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I Learn New Words by Forgetting Them at First

I Learn New Words by Forgetting Them at First has been transcribed from Steve’s YouTube channel. You can download the audio and study the transcript as a lesson at LingQ.

Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here. Today I want to talk about something that happens all the time in language learning and that is forgetting and I want to talk about it in the context of going back to a language that we have left for a period of time.


If you have been following my videos from South America you know that I was just there for a month and, of course, I didn’t do any Arabic. I spoke Spanish mostly and Portuguese while in Brazil. I spoke a lot with taxi drivers. I was reading books. I bought books on the history of Argentina, the history of Brazil and the history of Peru. I bought other books. So I was constantly involved in Spanish and Portuguese.


So now I’m back. I’m not back in Vancouver yet. I’m in Palm Springs because, as you know, my wife and I spend part of the winter here. So, first day back. There’s a little gym here where we live, so I went there and had a little bit of a workout and, of course, I was listening to Arabic. I haven’t listened to Arabic now for a month. So I’m listing to my mini-stories which I have on a playlist in my little iPod and, of course, now as I listen to these stories that I had listened to before I’m finding that there are words that I have forgotten, but it’s very interesting what happens when you leave a language for awhile.


So I listen and there are words that I have forgotten, but then there are also words and phrases and structures that I notice more clearly than ever. So the break from the Arabic and the exposure to Spanish and Portuguese seems to have made me a little more… maybe the Arabic now seems fresh to me. I hear certain things more clearly, I notice certain structures more clearly and yet there are words that I have forgotten.


How I Learn New Words in Context


Of course the structure of the mini-stories is such that the structures and the vocabulary in one form or another repeats, so if I don’t get it the first time with the context and having heard it before and hearing it in a different tense or person I kind of pick up on it. Still, for a lot of it I have to go back now again and read it and maybe look up the word again, but as I’m doing it I’m quite confident in the fact that all the things that I have now forgotten when I go back and relearn them I will end up knowing them better than I ever did.


The work that I did in my first pass through in Arabic is kind of like preparing the ground, so then I can leave it for awhile and when I now go back it’s as if the ground that I fertilized is now ready for the plants to kind of rise even further. I know that from experience and I know that there’s research that shows that when we learn and forget and relearn the way our brain works we have a better grasp on those things. So I’m not discouraged by the fact that having left Arabic for a month, I go back and listen and there are things that I have forgotten. I’ve done it before. I’ve left languages for six months and I go back and, of course, I’ve forgotten things. But if I stay with it, then I end up learning it better.


After all, when I first started on Arabic I couldn’t read anything. I couldn’t read the letters. I didn’t understand anything. None of it made any sense. I didn’t have any sense of the structure. Now when I go in after a month’s absence quickly I’m reminded of a lot of the words, of a lot of the structure. I notice it better and I know that even those things that I have forgotten and still can’t remember after listening to the stories when I go back in and read it again then it will be relearned and it will be in there stronger than ever and then I will go into new material. And, of course, into the new material I will again be in fact revisiting certain words, revisiting certain structures and so I’ll be plowing forward.


Some people say well, what do you do? Should I leave a language? If I leave it will I forget it? People are so concerned about taking a break from their language studies. I believe that if your language learning is based on massive input, massive reading and listening and if you’re motivated by an interest in the language, an interest in the culture surrounding the language, you needn’t worry about leaving it for a month or two or three. When you go back in there very quickly you’ll be back to where you were and stronger than ever. It’s just kind of a thought that crossed my mind as I was in the gym listening to my Arabic mini-stories.


There you have it, bye for now.

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1 comment on “I Learn New Words by Forgetting Them at First


I’ve been studying the Japanese Kanji for about 9 months using the Remembering the Kanji series by James W. Heisig and in combination with the website I’ve currently finished the first book with 2200 kanji and I’m still doing about 100 reviews every day and I’m scoring anywhere from 65 to 85%+ on retention; I write them out from memory using the English keyword prompt during reviews.

The problem is I’m board with this review process and I want to spend more time reading and listening. What would your advice be for me at this point? I still want to keep my Kanji knowledge fresh but I would like to be learning more vocabulary and see the Kanji used with real words. Am I wasting my time reviewing the Kanji with only English keywords? If so, where do I go from here?

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