When does a language go on autopilot?

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When does a language go on autopilot?

Postby WildGinger10 » Mon Mar 22, 2021 9:59 pm

Hey everyone, I searched the forum because I was sure this must have been a topic of discussion in the past but couldn't find any threads on the subject.

I've seen a lot of discussion in some threads about the pros and cons to working on multiple languages at a time, and the general consensus seems to be that time spent in one language is time spent away from another language, so working on multiple languages at once slows progress in any of them considerably. I've been working on German with varying degrees of intensity for over 3 years now, and while I still don't think I can afford to spread my language study time across a second language, I am still anxious to start working on other languages that I have interests in. Which brings me to my real question, for those who have gotten there:

When do you put a language on autopilot, and what does that mean to you? Do you find that you still build fluency after autopiloting a language, or does your comprehension start to stagnate? What level of fluency allows for "autopiloting" of a study program? Surely you don't need to reach C2 fluency before you can drop your active study program, but is B2 far enough? C1? Is there some other benchmark, like being able to read intermediate texts with ease? And when you do autopilot, do you still dedicate input time?

I think I still have some time before I reach this point with my German but I realized I don't actually know what this looks like, even though I hear about it from language learners a lot. So, what does "autopilot" look like to you? When do you feel comfortable putting a language on autopilot? What happens with your language after it is autopiloted?
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Re: When does a language go on autopilot?

Postby Iversen » Mon Mar 22, 2021 10:08 pm

I have not even put my native Danish on autopilot - I learn new words when I do crosswords, for instance, and if you take my best L2, I did some wordlists in English a month or so ago and learnt a lot of funny new words. So the learning process never ceases.

But there is a point where I can start to think coherent thoughts in a language, and from that moment I can train it just by thinking - and that's the nearest thing to an autopilot function I can come up with.
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Re: When does a language go on autopilot?

Postby lingua » Mon Mar 22, 2021 10:52 pm

Probably never. While Italian is more or less in maintenance mode I still learn new words every time I read a new book or speak on a new subject with my italki teacher. I don't expect that to ever end. At the moment I'm not actively studying the grammar but will do so periodically in the future. All of my other languages are still in various stages of beginner level. It's probably unrealistic to expect to be on autopilot like one is with their native language unless they are living in a country where the target language is spoken.

To Iversen's point ... about not even being on autopilot with his native language I would say that's true for me too. Especially when it comes to new slang. I will read some article and see a word either completely new or a word I thought I knew that is used in a new way and I have to then check into it.
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Re: When does a language go on autopilot?

Postby Le Baron » Mon Mar 22, 2021 11:15 pm

It's going to differ per person. I see that some here have less trouble relaxing one language to delve deeper into another. Personally I find it harder to do that without some deterioration. I'm not 100% certain what you mean by autopilot, but I suppose it means leaving it alone without attending to it study-wise. The only reason I can do that with Dutch is because I live among Dutch speakers and all the daily interaction is in that language so it's always getting exercise. I also pursue other things through Dutch (including languages) so it's now a medium of study rather than just an object of study.

With French...well, I used to be a lot better in French than Dutch, but this has switched. I let it fall onto 'autopilot' while I pursued Dutch and German and it suffered. From lack of opportunity to exercise it mostly. So I'd say that relaxing the active study of a language is easier when you still have the opportunity for acquiring a trickle of new vocabulary/structure on top of a solid working knowledge. I couldn't say what CEFR level this should or could be, like I said it seems to differ per person. If you rest one for 3 months and come back to find you're struggling with it, it's probably not as deeply-embedded as you thought.
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Re: When does a language go on autopilot?

Postby einzelne » Mon Mar 22, 2021 11:40 pm

I can only discuss autopilot in relation to passive skills, since active skills require constant practice. Once you can read and listen to unadapted materials with 98-99% known words, you can switch to autopilot, since you can read/listen for pleasure. You can reach this level in a specific domain(s) first, keep it for years and switching to the study mode (basically, it means expanding your vocabulary in other domains) if you have time and desire.
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Re: When does a language go on autopilot?

Postby Raconteur » Mon Mar 22, 2021 11:45 pm

In full agreement with the other contributors, I'd say forget about autopilot as a concept and instead embrace maintenance.

And indeed, even your native language requires regular maintenance. Without use, your first language (native language) will deteriorate... although certainly nowhere near as rapidly as an L2 dropped at A1.

I think anyone who lived abroad for a long time (fully detached from their native language), and then phoned home after 6 months can relate as to how odd it can feel to speak your own language again. And then you have émigrés and asylum seekers living abroad for decades – in some cases they speak their native tongue beautifully, but in other cases you might be genuinely surprised to learn that the language they are struggling with is their original, native tongue. Maybe this has to do with talent (or lack of talent) for languages to begin with, but I think maintenance is still likely to be the more important factor to consider. (Naturally, in the age of Skype, YouTube, and online newspapers I imagine this sort of thing happens less and less.)
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Re: When does a language go on autopilot?

Postby jmar257 » Tue Mar 23, 2021 1:43 am

This is something I've been thinking about lately, and I suppose it depends on how you define autopilot. I'm currently not actively studying Spanish, although it's my focus for the Super Challenge and it's getting way more input than French (although I'm actively studying FSI French). As I look at add German soon this is something I've been trying to think about, since I still need to work on my active Spanish skills (iTalki probably). But that may not be too regular, so for the most part it will be reading/watching/listening/video games for that, and I am at a point where I can read for pleasure and generally listen to/watch podcasts and TV shows for pleasure as well as long as there aren't too many crazy accents (looking at you, Andalusians and Argentinians). For reference I feel like my Spanish is somewhere between B1 and B2 but haven't been tested and my active skills definitely bring that down, so take it with a grain of salt.
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Re: When does a language go on autopilot?

Postby Lawyer&Mom » Tue Mar 23, 2021 3:55 am

I reached a solid passive B2 in German reading and listening after my year studying in Germany in college. I can neglect German for years and still read and listen at B2. Active is a very different subject... but if you can read at B2, you can string words together at tourist level at least. So I can still speak German, perhaps not terribly well. So that’s my answer. Get to a B2 and the language is more or less yours. (I’m willing to extend this guarantee as far as FIGS for native English speakers...)
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Re: When does a language go on autopilot?

Postby WildGinger10 » Tue Mar 23, 2021 7:59 am

Well I didn't want to actively define "autopilot" because I was curious to hear what that term meant for others since I've heard it thrown around sometimes, but it sounds like it's different for everyone. For me, it would refer to when you no longer actively study grammar rules or consciously devote time to build vocabulary, when the only "learning" you're doing is passive by way of reading texts (without studying these texts) or holding conversations or consuming untranslated media, etc (again, with an emphasis on NOT studying these things and simply consuming them to consume them). Of course, long enough time away from any language, even native, will result in your skills dropping but it takes a very long time without exposure to bring your native language to a level where you would need to actively study it again in order to communicate fully, and I haven't read all the science but I would guess that, like many things of this nature, it does not take nearly as long to regain fluency in a language you were once fluent in as it did to build fluency the first time.

I like the term maintenance and have no problem using it here in place of autopilot.
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Re: When does a language go on autopilot?

Postby Pegasusangel » Tue Mar 23, 2021 10:10 am

I personally believe that there really is no autopilot option with second and third languages. Maintenence is the key to keeping all your languages working well. I have found that for me personally being able to read and understand a lot of a text meant for children and teens in the languages you know is what I would define as autopiolet. Fluent....not really. But if I can understand pretty much a whole kid show in the languages I know well (Spanish, German, and Japanese) then I'm doing okay. That being said I made the bad choice to sit back and focus on German for three months and not maintain my other languages. Because of that I've had to do better at maintaining the languages I can understand books and shows in on the side cuz I lost a lot of what I learned from focusing on only one language (even though I can still read and understand I'm not as good at forming sentences and grammar). Thats not the case for everyone and probably unpopular opinion but it works best for me it seems.
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