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Can you lose a language you haven't spoken in a while?


True2marie
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After moving from Puerto Rico back to the mainland of U.S., I didn't speak Spanish for a while. I just spoke my native language of English. Suddenly, I noticed myself struggling to remember certain words in Spanish. It made me feel as though I might lose this language all together. Then, I began to speak it again and everything came back.

Can you lose a language you haven't spoken in a while? Or, is it just lying dormant waiting for you to recall it?

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I think it definitely depends on how well you knew the language as well as how long you haven't used it.

Both my parents are Chinese so as a child I did speak a lot of Chinese to family. However when I was young, we moved to an English speaking country where I only ever spoke English as my parents spoke English to me as well. As a result of speaking only English for years I did forget basically all the Chinese I knew.

However as I was learning the language I found that I was not completely relearning it. I tended to pick up the language faster than my peers as I did still have some basic knowledge in the back of my mind.

I think if you were completely fluent or close to fluent in Spanish and it hasn't been too long since you've used it I do think it is probably lying dormant in your mind. However it would be a great idea to try speak some Spanish once in awhile to practice it as well as refresh your memory.

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Definitely. It's not a joke when they say: ''use it or lose it'', at least when it refers to a language you have learnt in the past.  By experience I can tell you that is really easy to start forgetting words and phrases easily.  I use english daily, but ever since I lost my old job (writing articles for a web site), I've noticed I've forgotten a lot words I had learnt preciously.  All because I no longer use them!!  It's amazing how fast this kind of things can happen, huh!

Sadly our brain is a tricky machine, you need to stimulate it... or else you will lose it all.  Same happens with other subjects, like for example math.  I used to be really good at math, but now I've forgotten a lot of what I learnt in the past.  I'm not surprised tho... since I no longer use math (other than the basic operations required in my daily life).

Keeping a language alive in your mind requires more than just using it everyday; you actually need to go beyond: work hard on expanding your vocabulary and work on your weaknesses. It's a constant struggle actually.

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If you haven't spoken a language for quite a while which can mean not being able to use it in years, you may have difficulty speaking it again but I believe you will not truly lose it. :) Your native tongue will always stick with you no matter where in the world you roam. I don't believe those who have immigrated in another country for just 3 yrs. and yet they claim they have totally forgotten how to speak their mother language. :)

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Language, like every single acquired skill and ability, rusts from disuse over time. If you don't practice it daily or at least weekly, you will start losing it bit by bit. But fortunately to know, if you then re-start at one point and learn it, it will be a little easier because you will regain some of your own memories and knowledge of it, as long as you stimulate your mind and think about what you used to know.

The brain is a wonderful thing isn't it?

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If you were born and raised in a certain country and spoke that language until you were 8 or 9 yrs. old, chances are, you won't forget that language. But if you migrated quite early and did not have sufficient time to be fully immersed in that language, then for sure you will forget that certain language.

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I learned French as a kid. We only used it occasionally in class and though at that time, I could construct complete sentences in French, once I stopped taking the lessons, I began forgetting the language. Right now, all I can manage is "bonjour" and nothing more. . .

So I believe if you don't speak a language for a long time even if it's your native language, you'll start struggling to construct correct sentences. . .and if it takes much longer, you may actually lose it [though you may understand it anyway].

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I feel like, if you have learned the language well enough, there are certain fundamental words and phrases that you will never forget because they are used so often. However, the lesser used details will slowly disappear if you do not use the language.

This will also vary depending on what age you started learning the language. Chinese is my native tongue, and, even though I only use it now a couple of times a year with my family, I still know the language well enough to converse and read a little. However, I lost a lot of progress from Spanish, which I started in middle school, when I barely used it for two years.

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Scientifically speaking, what you know about the language is stored inside the long-term memory of your brain. Therefore, you have not truly "lost" it. It is just that you need the right triggers to bring it out. Therefore, I suggest that you immerse yourself into an environment that exclusively speaks that language to pick it up again.

Both my parents are Chinese so as a child I did speak a lot of Chinese to family. However when I was young, we moved to an English speaking country where I only ever spoke English as my parents spoke English to me as well. As a result of speaking only English for years I did forget basically all the Chinese I knew.

I have an example similar to this:

An Indian friend of mine was born in Singapore. He claims to have known Chinese at an early age but has since forgotten it completely since moving to the United States. This may be an example that contests my previous view if it is actually true.

I have to agree with most of the other responses that you may forget the language, but I am sure that relearning it is easier because the language is actually stored in your long-term memory. Thus, the right triggers are necessary to bring the language back into full swing.

Sometimes, I find myself forgetting words or phrases when I am learning another language because it just slips out of my mind. That is why in the course of learning a foreign language, constant review of what you already know is necessary. Language is a bit like math because you always build on what you already know, thus entailing consistent review.

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I know it's harder for adults to learn a foreign language, but it's even harder for them to loose that language once they have learnt it. It really depends on the depth of one's experience with the language over weeks, months, and years, and also on one's memory capacity. A mere accident can delete all of one's language knowledge.

I do believe however that once we've gotten a good grasp of a language, even after we haven't spoken it for a long while, we will recall the language once we go back into the environment where we interact with native speakers.  :tongue:

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Yes! I didn't use Spanish for a year, after close 4 years in high school, and I could not remember much. It took me a good 6 months to get any sort of comfort level back. I'm still struggling (and frustrated!) with how much i've forgotten.

So keep using it! Some people might be able to recall the information easily, but I imagine those people would be in the minority.

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Hi True2Marie,

It is possible to lose a language once you don't use or speak them for a long while. Even greater of a possibility of losing a language if you show no interest in it, or if the language is of no use to a current situation.

When I was younger I was able to have easy conversations in Spanish and Cantonese. And after I moved to other countries with completely different languages or cultures for many years, I completely abandoned my previous languages. Once abandoned, I haven't been able to speak or even remember those languages. Years later - POOF. What I have learnt was gone, and were replaced by new languages.

However, it is also possible to resurrect or regain a forgotten language back. If you got interest or if you got the intention of bringing a lost language back, then it can be revived. Like how it is possible to lose a language, it is equally possible to get a language back.

Though I lost my Spanish, I'm still able to recognize a few words, phrases and sentences.

And though I lost my ability to speak in fluent Cantonese, I'm still able to understand them.

Losing and Regaining a Language is like finding a lost jewel in a messy room.

The Messy Room would be our Mind; the Jewel would be that Lost Language.

If the Jewel still shines in the messy room, we can spot its brightness... and we can bring it back.

Good luck.

Regards,

The Antiquarian.

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I think that if you don't practice a language regularly you can lose some parts of the language. Even if it is your mother language, I've seen cases of emigrants that after 20 to 30 years away from their home country, they can struggle to speak the language, they certainly start speaking with an accent from their new country. But I don't think that in this case they forget the meaning of most words... they just lose fluency :)

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I think it definitely depends on how well you knew the language as well as how long you haven't used it.

Both my parents are Chinese so as a child I did speak a lot of Chinese to family. However when I was young, we moved to an English speaking country where I only ever spoke English as my parents spoke English to me as well. As a result of speaking only English for years I did forget basically all the Chinese I knew.

However as I was learning the language I found that I was not completely relearning it. I tended to pick up the language faster than my peers as I did still have some basic knowledge in the back of my mind.

I think if you were completely fluent or close to fluent in Spanish and it hasn't been too long since you've used it I do think it is probably lying dormant in your mind. However it would be a great idea to try speak some Spanish once in awhile to practice it as well as refresh your memory.

These kinds of stories make me sad. I don't know why parents would completely let their children's other language skills die when they move to a country that speaks a different language. I guess maybe they feel they're doing their child a favor by forcing them to be fluent in the new language, but I really see it as the opposite. It's truly a disservice to the child, and it seems like it would take all that much effort to maintain both languages.

Maybe in situations like this they could alternate languages between days spoken at home or something? I guess maybe I'm speaking ignorantly, as I've never been in this situation, but if there was an opportunity for my child to easily become bilingual, I'd act on it.

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I think it definitely depends on how well you knew the language as well as how long you haven't used it.

Both my parents are Chinese so as a child I did speak a lot of Chinese to family. However when I was young, we moved to an English speaking country where I only ever spoke English as my parents spoke English to me as well. As a result of speaking only English for years I did forget basically all the Chinese I knew...

I think so too.  I have several aunts, uncles, and cousins in the States and they've been there for 20 - 30 years.  My aunts/uncles still speak fluent Filipino while my cousins can only understand it and can only speak a few words.  So I think even though forgot to speak (fluent) Chinese, you can still understand and say a few Chinese words right?  :grin:

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I do not think if you were any way proficient, you will lose a language totally.  Like anything else though, without practice I am sure you would forget some words and would not be as proficient at speaking or writing.  I would try to keep in practice, by either books, movies or interacting though to stay in shape.

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I think it's absolutely possible to lose a language that you haven't used in a while or are not actively using. I studied French for roughly 4 years. Once out of school though I didn't really have anyone to use the language with. Sort of like what you described, I went through something similar. I would struggle to remember even some of the most basic vocab words. Forums are a good place to keep languages alive though!

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I learned French as a kid. We only used it occasionally in class and though at that time, I could construct complete sentences in French, once I stopped taking the lessons, I began forgetting the language. Right now, all I can manage is "bonjour" and nothing more. . .

I spoke German fluently as a kid. I can ever recall being able to read German too. My father was stationed in Frankfurt, but we didn't live on the Post. We lived in town with a German family. I don't remember any German except for a few words.

I do believe that it's somewhere inside my brain. I would love to be able to access it.

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I don't know if you can lose it completely...but I do think you can definitely lose fluency in it. I haven't spoken Spanish in years and now I struggle with it, conversing and reading especially. It really is a shame but it's one of those things you have to practice to keep, at least in my own experience.

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Having only learned Spanish in school, I find that when I'm outside of that classroom environment the lack of speaking it definitely hinders my knowledge of the language.  I find myself thinking to myself in Spanish as I'm walking around to try to keep my mind sharp  :tongue:

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