I spent the summer of 2018 learning French. Then, I changed gears and spent the next summer learning Spanish, completely oblivious to my French.
Finally, it’s August, and I realize that in a month I’m back to my half English-half French linguistic program. So I make a quick assessment of my French skills, and my brain returns me a cognitive equivalent of “404: File not found” error.
Is this what I get for the long months of devoted French immersion, with all fun-deprivation and mental exhaustion it caused?
You guessed it.
Now, as I recovered my irretrievable French, I want to share some first-hand insights on how we can relearn a language and why we forget it in the first place.
Is it normal to forget a language?
Human memory is a fascinating thing. It’s better at forgetting things than at remembering them. What’s worse, forgetting itself seems to be a natural part of the process.
But if we omit all the illogicality of memory workings and focus on the rational part of it, we see this transpiercing tendency for over-optimization. The most frequently used knowledge is accessed with the least effort, and vice versa.
Now, let’s think about a typical language learning situation. These days, “typical” equals to “classroom”, and classroom learning predictably ends once you exit the class. Nothing in the external world forces you to use your high-school Spanish, so it’s not surprising that you experience a dramatic loss of fluency as soon as you’re done with your SP 2000 course.
Almost everybody who has learned a foreign language shares the experience of forgetting the acquired language skills once the period of formal instruction is over.
Schöpper-Grabe, Sigrid. (1998). “”Use it or lose it?”– Zum Phänomen der Foreign Language Attrition”. Zeitschrift für Fremdsprachenforschung, 9 (2): 231–263.
Yes, languages seem to have a very short shelf life. Some sort of “once opened, consume within five days”.
Polyglots “forget” their languages, too
Now, you might be wondering about those people who seem to know twenty languages and seamlessly switch from one to another.
Well, this is not quite the case.
Even world-class polyglots admit this phenomenon. Kato Lomb, a simultaneous interpreter and translator, who was famous for learning over 20 languages, describes it in the following way:
Question: Is it possible to know 16 languages?
Answer: No, it is not possible—at least not at the same level of ability. I only have one mother tongue: Hungarian. Russian, English, French, and German live inside me simultaneously with Hungarian. I can switch between any of these languages with great ease, from one word to another. Translating texts in Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, and Polish generally requires me to spend about half a day brushing up on my language skills and perusing the material to be translated. The other six languages [Bulgarian, Danish, Latin, Romanian, Czech, Ukrainian] I know only through translating literature and technical material.
Kato Lomb, Foreword to “Polyglot. How I Learn Languages“
There are two things to note here.
First, even Kato Lomb needed to spend half a day refreshing her skills and relearning her languages.
Second, she was still able to keep five languages simultaneously activated in her mind. Arguably, because she used them the most in her professional life.
Language attrition: why do we forget languages?
Linguistic knowledge seems to function on terms “use it or lose it”.
I find that language is just a skill. And like any other skill – from playing guitar to riding a bike, to putting together scuba gear – it tends to fade when not in use.
As you fail to access this skill-related information (i.e. envisage how to say “a car” in Italian or how to play The Wind of Change) in your mind’s eye, you lose confidence in your ability to perform the action.
And this is when you start saying “Uhmmm…” on any inquiries about your language proficiency.
This is how the brain gently suggests you to be honest with yourself and admit that this language is not something you desperately need in your daily life. And if you do desperately need it in your life then maybe you should spend more time using it.
But it is not only foreign languages that have these yogurt-like expiration dates. Your native language is as much volatile as your university French.
Should you move to another country and start using a foreign language more than your own, and your native English won’t take long to bid you a farewell.
This has happened to me. Once I moved to Canada I almost ceased speaking Russian (my mother tongue), so now I deal with all sorts of curious outcomes of language attrition. First of all, I already gave up on explaining to my family what exactly I study here – because I absolutely cannot translate all the linguistic jargon back to Russian. Second, the more I use English, the harder it is for me to formulate thoughts using my native language constructions. And, what’s worse, whenever I do speak Russian, people make a funny face and ask where my accent comes from.
Is this language knowledge lost?
Obviously, a well-acquired L1 won’t show the same rate of decay as a half-learned L2. From the studies on language attrition, we know that the higher level of language competence you reach the less your skills will be affected by non-use. The more fluent you are the easier it would be for you to relearn the language if you “forgot” it.
I’ve learned eight languages and lost a good half of them. And the only thing I can say is that languages in the brain really suffer from Munchausen syndrome. They need care and attention, and if, God forbid, they don’t get it, well, you know the symptoms…
So, relax. Your high-school Spanish, university French or vacation Italian are fine. Even though you feel like the whole years of you learning these languages were permanently deleted from your memory, this linguistic knowledge can be easily restored.
The only thing you need to do to relearn a language is to re-engage with it.
How to relearn a lost language?
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I had one month before I needed all my French back for university studies. My French, meanwhile, played dead and showed no signs of life.
So the project with a code name “Resurrection” was launched.
I didn’t try to reinvent the wheel here, and just did whatever I would normally do to learn a foreign language. I exposed myself to a ton of French input.
My AB-CABS “care cycle” consisted of listening, reading and reviewing grammatical patterns. Generally, I would spend about an hour a day doing something in French. And since I like to quantify this “something”, it translated into 2 things:
- reading a couple of books in French
- listening to over three dozen episodes of Nomade Digital.
During this process, I found that my comprehension of French wasn’t affected that much. The only problem was my inability to express myself. But as I got back to my studies in French and actually started producing some speech, this, too, slowly began to recover.
A few weeks later, my French returned to its normal duties, i.e messing with my Spanish. And I’m back producing wonderful things like “Sí, claro, mais no lo tengo”.
Relearn a language as you need it
We learn foreign languages with an intention to use them (even once in a while). So there is an expectation that they would be available upon request.
Forget it. It’s not going to be the case.
The “freshness” of your language skills will always be in direct proportion with the extent to which you use them. So there’s little point to keep alive the language you don’t need. It’s a pure waste of cognitive resources.
Tim Ferriss, the author of multiple books on rapid skill-acquisition like Four-Hour Chef and Four-Hour Workweek who learned a dozen languages, refers to the same concept:
It is easier, and much more time-efficient, to catch up versus keep up.
Tim Ferriss, in How to Resurrect Your High School Spanish… or Any Language
So let it die and restore when you need it.
If you reached a good language proficiency level somewhere in your past, exhale. You won’t need more than a couple of weeks of intensive multi-modal immersion to relearn a language and get right back where you were.