Forgetting a Language: Why It Happens and How To Avoid It
Forgotten languages, and understanding why
In my travels and lifestyle, the reason I learn a language is simple: to immediately use it with locals and enhance my cultural experiences. This is not quite the same as many people, who choose their one language to learn based on a long-term investment. A polyglot has many languages to deal with, and this changes things significantly compared to someone with a one-language priority.
What this means is at the end of my two- to three-month projects to intensively learn a language for an upcoming trip, I face a crossroad: Should I maintain this language or not? Some people may take a “not” choice completely out of context and feel like the whole experience was worthless.
Every language I have learned has enhanced my travels in ways I can’t begin to express. Saying that any one of them was a waste of time ignores the cultural experience that was my priority all along. I’m not passionate about languages, I’m passionate about using them.
Maintaining them as described below is so much work that if that passion doesn’t spark a lifelong interest in the language, then I simply will not prioritise it — as a polyglot, I have quite a lot of languages to juggle! This is obviously not the same situation for someone who has learned one foreign language over an extended period of study.
A consequence of this is that as much experience as I have in learning and speaking languages — seven of which I can now say I speak fluently — I have plenty of experience too in forgetting languages.
I have learned Hungarian, Czech, Catalan, and Tagalog and could converse and socialise in all of them at various levels. But now I can’t. Nowadays, I’d never even list them as languages I can get by in to be honest. But I don’t apologise for this or lose sleep over it. I knew it was going to happen.
So what did I do differently with my successfully maintained seven languages compared to those listed above?
The “secret” (no surprise) is simply consistently using the language so it is always fresh in your mind.
Of course you can come up with lazy excuses why this is not possible, but the truth is you can always find ways to use those languages. Find natives to meet in person via social networks, use certain sites to find people to talk to by Skype, be friendlier with tourists, join clubs and actively monitor your social circle and environment for opportunities to use the language. All of these are ways you can speak your language immediately.
To maintain other aspects (reading, writing, listening, etc.), the best way is by doing them. Listen to podcasts in the target language, read blogs or online news or an entire book in that language, keep in touch with your foreign friends by chatting to them on Facebook or writing them emails; but do this every day.
The language will deteriorate in your mind if you don’t keep it active. Having learned it “once” does not mean you now own it forever; use it or lose it!
Speed of learning
As far as I can tell, there’s only one major disadvantage to my rapid learning strategy: The quicker you learn it, the quicker you’ll forget it. This may sound bad, but it’s way better than the alternative of learning so slowly you have nothing to show for it, ever.
If you dive intensively into your language learning project, and reach high conversational level or fluency after a few months, you have to be sure you’re consistently maintaining it until it is a permanent part of you. I found with the languages listed above that within just a few months, I lost the vast majority of my ability to communicate in them — I forgot as quickly as I learned.
So if you learned your language over years (actually using it, not simply being present in a classroom for something that could only laughably be called “years”), you’ll be much less likely to forget it as quickly. Spanish is the language I’ve put the most time into, for example, and I’m confident that I could cut myself off from the language entirely for a year and get back into it no problem. I’ve spoken and lived through Spanish so much that it’s burned into me.
But the point is I wouldn’t cut myself off from Spanish. Why would I do that? If you genuinely want to speak a language for life, it will always be there for you to use. Even with seven or more languages competing for time with me, I will always give the important ones the time they deserve (what makes a language important depends on you, not some economic, etc., criteria or what someone else says).
Even though I’m certainly aware of the danger of forgetting a language quicker due to learning it quicker, I still think this hardly counts as a “disadvantage.” You’ll only forget it if you aren’t using it. This is true whether you learned it quickly or slowly, only the speed of deterioration is different. After I had learned the other languages on my list quickly and intensively, I kept up the good work of consistently using them and will never forget them because of that.
Passion and the why
The main reason I’ll never forget my current languages and certain future ones I take on, while I will forget others, is because I’m passionate about the former beyond a fixed point in time when they served the purpose of cultural immersion. That one thing, the why that sparked a flame inside me during my experience in the country, means I will never let it go.
If you don’t want to ever forget a given language, don’t ever let it go. Make it an important part of your life; reading books and keeping in touch with friends is never a chore, but something that would leave a huge hole in your life if taken away. This article originally appeared on Fluent in 3 Months and is reprinted here with permission.