Losing Language Skills – How It Happens and What You Can Do to Slow the Process

Language is very much a social phenomenon – after all, if we didn’t have other people around to bounce words and sentences off of, how could we tell that our knowledge of a certain language wasn’t slowly decaying? And without other people to communicate with, where is the motivation to keep a language fresh in your mind?

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Forgetting Languages Learned at School

Most people are familiar with the experience of taking a few semesters of French or German in college only to completely forget all they learnt once their exams are over. Conversely, many have described their ability to speak and understand a long-ignored language spontaneously return to them once they’re in a situation where they’re surrounded by that language and have no choice but to practice it.

When Lack of Motivation Contributes to Memory Loss

Many people, mainly travellers or people whose work takes them overseas for extended periods of time, will take intensive crash courses in a language and be able to communicate proficiently for the time they’re abroad. But once they return home, with no interest in practicing a language that has no direct meaning for them anymore, they soon forget everything they learnt. This is also the case when it comes to those studying a language in school; if getting good grades is your sole motivation to learn Chinese, once you’re done with classes, you will quickly forget everything you know.

How Your Native Language Can Start to Vanish

An even stranger form of language deterioration is when you start to lose your native language. This can happen in the case of people living in isolation from society for many years or, in a less drastic way, as a result of travelling through many countries for an extended period of time. Many backpackers who out of necessity are forced to become polyglots, with a surface understanding of eight or nine languages, find themselves able to ask for directions to a hotel in Indonesian and book a train ticket in Hungarian but unable to remember simple words in their native tongues. Similarly, a native English speaker who spends years in different non-English speaking countries, associating primarily with other expats, may find themselves speaking mostly pidgin English mixed with a hodgepodge of words from various corners of the globe. Even after returning to their home countries, they will often use vocabulary and grammar from other languages when talking with others in English, which may create a language barrier very similar to the one they experienced abroad.

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What You Can Do to Retain a Language

While the best way to keep your language skills up to par is direct and prolonged contact with native speakers, sometimes that’s just not possible. Fortunately, the internet is full of language resources: foreign language newspapers, podcasts, blogs, forums, and TV stations can all help keep you from going rusty. If you prefer more human interaction, there are always language meet-up groups for people in your area who want to practice speaking and listening. No matter the extra steps you take, check out language courses in your area to keep your skills fresh. Anxious to dive into a foreign language once again? Take a free online language level test with instant results to see how good your foreign language skills are.