Even Polyglots Forget, It’s an Important Part of the Learning Process
I have been attending the polyglot gathering in Bratislava, Slovakia. The event is an amazing get together of language enthusiasts from all over Europe, and some from further away such as me. We are encouraged to carry large name tags on which we put the flags of the countries of the languages we speak. It’s very impressive to see polyglots wandering around with five, eight or 10 or more flags on their name tags.
I included languages like Ukrainian and Polish, not to mention Romanian amongst the languages that I speak. There’s just one problem with that. When I come across someone from Poland, Ukraine or Romania here at the conference, I find that I am unable to say much in those languages, despite the fact that I have put a lot of effort into learning them.
The reason is probably because of the concentrated effort that I have put into the Slovak language over the last week or 10 days, not to mention Greek for the prior three months. This activity seems to have pushed my Polish, Ukrainian and Romanian off the table. It’s amazing how quickly we forget things.
My hotel here in Bratislava, Hotel Viktor, is located on Kremnicka Street. I say the name to myself a few times before I leave each morning. But when I call a taxi or need to remember the name of the street, I find that I’ve already forgotten it. I am always amazed at how quickly I forget things, especially words and names in another language, not to mention the language itself. I think this is a problem that many language learners face and it probably discourages them.
It does not discourage me. I know from experience that when I go back to Polish, Ukrainian or Romanian, I will very quickly recover whatever level I had in the language, and in fact move to a new level. This is in part because I will be motivated by the fact that I forgot so much and want to get it back. But also it is because, as I know from my readings of cognitive science, learning, forgetting and relearning are powerful processes in the acquisition of language skills.
Forgetting is an important part of language learning. It helps us as long as we continue with our learning activities and relearn what we have forgotten. My awareness that it is normal to forget things is something that I have acquired and which helps me learn languages. It is, however, an awareness that less experienced language learners don’t have. They tend to feel more easily discouraged or frustrated by forgetting, or they blame themselves. Learners need to acquire an appreciation of the role of forgetting in order to make sure that they stay the course and achieve their final objective.
There was an old country and western music song that even Elvis sang and it went “I forgot to remember to forget”. Maybe that should be a theme song at a future Polyglot conference.