Once You Learn a Language, Do You Ever Forget It?

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Many people who studied a foreign language in school don’t continue to practice it after they graduate. The conventional wisdom is that if you don’t speak a language, you will forget it rather quickly. As my Spanish teacher used to say: “Use it or lose it.”  But is that really the case?

The results of a new study published on the Science Daily website suggests that when it comes to learning languages, this conventional wisdom isn’t completely true. Even many years later, the brain retains some memory of the languages you used to know. The study looked at native English speakers that spent time overseas as small children and who had learned either Hindi or Zulu during that time.

In vocabulary tests, the volunteers were unable to remember any of the words of the languages they had spoken as children. However, Hindi and Zulu both have phonemes (the smallest unit of sound in a spoken language) that don’t exist in English. When the researchers taught both the volunteers and a control group to recognize these phonemes, the volunteers that had learned the languages as children picked them up much faster than the volunteers who had not.

So, apparently, you never entirely forget a language you once knew. Of course, if you don’t remember any of the vocabulary, remembering what the phonemes sound like doesn’t help much if you need to communicate with someone in that language. However, it is comforting to know that if you try to pick up the language again, you won’t be starting from scratch.

The researchers who wrote the study concluded by recommending that children be exposed to different languages as much as possible, saying that “Even if the language is forgotten (or feels this way) after many years of disuse, leftover traces of the early exposure can manifest themselves as an improved ability to relearn the language.”