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Forgetting a language: Why it happens and how to avoid it

| 39 comments | Category: learning languages, mission

OK, so you have put in the time and can now speak a language at a confident level. But maybe the course that helped to get you there has ended, or your stay abroad is over and it’s time to go home.

What do you do to make sure that you don’t forget that language?

My own list of forgotten languages and understanding why

Something that is quite unique in my travels and lifestyle is the reason I have to learn a language of immediate use with natives in my travels, to enhance my cultural experience. This is not quite the same as many people, who choose their one language based on a long-term investment. A polyglot has many languages to deal with and this changes things significantly compared to someone with a one-language priority.

What this means is at the end of my 2-3 month projects to intensively learn a language that are more focused on an upcoming trip, I face a crossroad; should I maintain this language or not? Some people may take a “not” choice completely out of context and feel like the whole experience was worthless.

Every language I have learned has enhanced my travels in ways that I can’t begin to express. Saying that any one of them was a waste of time is ignores the cultural experience that was my priority all along. I’m not passionate about languages, I’m passionate about using them.

Maintaining them as described below is so much work for such a large number that if that passion doesn’t spark a lifelong interest in the language, then I simply will not prioritise it, since as a polyglot, I have quite a lot of languages to juggle! This is obviously not the same situation for someone who has learned one foreign language.

A consequence of this is that as much experience as I have in learning and speaking languages; seven of which I can now say I speak fluently, I have plenty of experience too in forgetting languages.

I have learned Hungarian, Czech, Catalan and Tagalog and could converse and socialise in all of them in various levels. But now I can’t. Nowadays, I’d never even list them as languages that I can get by in to be honest. But I don’t apologise for this or lose sleep over it. I knew it was going to happen.

So what did I do differently with my successfully maintained 7 languages compared to these?

Consistent practice

The “secret” (no surprise) is simply consistently using the language so it is always fresh in your mind.

Of course you can come up with lazy excuses why this is not possible, but the truth is that you can always find ways to use those languages. Find natives to meet in person via social networks, use certain sites to find people to talk to by Skype, be friendlier with tourists, join clubs and actively monitor your social circle and environment for opportunities to use the language. All of these are ways you can speak your language immediately.

To maintain other aspects (reading, writing, listening etc.), the best way to maintain these is by doing them. Listen to podcasts in the target language, read blogs or online news or an entire book in that language, keep in touch with your foreign friends by chatting to them on Facebook or writing them emails; but do this every day.

The language will deteriorate in your mind if you don’t keep it active. Having learned it “once” does not mean you now own it forever; use it or lose it!

Speed of learning

As far as I can tell, there is only one major disadvantage to my rapid learning strategy: the quicker you learn it, the quicker you’ll forget it. This may sound bad, but it’s way better than the alternative of learning so slowly you have nothing to show for it, ever.

If you dive in intensively into your language learning project, and reach high conversational level or fluency after a few months, then you have to be sure that you are consistently maintaining it until it is definitely a permanent part of you. I found with the languages listed above that within just a few months, I could forget the vast majority of my ability to communicate in these languages; I forgot it as quickly as I learned it.

So if you learned your language over years (actually using it, not simply being present in a classroom for something that could only laughably be called “years”), then you will be much less likely to forget it as quick. Spanish is the language I’ve put the most time into for example, and I am confident that I could cut myself off from the language entirely for a year (for example) and get back into it no problem. I’ve spoken and lived through Spanish so much that it’s burned into me.

But the point is that I wouldn’t cut myself off from Spanish. Why would I do that? If you genuinely want to speak a language for life, it will always be there for you to use. Even with almost a two-digit number of languages competing for time with me, I will always give the important ones the time they deserve (what makes a language important depends on you, not some economic etc. criteria or what someone else says).

With this in mind, even though I’m certainly aware of the danger of forgetting a language quicker due to learning it quicker, I still think this hardly counts as a “disadvantage”. You’ll only forget it if you aren’t using it. This is true whether you learned it quickly or slowly, only the speed of deterioration is different. After I had learned the other languages in my list quickly and intensively, I have kept up the good work of consistently using them and I will never forget them because of that.

Passion and the why

The main reason I will never forget my eight languages and certain future ones I take on, while I will forget others, is because I am passionate about the former beyond a fixed point in time when they served me a purpose of cultural immersion. That one thing, the why that sparked a flame inside me during my experience in the country, means that I will never let it go.

If you don’t want to ever forget a given language, don’t ever let it go. Make it an important part of your life; reading books and keeping in touch with friends is never a chore, but something that would leave a huge hole in your life if taken away.

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How do you make sure you don’t forget a language that you’ve brought up to a great level? Let us know in the comments below!

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  • Justin

    Man, I would love to be able to speak eight languages, I hope that maybe I will someday. Do you think you will learn others some day that you would want to maintain? Do you feel that with each language you take on the longer/harder you have to work to maintain all of them? Also, just one more question, when you say you are fluent, can you read and write them very well or mostly just speak them? Thanks!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Yes, I will definitely learn others I want to maintain. The whole point is each one I know now was initially a few months investment that I decided to hold on to ;)

      This year ASL made a big impact on me, so I will be coming back to it and ultimately plan to know it fluently and add it to my permanent list.

      When I’m fluent, I can do everything I tend to do in English. I write all the time, but informally to my friends. Also I have sat 3 formal European examinations in 3 languages and this required formal writing skills in all of them.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    After my long-term stay in Spain I ended up using double negatives in English as a consequence (I don’t have nothing, I’m not going nowhere etc.) So yes, your learned languages can drip into your mother tongue ;)

    • Eri

      Oh, can I ask you something? How do you maintain ASL considering you’re not in the US, so it’d be tough to find people who know it. Do you do video chats with people who know it or something?

      • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

        ASL is in a transition stage for me. I definitely want to add it to my permanent list, but because this year I am intensively learning four languages, I can’t focus on maintaining or continuing studies of languages I don’t know well. ASL is currently shelved temporarily and from September I’ll be back in the states to continue learning it. After that stay I will add it to my permanent list and actively maintain it.

        However, the excuses to not maintain it *after* I am confident in it are the same for not maintaining Irish, or maintaining Italian while in Amsterdam. The excuse is always the same, but if you try hard you will always find a way to practice every day if you want to.

  • Anonymous

    Good post, Benny. I’m learning Portuguese right now and am successfully maintaining my Spanish. I took your advice from this blog on how not to confuse similar languages. My question is: Do you think it would take you as long to “re-activate” a language that you are not maintaining, say- Hungarian, to the same level that you had at the end of your mission as it would starting from scratch again?

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      I’d definitely do it quicker the second time; it’s not like I’m genuinely forgetting EVERYTHING. It’s tucked away in my head somewhere! I’m sure that I’d get back into the flow if I decided to reactivate one, and that may indeed be a future mission!

  • http://casinoviembre.wordpress.com/ adriana

    Great post, thanks!

    That “forgetting” is a terrible fear to me. I have learnt mandarin and when I am not in China (like right know) the “colding” is going so fast! But, as you state, using languages is my passion so I think the fact that you really enjoy it makes it easier. 

    You know? There is something great about this. Learning a language means that you have to keep “active” somehow, always learning, and I think that that makes somehow your life more rich. I do not if I am making myself clear. Sorry about that.

    Thans about the post. 

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Regional means nothing in the age of the Internet. Small means nothing if you have access to a group of people that you can practice with. ;)

    • dylan freeman

      Exactly. Even if there’s 400,000 speakers you could meet a person everyday of their life  and never even get close to meeting everyone, this is the main argument I use for learning minority languages.

  • Danny

    Speaking of learning and forgetting languages faster, I completely agree with that! A few summers ago I. Lived with Egyptians for about a month, and at the end of it I was able to have conversations in Caveman like Egyptian Arabic. :D
    Recently I had to have a conversation with an Egyptian nanny who didn’t speak English or French… And I instantly realized that I no longer spoke Next to nothing in Egyptian Arabic!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      You can attempt to reactivate it though :)

  • http://hawaiigavin.wordpress.com/ Gavin

    Yup, I’ve been experience language attrition with my three most fluent languages: Japanese, French and Portuguese.  Living in Hawaii I can use Japanese quite a bit but my literacy skills have slowly been deteriorating.  My French still is fairly good, it’s just that I don’t get to use it that much and although I can read and understand everything I come across for the most part, when I find myself speaking French with a native speaker, my word search time has increased and adapting to different speech registers always is a bit difficult as well.  

    That’s something else to think about too.  We always think of a language as a discrete entity like ‘French’ or ‘English,’ but what it ‘is’ is actually a lot more complex and the ‘language’ you want to be fluent in may be a particular register within the imagined concept of that language if that makes sense.  For example, when you were learning Dutch, navigating the different contexts for use depending on where and who you were talking to is always factoring in to your moment by moment use of the language.   Man I’d love to go to Amsterdam but I can imagine why it’s tough though, I’ve had a few similar experiences that were difficult but I always found it helpful to know someone local where you’re going to plug you into the scene a bit.  People tend to be a bit cliquish so I definitely hear your frustrations.  I commend your optimism and motivation, and ood luck with your next language!  

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Thanks for the well wishes! ;) Good points, and best of luck trying to bring back up your level of those languages!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    I don’t count words and I don’t suggest you do either. I’ve sat three European CEFRL examinations and nobody ever asked me how many thousands of words I know. The exams incorporate vocabulary tests, but they test slightly more obscure words. You know that 99% of your “10,000″ words (house, glasses, cool, alright etc.) are not going to be tested there, so I find this to be one of the many shortcomings of such a test.

    Despite this part of the test going for obscure words I frankly don’t care much to know I’ve passed the C2 (much harder than the C1) in Spanish, passed 4/5 in German (the part I failed was listening, not vocabulary tests), and got the B2 in French finding it too easy. As a vague comparison, I’d say I’m *at least* C1 in a language I would be fluent in, and that’s the 8 shown on the right of this site.

    Despite the formal tests, the real “test” is that I can live my life entirely through these languages and do what I would in English in most situations in these languages. Amount of words means *nothing*. I discussed this terrible way of scoping your level in a language here:

    http://fi3m.com/lingq-review/

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Glad to have helped!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks for the compliments and best of luck with your language projects .)

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    Completely disagree, you never really forget a language that you’ve learned.  Even if you haven’t used it in 20 years I still believe you can easily revive it to prior levels with a week or two of intense work.  Tim Ferriss has a superb article on this exact topic: http://www.fourhourworkweek.com/blog/2007/09/20/how-to-resurrect-your-high-school-spanish-or-any-language-plus-be-on-the-cbs-early-show/

    I had a related experience recently where I went a couple months without speaking Spanish: a week or two spent talking to a native speaker via Skype for maybe 2-3 hours a week was all it took to get me back to where I was before, no big deal.

    I would only bother maintaining it if I thought there was a really good chance I’d need it in the very near future.

    Cheers,
    Andrew

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Yes, you never “really” forget it. And I’m sure I could bring my Hungarian or Czech back if I took two weeks off all other projects and working and just focused on that one language, but that isn’t so practical for a lot of people. It also means that if an opportunity comes up to use the language in the mean time, you can’t take it.

      By maintaining your language consistently you can jump into using it at a moments notice. If you only learned it for specific occasions like travelling to the country then I guess intensive reactivation à la Tim Ferriss could be a good idea, but this is not why I hold on to certain languages. I haven’t been back to a French speaking country in years, and yet I could take advantage of the opportunity to interview my Quebec couchsurfer for example.

      Hasn’t Spanish been something important to you for years? This just confirms what I said about learning slower leading to forgetting slower. So taking a month or two without speaking won’t lead to you forgetting much at all.

      There is ALWAYS a good chance to use any language. If you don’t maintain it after learning it intensively, it’s because it’s not that important to you (as my forgotten languages are to me). If it’s something you’ve been working on for years, then it’s burned into your head anyway, and you won’t forget it so easily.

      • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

        Ok, I agree with you then, I misunderstood–if you want to be able to use a language at a moment’s notice to speak with a native whenever/wherever then yes, you’ll definitely have to maintain it, that is true.  I was thinking you were saying you’d have to relearn it all over again, taking as much time to do so as you did to learn it in the first place.

        Cheers,
        Andrew

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    Completely disagree, you never really forget a language that you’ve learned.  Even if you haven’t used it in 20 years I still believe you can easily revive it to prior levels with a week or two of intense work.  Tim Ferriss has a superb article on this exact topic: http://www.fourhourworkweek.com/blog/2007/09/20/how-to-resurrect-your-high-school-spanish-or-any-language-plus-be-on-the-cbs-early-show/

    I had a related experience recently where I went a couple months without speaking Spanish: a week or two spent talking to a native speaker via Skype for maybe 2-3 hours a week was all it took to get me back to where I was before, no big deal.

    I would only bother maintaining it if I thought there was a really good chance I’d need it in the very near future.

    Cheers,
    Andrew

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000430883736 Jakob Lystad

    Have you ever mixed up your languages?

    How can I avoid to mix up my languages?

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    You won’t forget it if you maintain it, that’s the point! ;)

    Best of luck!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    You won’t forget it if you maintain it, that’s the point! ;)

    Best of luck!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    You won’t forget it if you maintain it, that’s the point! ;)

    Best of luck!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    You won’t forget it if you maintain it, that’s the point! ;)

    Best of luck!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    In my opinion we should only take on one language at a time: http://fi3m.com/how-to-become-a-polyglot/

    But if you are so naturally smart maybe you can do more? I’m not sure – I think in the long-run if we focus we’ll do so much more than trying to juggle too many things at once.

  • Therza

    WOW!!! Hi, I’m currently in high school and I’m currently taking a double language. I have a mother tongue, Tagalog and it was really surprising you’ve learned it. Congratulations! Anyways I see that you’re learning Chinese and so am I but my problem now is that I’m substituting French for Chinese I don’t know and vice versa. Ahhh, I’m still getting everything all sorted out but I think I can do it. :) I’m just really amazed at what you have accomplished and it’s really inspiring. You’ve really got my motivation up! Thank you for being an inspiration! Cheers~

  • Nicointhesky

    I am a 28 year old French, born and raised in France. I am genuinely forgetting how to write and speak French after 8 years abroad. This is terrifying because as you can read I only have a broken English and a broken Spanish to compensate.

    • Kieran Maynard

      Find French speakers and talk to them!

  • 11tatic

    Can you read Tagalog? Kaya mo ba magbasa ng Tagalog? I am having troubles with my Japanese. I am going to have an interview for the senior high school entrance examination. I am not yet great but I understand it. I can`t make friends in my junior high school right now and I am going to graduate on March.

  • http://chinese-breeze.com/ Dan French Poole

    In my experience, at least, as long as you keep learning a language (any language), then your ability in the ones you aren’t use don’t tend to decrease that much – in fact they often tend to get better and grow by themselves. You may get a little rusty, but within a day of speaking it again you will be better than ever. I can speak French, English, Spanish and am learning Chinese (I have a blog about my experiences learning Chinese). Maybe, like you say, Benny, the fact that you learn them so fast contributes to how quickly you forget them! I have quite a few friends that went on exchange in high school, and despite having zero prior knowledge of the language, came very fluent indeed, but a year later were making all kinds of simple mistakes.

    I’m convinced that as long as you are learning languages, you won’t forget the ones you don’t use much, at least as long as you review them every now and again.

  • http://www.zarachiron.com/ Zara Chiron

    My way is to make the language a part of my life. I create a life in the language that I could never get rid of so that the language always stays with me. I do this through connections and experiences that are filled with passion, emotions and memories that touch and shape me in a profound way. True friendships, romantic relationships etc… I hang on to the people and the experiences so that they remain a part of my life – even if from a distance or with a weaker presence. I know that if I lose the language then I lose them along with it – and the motivation behind it stronger so that I consistently keep them a part of my life (no matter the form – by email, phone, skype etc.) and the language stays alive within me.

  • Ash

    If you want to pursue multilingualism in a very pleasant environment, might I recommend Costa Rica? You won’t regret it. One drawback, there are many ppl, natives included, who are bilingual in English and will want to use you for practice. Check out Benny’s posts, I would say, on safe travel and avoiding English practice-mongering. Buena suerte et bonne chance!

  • Fripon

    Hi, I just would like to say thank you for this article.

    I’m French and I’m a bit preoccupied because – as arrogant as we are – I thought I was pretty good at speaking English but an hour ago a Dutch man told me direction to the Eiffel Tower. I was so hesitant, so awkward… in fact I was also ashamed of not knowing exactly where was this French symbol in the city in which I use to live now for more than 5 years.

    And this happened although I have learn it for years, I traveled, and I use it as a computer programmer !

    My wife is Brasilian and struggling with french language so I have to speak way too often in portuguese. That’s pretty frustrating. I hope she’ll progress.

    Also, few minutes before the Dutch man, I helped a Mexican girl and I felt so ashamed because I tried to speak to her and only portuguese words was getting outside of my mouth.

    I’m also learning Italian now, not by my own but in a class.

    I’m very fond of what you write because I also have this appetite of learning more and more, but it’s a bit depressing if we forget it, isn’t it ? :-/

    Don’t you think basis of the language are store within our brain, and the problem is just that we don’t give access to it easily ? Like doing bike ? :)