How Not To Forget Foreign Languages
How do you not forget languages? The simple answer here is I don’t forget languages. I have not forgotten a language and I think there are several reasons for this. First of all, my method of learning is massive input. If you look at my statistics on Czech, I’ve probably read the equivalent of five, six, 10 books worth of Czech in the last nine months or so that I’ve read, listened to and saved words. So I’m exposing my brain to this massive deluge of content and this is building a solid base in the language.
If I were simply trying to study word lists or trying to memorize declension tables or learn grammar rules, I think those things you can forget. Those are the kinds of things you remember for a test, but very quickly forget. I’ve had the experience myself. I’ve studied say Russian or Czech and declension tables for nouns and I think I have them for a day or two and then they’re gone again. However, phrases that I’ve heard many times and words that I’ve seen many times, these combination of words with the noun in the right ending combined with a certain preposition, all of these things start to become part of strong patterns that are built in the brain and we don’t forget them.
So the first answer is if you don’t want to forget languages, learn them the hard way if you want. In other words, invest the time. Put the time into enough exposure to the language that you are building these sediments, this accumulated experience with the language in your brain.
The second thing is I am not bothered by the fact that when I start up in a language that I haven’t spoken for a while that I’m rusty. That doesn’t bother me at all. I think people who expect too much of themselves end up being frustrated, lose confidence, lose interest, whatever. If I haven’t spoken Swedish or Spanish or something for a while, I’m going to stumble when I start up again.
Sometimes people come at me on YouTube and oh, you don’t speak this language very well. You made this other mistake and stuff. Yeah, sure, whatever, it doesn’t bother me. I know that if I were then to be put in a situation for a day or two or three where I had to use that language regularly and I was once again listening to it all the time and everything that was in my brain was starting to revive that I would do fine. In fact, I’ve had the experience and I’ve mentioned this before.
If I leave a language and study some other language, when I come back to that first language that I left I’m actually better in the language because my overall language learning and language using capability has improved by learning other languages. The fact that I stumble out of the gate, so to speak, for the first day or two, so what, I have no particular expectations. I know that in any language, a second, third, fourth, fifth language that you speak, you’ll do better on some days than on other days. That’s what it is. Some days it’s tiring and some days it’s frustrating to try and look for words that you can’t find. You get annoyed and you would like to retreat back into your native language and other days you’re just walking on water and doing very well. So whichever happens to be the case that day is good enough for me. I don’t go in there with any particular expectations.
When I hear people say oh, yes, my father came over from the old country and he hasn’t spoken Polish or Italian in 50 years and now he can’t speak it, I kind of tend to take that with a grain of salt. I think if that particular father were set back into a Polish, Italian, Portuguese, Chinese, whatever environment, that that language would come back to him. If he had been exposed to it for 10, 20 or 30 years as a young person and then had been away from it for 30–40 years, when he or she goes back to that environment it will come right back very, very quickly.
So, to me, I don’t forget languages. How do I maintain them quickly if I need to get up to speed? Sometimes I’ll be asked to appear on a Mandarin Chinese television program here in Vancouver, I’ll get out some audio books or some CDs. I’ll listen to them and do a bit of reading. Give myself some exposure. One thing I certainly don’t look at is grammar books. If you want to get yourself back to speed you need more exposure. That’s not to say I don’t look at grammar books, I will occasionally look at grammar books, thumb through them, so to speak, but to get yourself back up to speed you need a lot of exposure. If you’ve been away from it for a while the first night out with native speakers you might stumble a bit, but you’re very quickly right back in the groove, at least that has been my experience.