Reviving neglected languages

I often meet people who say that they studied a language or two in school, but have since forgotten most of what they knew as they’ve had little need and few opportunities to speak the language(s). To some extent I’m in a similar position – since finishing school I have rarely spoken French or German, though I did spend three months working in France during my year off before going to university, and my ability in them atrophied. However, since I started going to a French conversation group a few years ago, I have regained my fluency in French – it came back quite quickly, and the polyglot conversation group I started this month gives me opportunities to use my German, which is starting to come back, after nearly 25 years of neglect.

Last week I was wondering why many people seem to find it hard to recover neglected languages they’re learnt in the past, even after only a few years. A friend suggested that my ability to do this might be because I’ve been actively learning languages more or less ever since I was 11 years old, and that by keeping the bits of my brain involved with learning and using foreign languages helps to keep all the languages in there at least partly active. I think there is something in this, as I remember reading about experiments in which bilingual individuals were put in brain scanners, which found that when the bilinguals were focused on one language – hearing it, reading it or speaking it – their other language was also active.

Another factor is how thoroughly you learnt a language in the first place – if you learnt it to a high level, then reviving it later is likely to be easier than if you only acquired a basic knowledge of it. For example I spent only a few months learning Italian and Portuguese on my own, quite a few years ago, and though I can still sort of read and understand them, I can only speak them to a very limited extent. I would need to start again with them really as my knowledge of them is shallow, so there’s not much to revive.

Have you studied languages in the past, neglected them for some time, then managed to revive them?

This entry was posted in French, German, Language, Language learning.

9 Responses to Reviving neglected languages

  1. Roger Bowden says:

    It seems to me that rather like the pattern of wallpaper when you were five. Neglected language is not forgotten but merely filed away and mislaid over time. I have been surprised when obliged to speak in a long unused language that some words reappear as if from nowhere. I am sure the wallpaper and vocabularies are memories awaiting reactivisation and a light dusting down.

  2. Jim M. says:

    The classic example of this is Barack Obama. He spoke Indonesian for most of each day between the ages of six and ten, and his mother was afraid that his ability to speak English would decline. Then, since age ten, hardly a word. I had the chance once to meet him, in 2007, and hit him with a few sentences of Indonesian. Still sorry I didn’t do it.

  3. pennifer says:

    We lived in Germany for two years when I was 8-10 years old. I was totally fluent by the time we left and studied it in high school and a bit in college. Then it was totally trampled underneath Russian and a healthy dose of Serbian/Croatian/Bosnian which I spoke pretty passably for a few years. My German comes back relatively quickly when I’m in a German environment now, but I speak it with a bizarre Russian-American accent.

  4. Andrew says:

    I think this is very plausible considering the fact that people who have already learned at least one second language have a much easier time learning additional ones than somebody learning a foreign language who has never done so before. In other words: the first one is always the hardest.


  5. Luke says:

    I studied Polish in a university classroom situation for two semesters about 16 years ago. Every once in a blue moon I run into a Polish speaker, and although I’m really rusty at first, it does come back surprisingly quickly despite the time. Then again, I’ve studied many languages over the years, several to much greater fluency than the Polish, so I think there’s something to the idea that constantly engaging your language learning circuits can better keep alive languages you haven’t used in ages.

  6. andreb says:

    Does anyone have tips on reviving those neglected languages? I seem to have particular trouble reviving languages if I don’t have not only contact with the language, but not enough interesting and engaging contact with the language. Thoughts?

  7. Joe Mock says:

    My niece was a fluent Spanish speaker when she left Spain at the age of six. When she returned a few years later she had completely forgotten it and was really dismayed that she could not communicate with her former friends. It took her a bit to regain fluency – the whole summer, in fact. To things struck me: one, that her pronunciation was native right from the start, and second, that when she’d come running up to me to ask what something meant, it was more often a complete phrase that she asked, not an individual word.

  8. In Ireland, people learn Irish (or Gaelic as it’s commonly known) from the age of 4 right up to 18, however most people can’t speak a word of it once they leave school. The only people who can actually speak Irish are the ones who go to a place called the Gaeltacht (an all-Irish speaking area) during the summer holidays, where they must speak only Irish for the whole time they are there. Kids who spend there summers here generally tend to have a much higher level of Irish than those who don’t.

    The moral of the story being that I believe if you don’t “live” a language then it is very hard to keep it nurtured. Languages need to be constantly consolidated. That is why so many people are going on language immersion programs abroad. I’m sure if I didn’t speak English every day I would eventually start forgetting it (as was happening slowly when I lived in Spain).

  9. Jerry says:

    I moved to Canada from the Netherlands at age 18 and have spoken English ever since. Occasionally, when I need to speak Dutch I am having a really hard time; I can understand it, but speaking is a struggle for me. I grew up speaking the Groningen (low Saxon) dialect, which is a bit easier for me. (but only a bit). I used to speak fairly good German, but that skill has all but disappeared due to non-use. Reading it is still OK. I would expect, however, if I were in a Dutch or German speaking environment, it would come back in a reasonable time. But since that scenario is unlikely, we’ll never know.

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