Steve and Alex – Forgetting Languages

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Steve: Hi Alex.

Alex: Hi there Steve.

Steve: So, what do we want to talk about today here?

It’s still August.

It’s still summer.

I gather they’ve got a tremendous heat wave in Central Europe.

Alex: Oh, do they now?

Steve: Yeah.

Alex: I guess it’s moved over from eastern North America then.

Steve: I don’t know.

Like now, as you know, I’ve started into Czech, so I read the Czech newspaper.

Alex: Right.

Steve: I wasn’t even aware of it, but in Prague the temperature is like over 35°.

Alex: Oh, really.

Steve: And they had an article that in Italy it’s over 40°.

Alex: Oh, wow.

Steve: It’s some kind of a heat wave that’s coming across from North Africa.

Alex: Oh, wow, interesting.

Steve: But I notice the temperature in northern Europe, like in Sweden, was quite cool.

It looked like it was like 10° or something up there.

But, yeah, you know one thing that’s of interest; you mentioned to me that your sister got married.

Alex: Yes, she did.

Steve: And the in-laws are French speaking, so you’ve had to do something to brush up your French.

Tell us about that.

Alex: I would say that they speak English to a degree, but it’s very limited still.

Steve: Right.

Alex: So it’s not out of necessity per se, but it’s really out of interest and wanting to connect with them better, spending time with them, talking to them.

I learned French in high school for four years.

Steve: Right.

Alex: And it’s been four years since then and, basically, haven’t used it at all, maybe once every six months or something like that.

Steve: Right.

Alex: Like really not enough to do anything with it, but now that I’m presented with this situation I have, again, the motivation and a desire to start learning again.

And what I’ve found is that words that I had learned really long ago that I assumed I had forgotten start kind of coming back to me and I remember them.

Steve: Right.

Alex: I hear things that I haven’t heard in half a decade, but I’m like oh, I know what that means.

And I’m really surprising myself, because I didn’t expect this to be the case.

Steve: Well, I think, first of all, the fact that you had only four years of French, because there are people, certainly in eastern Canada, who have 10 years of French and still can’t speak after leaving school.

But, yeah, that’s interesting.

I mean it just points out again how strong a factor motivation is.

Alex: Absolutely.

And I would say one thing too that’s interesting is I had heard people say that forgetting languages, yeah, it happens, you forget it, but when you go back to it you pick it up quickly, but I hadn’t really had a hands-on experience with that.

So I kind of knew in my head that that was true, but I didn’t have the experience to back it up.

And so in that, one of the things with Korean, I’ve been studying Korean now for four years, I’ve been scared to put Korean down because even though I know that, yeah, you can relearn languages or pick it up again quickly, in the back of my mind I was still a bit scared if I stopped studying Korean it’s going to degrade very quickly and I’m not going to be able to say anything and so on and so forth.

And now that I get back into French I’m thinking that’s not true at all.

Steve: Well, you know, it may sound like magic, but I think that the degree to which we are emotionally connected to the language; in other words, we like it, we’re motivated to learn it, we associate it with positive experiences.

All of these things have a tremendous impact because, basically, I believe all of the exposure we’ve had to the language is somewhere in our brain.

It’s there.

It hasn’t gone, we just can’t retrieve it.

The more positive, the more confident, the more we want to, all of these things help us retrieve it.

It doesn’t go away.

I’m convinced of that.

The other thing that I can tell you if you’re worried about forgetting your Korean, every time I have left a language alone for however long a period of time, when I come back to it within a short period of time I’m better than I was before.

I’m better.

It just sounds ridiculous, sounds unbelievable, but it’s true.

I mean I notice recently that my Russian has improved.

I mean a number of my tutors commented on it.

Alex: Oh, really?

Steve: Like wow, has your Russian ever improved.

And there are only two possible reasons.

One is the sort of delayed effect of my having spent two weeks in Russia, which I believe is there because I don’t believe that when we go there and we’re surrounded by the language that we instantly improve.

We do instantly improve, to some extent, but there is also an ongoing sort of — I call it the “baking in the oven” — gestation period that continues after.

So that’s one thing.

But the other thing is that I’ve now spent a month on Czech.

Not very much, because I’ve had my hockey tournament and I’m still doing my Russian.

An hour a day on Czech and not even every day, but I have started focusing on another language.

The consequence is that my Russian is better.

It’s a bit like if you’re lifting weights that are fairly heavy for you and now you go to lifting weights that are even heavier.

When you go back to the first set of weights that seemed tough for you all of a sudden they seem light.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: I am convinced.

I have no scientific background or support for this, but I believe that that is the case.

There’s no question.

If I go to another language, which is now difficult because it’s new and I’m struggling, blah, blah, blah, I go back to that first language and I’m better.

Not immediately, there’s a little rustiness.

I’ve forgotten some words, but within a very short period of time I’m much better.

Alex: Yeah.

Today is, what, Wednesday.

My sister got married less than a week ago; five days ago.

Steve: Yeah.

Alex: But I first met my brother-in-law’s family like eight-nine days ago; eight days ago we’ll call it.

And eight days ago when I first met them I said a couple words in French and I was like man, my French is terrible.

I really need to practice and get it back, start studying and so on and so forth.

Within the period of a week, I found, surprisingly, I myself am really shocked at it, that I’m communicating with them in French and expressing ideas and saying things that I would have never expected myself to be able to say within a week.

Steve: And probably all the time you were studying it in school, you had no great motivation to speak French.

So you’re probably using it now in a more meaningful way and, because it’s meaningful to you, you are forcing yourself to find those words and find those neuro connections that are there from what you did in school.

So yeah, no, some people complain, how do you maintain languages?

People say they forget their languages.

I mean I think you have to leave them for a long, long time like 50 years.

Like, yeah, 50 years, yeah; a few years, no.

I know, for example, I studied Chinese in Hong Kong and then we lived in Japan for nine years.

I hardly spoke Chinese for nine years, hardly spoke it.

I went for a trip to China and very quickly my Chinese was better than it ever was; sounds strange.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: I’ve mentioned this on my blog on a couple of occasions and on every occasion people have come back and said yeah.

I thought I was the only one.

That’s true.

I mean it may not be true for everyone, but it’s true for a lot of people.

True for a lot of people, so I would not worry.

If you set your Korean aside and worked on Chinese or French or whatever for six months, you would go back to Korean and you’d do better.

Alex: Yeah.

I think that’s an interesting thing, too, to take it from another perspective, is if you’ve been studying a language for a long time and you’re feeling what we talked about before, the doldrums or whatever, it’s good to take a break because that may in fact give you some time to process all that and refresh yourself with some other stuff and you go back to it with a new outlook.

Steve: Absolutely.

I read a book on the brain and it suggested that in terms of learning we need two things, we need repetition and we need novelty.

The brain likes novelty.

The brain likes new stuff, but the brain also like a certain amount of repetition so that those neurons… What is it?

Neurons set fire together… I don’t what the story is, but you need to create the repetition.

You need to groove the path between the neurons, but you also need novelty.

So, even within the same language, I like to alternate.

Like with my Czech right now, I alternate doing some very difficult stuff.

This is an audio book where I’m literally looking up every word and then easy stuff such as members of our community — Yardo and others — have created for me.

So I alternate between the easy and the more difficult and I think that’s good for the brain.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: So the ultimate alternative, let’s say, to the language you’re focused on is a different language.

Alex: Right.

Steve: So, yeah, I’m sure that would work, but motivation is so key. It reminds me.

Someone mentioned on our forum about how in Hungary the education authorities had decided that because Hungary has such a low level of bilingualism their solution is to not teach English at school as the first foreign language because it’s too easy and rather to introduce another language, say a romance language, which according to these educational authorities has more grammar or more structure and therefore is more difficult and then it would be easy for them to learn English.

I just can’t believe how people can… Beneath it is a certain elitism, a certain snobbishness.

We Hungarians are going to be more clever than anyone else.

The fact of the matter is most people are motivated to learn English because it means jobs.

It means a chance to go and study abroad.

It means if you learn English you can go to Finland, you can go to Portugal, you can go to China and Japan and you can communicate.

People want to learn English, so why wouldn’t you let people study the language they want to learn because if they’re motivated they’re going to learn.

I mean those that want to learn another foreign language, once they’ve convinced themselves that they can learn one foreign language, they’ll go after the second one.

I can’t believe that they would basically introduce coercion, because we know it doesn’t work.

Here in Canada most people don’t learn French at school.

Although there’s a great big quilt trip, you must learn French.

It’s the national language, official language.

We have this ridiculous commissioner for official languages who wants to insist that you can’t get to university if you can’t speak French.

What for?

If a guy wants to be a doctor in northern B.C.

he doesn’t want French.

Maybe he’s interested in Chinese or Spanish.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: You’re going to throw a big guilt trip on him and you think that’s going to make him learn? I don’t think so.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: Anyway. So, all good stuff.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: And, obviously, if you have a chance to use it during the day that’s fine.

I don’t have that opportunity in my Czech, but I’ve discovered, first of all, a tremendous amount of content that’s been created by our members at LingQ and then there’s Radio Prague, where they’ve got archives of stuff, audio and text.

I’ve just been importing that into LingQ and then I got this audio book The Good Soldier Svejk.

Alex: Oh really, yeah.

Steve: That book is like five inches thick.

Between the audio and importing the text in LingQ I’m set for six months, at least.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: Along the way if I find some victims, Czech speakers wandering around town here, I’ll attack them.

Alex: Yeah.

That’s one thing, too, where I know that this glory period of them being here, being able to spend so many hours in a day with them, is not going to last forever.

Steve: Right.

Alex: But it does serve as a very good motivation to kind of get me back into it and to get me interested then in looking up different things and reading and listening more.

When I get a chance to go to France or when I get a chance to come back here and we meet up again or even when we connect on Skype or on Facebook that there’s always going to be that constant motivation to be able to connect with my new family-in-law.

Steve: How’s your sister’s French, by the way?

Alex: Hers is okay.

Steve: So how does she communicate with her husband?

Alex: Well, he speaks English.

Steve: Oh, I see.

Alex: So he’s been in Canada for several years now.

Steve: Right.

Alex: He still has, obviously, a French accent when he speaks in English, but his English is quite good.

Steve: And where does his family live?

Alex: Well, some of them still live in Cameroon.

Steve: Right.

Alex: But a lot of them live in France as well.

Steve: Oh, okay.

Alex: Then some of them also live in Montreal.

Steve: Oh, okay.

Alex: So he’s kind of the frontiersman out here in B.C.

Steve: Right.

Alex: They’re kind of all over the place.

Steve: What does he do?

Alex: He goes to a school right now, but he’s also a coach for volleyball.

Steve: Oh, good.

Alex: So he, interestingly enough…

Steve: Where is he coaching, let me ask?

Alex: At Columbia Bible College.

Steve: Okay.

Alex: It’s in Abbotsford.

Steve: Right.

Alex: But he was on the National Team for Cameroon, which won the Gold, and his older brother was also on the National Team for Cameroon.

Steve: Cameroon won the Gold Medal?

Alex: For volleyball, but this was a few years ago.

Steve: Oh, a few years ago, in what, in the World Championships or something?

Alex: Something like that, yeah.

And his brother did the same thing.

Steve: Yeah. So is he tall then?

Alex: Well, he’s not. His brother is quite big, probably about 6’2”.

Steve: Right.

Alex: Maybe 105 kilograms or something like that, 230-240 pounds, big, big guy.

Steve: Yeah.

Alex: But my sister’s husband now he’s maybe 5’9”-5’10” but he’s in very good shape.

Steve: He’s the setup guy.

Alex: Yeah. He can jump like no other. So it’s cool.

I mean it’s good to have a good relationship with him, but to see his family then and see him with his family and connect with them through that.

Steve: Right.

Alex: It’s a very in-my-face motivator.

Steve: Well, sure, for sure.

And, of course, living in Canada I mean we do have radio and television in French.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: And there are lots of movies in French and, of course, nowadays on the Internet.

It doesn’t matter where you are you can find stuff.

Yeah, in that sense, even in Czech I haven’t done more than scratch the surface.

I bet you there’s more stuff out there, movies, you know?

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: But I want to wait until I understand them a little better and then I’m going to watch Czech movies and all that good stuff.

Alex: Bit by bit.

Steve: Yeah. So, yeah, I think the fact is that we don’t forget languages.

The key thing is that we remain motivated.

I believe that our determination and however positively we feel about the language, all of these things have a tremendous influence on our ability to remember and our ability to speak and our success in language learning.

Alex: Right.

Steve: And a little bit of changing up a few languages, I don’t think it does any harm.

Alex: Yeah.

Steve: We’ll see. Maybe in six months you’ll have forgotten all your Korean.

Alex: We’ll see.

Steve: Okay.

Alex: All right, thanks for listening.

Steve: Okay, thank you. Bye.

Alex: Bye.

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