Good News: A Learned Language Can’t Be Lost
It’s not uncommon to look through your old high school yearbook and feel a sense of disbelief. “I can’t believe I thought that haircut looked good,” you might say to yourself, or “That’s who we thought was the cutest boy in school?” For me, the disbelief is also over the fact that I was in the Spanish Honors Society. Back then, I could speak well enough to have a conversation with a cabbie when I went on a school trip to Spain. But nowadays, just a little over a decade later, I can barely string a sentence together in this language I once excelled at.
It’s something that happens to a lot of us. Academically, it’s called “language attrition” – the loss of a language due to lack of practice. But while common, I’ve just found out it may not be a permanent condition!
According to a 2009 study from the University of Bristol, when we learn a language, it stays with us to some degree. In the study, native English-speaking participants who had learned Zulu or Hindi as second languages early in life, then forgotten them, were able to be re-taught the basics with much more ease than someone who had never been exposed to the languages at all.
If you feel skeptical about these findings, author, teacher, and language fan Gabriel Wyner points out why language attrition may indeed be reversible, citing an experiment conducted by Hermann Ebbinghaus, the 19th century psychologist who invented concepts like the learning curve. Ebbinghaus made himself memorize a series of gibberish words and studied how long it took to forget them, and then to re-learn them. Unknowingly setting a precedent for the University of Bristol study, Ebbinghaus discovered that once he’d learned these words, it took 15% less time to memorize them again.
So, now that it seems pretty reasonable to think that you can recover old language abilities, how do you go about doing that? As an ESL teacher, I’ve always advised students to practice by incorporating something they like. Wyner has a great tip for this: find a TV series that interests you and watch it in the language you want to remember. The context should help you get back vocabulary pretty quickly, and then hopefully higher functions like grammar and expressions will follow. Of course, this all depends on the level of fluency you had in the language in the first place. If you just learned the basics, you’ll have to plan to study in a more conventional way as well, so that you can learn the things you didn’t get to the first time around. But even if you didn’t have an advanced level of a language, at least you have the basics already under your belt. They’ll be helpful when it comes to things like vocabulary and pronunciation.
So if you’re regretting a language you think you lost, take heart! All you may need to jog your memory is some DVD’s of your favorite show! Unfortunately, I don’t think anything can be done about your yearbook photo with the unfortunate haircut, though…..