Do We Ever Forget a Language Once Learned?

In high school I was shocked to hear that my mother’s friends could barely muster a sentence of French despite studying the language through university.  Six or more years poured into a language, and now they could barely string together six years.  I had started studying French at 14, Spanish at 15, aced almost every test, and thought that I could never forget the languages that came so easily to me.

I haven’t studied either language since I left high school, and nine years on I can still read the languages and understand conversation to an extent, but I doubt I could produce anything beyond what we learned in the first semester unless I took extensive time to think it through.  But language doesn’t all disappear.  Language is like a muscle – we build the muscles sinew by sinew. Exercising tones our language muscles, improves flexibility and flash reflexes.  If not regularly exercised it goes slack, our reflexes slow.  But the muscle is still there.  If I pick up a book in Spanish or overhear a conversation in French those muscles start quivering again.  I might not understand as much as I could when the muscle was exercised every day, but I haven’t completely lost the ability.  Each re-encounter with the language snaps the muscle and re-builds a few sinews, delays decline.

After five years of living in China – waking China, breathing China, eating China, sleeping China, dreaming China – I thought I could never lose my Chinese.  It was too ingrained, too much a part of every sinew of my body.  Years of speaking Chinese (some days – some weeks – that was all I spoke) had let the language seep into my system.  According to a friend, when feverish I even sleep-talked in Chinese. Using Chinese changed the way I saw the world, shifted my framework so much that I even sometimes borrowed Chinese modes of expressions when speaking in English.

And then I left China in the summer of 2013.  Originally just for a month, but I stayed the whole summer in Central Asia, before heading off to Turkey and Chicago (where I had a very negative experience with a Chinese department), and I haven’t been back to China since.  Living in Central Asia that summer it was like I began to shed China, began to shed all that stress and constrictions and necessity to be hyper-aware of my surroundings and physical sensitivity of being a foreigner often mistaken as Russian or Uyghur in Xinjiang and ironic negativity that all China expats use to stay afloat. And as I began to shed China, I began to re-develop my framework for analyzing the world around me.  Over the months the associations between everything I touched or saw and China experiences grew weaker; China’s magnetism weakened and I was free to make new associations.

I began to speak slower, to pause before taking up a word, to forget little expressions that had once seemed so commonplace.  Chinese was forgettable – it was simply a matter of mindset.  Living in the China mindset, I could not forget Chinese.  Leaving it, the language began to lose it’s grip.

But it’s still not a skill set I’ll lose overnight.  Last Friday we went to a couchsurfing meeting at a pub in Bishkek and I met a Kyrgyz man about my age who had done his studies in Tianjin.  He hadn’t met a Chinese-speaking westerner in Bishkek…ever, and I haven’t come across too many Kyrgyz who speak Chinese to an academic level, so we launched into a half an hour conversation.  Nope, not lost yet.

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3 thoughts on “Do We Ever Forget a Language Once Learned?

  1. I often wonder this. I always lament the fact that I can’t use my languages more. But I think it just make relearning easier and gives you a basic language knowledge to work with. Happy travels!

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