How to Relearn a Language from High School You Think You Forgot
As an English and Spanish teacher, I’ve heard many adult language learners say they wish they had paid more attention to the languages they studied in high school.
Growing up in the United States, mandatory language classes were a typical part of the “American high school” experience. For some of us, we were required to devote a year to mastering French grammar drills. For others, it was four semesters of Spanish verb conjugations and trying to understand the difference between tú and usted.
You had to take these classes in order to get your diploma, so you enrolled, completed assignments and passed. But then life got busy, and you had other classes to take. You wish you could have taken more, but time got in the way.
Or maybe you dreaded your language class and were thankful to close your textbook for good.
Regardless of your situation, you’re ready to revisit the language you studied in high school. And if you’re worried you forgot it, you’re not alone. This is a common fear that many adult language learners have.
However, I’m here to tell you it shouldn’t make you worry as much as you might think. Here’s why.
Table of contents
- Is It Possible to Relearn a Language?
- How Difficult Is It to Relearn a Language?
- How to Relearn a Language You Think You Forgot
Is It Possible to Relearn a Language?
Absolutely. No matter how old you are or how long it’s been since you last picked up a vocabulary flashcard, it’s possible to relearn a language you studied before.
You probably won’t start at the same level you were before you stopped taking classes, but you might be surprised at how much you remember.
While the old “use it or lose it” saying is true to some degree, you probably didn’t forget as much of the language as you think. In fact, some parts of the language will probably still be familiar to you, like:
- The alphabet (if it was different from the one you use in your native language)
- Basic verb conjugation
- Everyday vocabulary
- Pronunciation patterns
Once you start reviewing, it’s likely you’ll start remembering even more of what you studied before. That way, you’ll be able to make quick progress in the beginning.
How Difficult Is It to Relearn a Language?
Choosing to relearn a language is a big commitment. However, as with anything in life, whether or not your studies are difficult depends on your mindset, experience, preparation and expectations.
Positivity is contagious, even within your own thoughts. If you start relearning a language thinking it will be impossible, you’ll likely have a harder time enjoying your studies than if you went in with a different mindset.
This can be a difficult shift to make, especially if you had a negative experience with the language before. However, it’s worth the effort to examine your thoughts before you begin your studies. That way, you know your perspective and can adjust before you begin.
In my experience, though, the most important part of relearning a language is managing your expectations for yourself.
If you struggle with imposter syndrome, you might worry that you aren’t smart enough to study the language. You might also worry that you’ll never be able to master the language because you didn’t before.
These are lies.
It’s also important to remember that there is no “should” when it comes to relearning a language.
For example, when I’m studying a language, I’ll often find myself saying, “I should be farther along than this. I should know more by now.” This thought is likely to pop up when you’re relearning a language, especially if you start thinking about how much you would know if you hadn’t stopped studying in school.
My advice? Don’t even go there. There’s no use thinking about what could have happened. All you can do now is start where you are and grow from here.
How to Relearn a Language You Think You Forgot
Now that you’re in the right mindset, it’s time to look at specific steps you can take to relearn a language you think you forgot. I recommend you follow these steps before you restart your studies.
However, if you’ve already begun relearning a language, these tips are still valuable and can positively impact your study experience the second time around.
1. Identify Your “Why”
When I was in high school, I took four years of Spanish. I had taken a year of Spanish in middle school because it was the only language we could study, and I continued in high school because I didn’t want to start something new.
I took a year off in college before returning to the language – and eventually majoring in it, along with Italian. While I started studying Spanish because it was my only option, I eventually returned to it as an adult because I’d found my own personal reasons for pursuing the language.
In other words, I’d found my “why.”
I love to travel and learn about countries around the world, so studying Spanish became a way for me to connect with cultures and communities in Latin America. Because I spoke Spanish, I was able to study anthropology in Argentina, explore Mayan ruins in Mexico and travel by myself in Colombia.
Because I knew I wanted to have these experiences abroad, learning how to speak Spanish fluently was a priority for me.
Your “why” might look similar, or it might be completely different. Perhaps you’re revisiting German because you found out your ancestors come from Bavaria, and you want to connect with family there. Or maybe your job does business in Milan, and you need to speak Italian at work now.
Whatever your reason, it’s important that you can identify why you want to relearn the language in school. Being clear about your purpose will help you stay focused on the days when you don’t feel like studying anymore because you’re working toward a defined goal.
2. Remember What You Liked and Didn’t Like About the Language – And Then Forget It
Unfortunately, most of the people I know who stopped studying a language after high school did so because they didn’t like it. Usually, this has more to do with how the language was taught than it does with the language itself, though.
For example, maybe when you think of your sophomore language class, you remember spending hours filling out verb charts. This repetitive activity might have felt like a waste of time for you, and it influenced how you feel about French today.
On the other hand, you might remember specific aspects about the language that you enjoyed. For instance, maybe you loved learning about:
- Regional dialects
- Grammar rules
- Slang words
In either case, it’s important that you recognize what you did and didn’t like about your high school language experience.
Then, you can forget it.
Why? Because you’re not the same person anymore.
We can all think of things we hated as teenagers that we love now as adults. Our taste and opinions change as we get older, and our perspectives about languages are no different.
Regardless of how your relationship was with your target language in high school, it’s important that you recognize that you’re a different person now. Give yourself the opportunity to form a new relationship with the language.
You just might be surprised at how different your experience is this time around.
3. Set a Realistic Schedule You Can Stick To
One of the benefits of being an adult is that you probably have more control over your schedule than you did in high school.
As an adult language learner, you can use this new flexibility to your benefit. However, if you don’t plan in advance, you might forget to schedule it in your studies.
This is a problem I see often with my language students, especially if they plan to do the majority of their learning independently.
In high school, your language classes were scheduled for you. If you’re like me, they were probably built into your schedule an hour every day, Monday through Friday. Unless you enroll in an adult language class, this benefit won’t be available to you.
As a result, you’ll be responsible for creating a schedule you can realistically commit to.
In the beginning, it’s easy to set ambitious goals. That’s because our enthusiasm for the language is fresh, and we’re excited about getting started.
However, time passes, and our enthusiasm fades. Our schedules fill up with work and family commitments. Before you know it, a week or a month has passed, and you haven’t spoken a word of the language.
Fortunately, you can avoid this pitfall before you begin. The easiest way to do this is to set a language schedule you can commit to. While it’s best to study the language every day, set a routine that works best for you.
For example, if you know you work best in the morning, set aside 20 or 30 minutes before work where you can review grammar or vocabulary. If you’re most productive at night, be ready to come home after work and have a language conversation with a partner online.
If you can’t commit to every day, that’s okay, too. Just find a routine that works for your schedule and make sure you commit to it.
4. Find Resources That Resonate Best With You
Just like you didn’t have control over your language schedule in high school, you probably didn’t have a say in the study materials you used either. Often, these resources are chosen by the school or district you’re studying in. In other instances, the teacher might be able to choose the materials you use.
As an adult language learner, the decision is yours. This means you can choose resources that you like best.
For example, if you love reading, you can spend your time enjoying novels written in your target language. If you’re a music fan, you can spend time every day translating song lyrics and enjoying different musical genres.
If you prefer more traditional study materials, you can also use your learning style as a way to help you choose the resources you’ll use. If you’re a visual learner, you might benefit best from online videos that explain grammar points or vocabulary. If you’re an auditory learner, podcasts might be your best bet. They’re also a great way to improve your listening skills.
There’s no wrong way to study. Instead, by taking the time to assess your learning style and choose materials in advance, you can avoid wasting time as you try to find tools that work best for you.
5. Connect with the Culture
Depending on your high school, you may or may not have had opportunities to explore the culture connected with the language you studied. As an adult learner, I recommend you learn about the culture and language together.
By learning about culture, you can more effectively study your target language in context.
Because I know about Argentine history, for example, I understand why you’re more likely to hear vos in Buenos Aires than tú.
One of my favorite ways to learn about culture is to travel abroad and experience it for myself. However, it’s not the only way. If you can’t travel to another country right now, you can easily learn about a culture where your target language is spoken by:
- Visiting a restaurant in your community that serves food related to your target language.
- Watch movies or read books that were originally produced in your target language.
- Enjoy videos online from people who live in a country where your target language is spoken.
All of these are excellent ways to help you enjoy your target language in context.
Choosing to relearn a language you learned in high school can be a fun, fulfilling experience. With a little preparation in advance, you can help ensure your studies are even more successful a second time around.