and rarely sbattere la porta in faccia. If you are really upset and it’s too much, you would sbattere la porta e dire: “Basta”, literally or figuratively.

In Russian, you can хлопнуть дверью or уйти, хлопнув дверью; on the other hand, they can закрыть дверь перед  носом. A popular song goes:

Уходя – уходи! Если кто-то тебе не поверит.
Уходя – уходи! Затвори за собой плотно двери.

In German, there is plenty of options: die Tür schließen, die Tür zuschlagen, die Türe vor der Nase zuschlagen / jemandem die Tür vor der Nase zuschlagen; jemandem die Tür ins Gesicht schlagen / werfen. Note that if the English, Italian, and Spanish slam the door in somebody’s face, whereas the French and Russian focus on the nose, the Germans can do both, face and nose.

In Latvian, one says aizcirst durvis, aizcērt kādam durvis, aizcirst kādam durvis deguna priekšā, aizvērt durvis kāda deguna priekšā. (Nose again.)

In Czech, one can mlátit, prásknout, bouchnout dveřmi . One can simply zavřít dveře (shut the door) or emphatically zavřít dveře před nosem. (Also nose.)

In Modern Greek, one says κλείνω την πόρτα, and κλείνω την πόρτα κατάμουτρα. The word κατάμουτρα is curious: κατα is a preposition with many meanings, including ‘down’ and ‘upon’, whereas μουτρα is slang for face. My Modern Greek is not yet sufficiently good, and I could not find any equivalents of slamming, but the Greeks surely are able to do it?




Why 19 languages?

matilda likes reading

Why 19 languages? 19 is the number of languages I have decided I wanted to learn in this life.

I had a language wish list for decades, but last week, on a flight from Madrid, I actually sat down, thought about it methodically, and came up with three groups.

Group alpha includes 7 languages: English, French, Italian, Latvian, and Russian, all of which I master at different levels of fluency, plus German and Spanish. For these languages I want to have excellent passive knowledge and pretty good active knowledge.

Group beta included 4 languages: Czech and Modern Greek, which I studied and used to be able to speak, plus Polish and Portuguese, which I don’t know at all. I would like to have good passive knowledge of these four, and be able to converse.

Group gamma included Estonian, Georgian, Hungarian, and Japanese, for which I know the bare basics, plus two additional languages I want to learn but have not quite decided which ones. Current favourites are Swedish and Catalan.

A special case is Ancient Greek and Latin, my field of specialisation at university, which I want to continue to read.

That’s 19.