How to forget a language in 1 month

Or how I learned Vietnamese in 3 months, and why I can barely speak it now.

I recently tweeted about my exploits learning, forgetting, and then failing to speak Vietnamese:

There’s a huge appeal in the idea of learning a language quickly, and contrary to what skeptics may say, it is possible.

I’ve done it!

But what we don’t see discussed very much on polyglot blogs and in polyglot videos, is that it’s also very easy to forget that language quickly. Sometimes you even forget it faster than you learned it in the first place!

Yes, many times that language isn’t completely gone. A lot of it is “hibernating,” waiting for you to re-immerse yourself or dive back in. But even then there’s a lot of work you have to do to try and catch up with where you were.

Why do we forget so quickly?

This isn’t just a matter of “Use it or lose it.” Though that is definitely a factor, it’s more a factor of time.

We forget things that we’ve learned based on two key factors:

  1. How deeply we have elaborated on what we have learned
  2. How long we have been remembering what we have learned

The first factor explains why it is that we don’t remember nonsensical information as well as information that we do understand.

The second factor, how long we’ve been remembering information, is the basis behinds SRS (spaced repetition systems) for flash cards and reviewing material. Each memory is like a muscle. By remembering something, we “work out” that memory. But also like a muscle, you get stronger by working out consistently over time, but not by doing one big workout all at once. Your brain needs time to grow that memory and make it stick.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t learn quickly. You most definitely can. It just means that you can’t remember quickly.

How can you remember what you’ve learned?

One common piece of advice I hear is that you will remember the language better if you attain an advanced level. I agree about this, but not just because the language will be at a higher level, magically making it stick. Maybe there is some truth to that happening since more connections get made the more “holistic” your understanding of the language becomes. But what’s more important is that the higher your level in a language is, the more easily and naturally you can incorporate that language into your daily life.

Think about it this way: when you are a low level speaker of a language, you have to actively learn the language in order to engage what you’ve already learned. This usually means the same books, podcasts, apps, or conversation partners you may be using. But if you attain a level akin to daily life, you put no more effort in reviewing a language than you do in living your life.

My personal example is French, by far the language I speak best after English. I read the news, watch TV/movies/podcasts, and speak with many friends in French. This isn’t practice time. This is just my normal life. When you get to a higher level, your normal life becomes practice time, just like it’s been for your native language your whole life.

Go for the Long Haul!

You might be saying, “But that sounds a lot like Use-it-or-lose-it!” Alright, you got me. In some ways I suppose it is. The important takeaway here, however, it’s less important how much you use it, but over how long a span of time. When it comes to remembering, consistency trumps speed. It’s more important that you keep practicing, even if it’s just a little bit every day, so that your brain gets practice remembering.

If a person goes from 0 to A2 in 1 month and stops speaking the language, and another person learns the same amount in 12 months, the person who took a whole year will remember what they’ve learned for much longer. It’s just neuroscience in action. Of course, if another person goes from 0 to A2 in 1 month but then continues to practice and use the language for the remaining 11 months, that will produce the best outcome, which is why it’s best to do language projects when you are going to be able to then make the language a part of your life afterwards.

This is, unfortunately why so many of us have lists of languages we have studied and just can’t speak. I marked them as “A-” languages on my Polyglot Gathering name tag. My friend Shaun over at Ultimate Language likes to call them “Dishonorable Mentions”

My list includes Farsi, Japanese, Arabic, Kreyol. What about you?

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop

So whatever you may be doing for your current language projects, just keep going. Make sure you can make the language something you get to use and review constantly. Incorporate it into your life. Because if you don’t, you may lose it faster than you think.

Back in the US of A

After 4 months of traveling, I am back in Seattle for a few days before driving across the United States. A lot has happened since my last post, much of which will deserve its own post. In the meantime, here is a quick summary:

Now, as I get my affairs in order to continue my journey by exploring more of my own country, I’m also getting back on the horse for blog posts. I also plan to start doing more video uploads.

So where does that leave us for the second half of 2016? New projects, old languages, more surprises.

Stay tuned.

Motivation and a Change of Pace

It’s the end of January, and that means several things:

  • I have come to the end of my Gaelic Mission
  • It’s a new year, and with it I am changing the way I’m handling language learning
  • I’m about to embark on a new adventure

That’s a lot to cover, but I’ll try and do it quickly.

Mi agus a’ Ghàidhlig

After three months of Gaelic study, I have a lot to share. First and foremost, I must admit that I didn’t make my B2 goal. This isn’t surprising. But I didn’t even come close. I’d say I’m somewhere in the A2 range, though more so written than spoken. With all that time, you’d think I’d get farther, and I had hoped to, but I didn’t push as hard as I could have. I’m completely fine with this.

When I set out to learn Gaelic, I wanted to get to a B2 level so that I would have two things: (1) the ability to converse with people with relative ease and (2) a high enough level that I didn’t have to worry about losing the language too much if I were to get distracted by another language or just be unable to use my Gaelic for a while. This was an even greater concern given that I don’t live near much of a Gaelic speaking community.

I learned a lot of Gaelic, and my passive abilities went up enormously. But I learned more about how to learn languages, the value of communities, and how I personally approach my language studies.

As I mentioned before, connecting with the online community is invaluable if you want to learn Gaelic. Not only is there a wealth of people who want to learn and help you learn, but with so few speakers outside of the Gàidhealtachd (the Gaelic speaking regions of Scotland and Nova Scotia), it is really rare that you might find a lot of people to speak with. A large percentage of the community are heritage speakers, and they are all passionate about keeping the language alive. Connecting with them is a great way to connect with the culture.

But learning Gaelic has forced me to work harder to interpret the grammars, phonetics, and vocabularies of the language I’m learning. I’ve had to improvise new ways to approach problems I’m having as I study. It’s also been a great language to use to prove to myself the value in memorizing sentences versus words (though I actually advocate BOTH). Most importantly, Gaelic has made me consider the way I have been approaching language learning over the past year.

The Great Language Experiment

For the past year or so, I have been trying to learn languages in burst – small, controlled missions. Some of them are documented here, such as my Turkish and Gaelic Missions. Some of them I haven’t blogged, such as my attempt last winter at learning Japanese. But much like the projects by Benny the Irish Polyglot, they were attempts at singular, focused, massive language immersions.

Though in every case I have learned a lot, they have all been partial failures for me. They weren’t failures however because of what I could or couldn’t accomplish in that time. They were failures because they weren’t what I wanted.

In each case, after the project, I moved on to another project and ended up forgetting a lot of what I learned (My Turkish is deplorable for what it was in October). What’s more, I always felt bad practicing other languages when I had one language that I was focusing on. It’s true that if you want to learn a language quickly, the fastest way is to focus on that one language with intensity. But I know myself and I burn out, get bored, or both. This even happens with languages I love. In some regards it happened with Gaelic, and I slowed down how much I wanted to work on it in the last month.

The main reason for this is because so much of the discussion about language learning right now is focused on getting to the goal: “I want to speak at this level”, “I want to have the ability to converse”, “I want to be able to read a book” etc. This is important, and there are times that this is the best way to approach a language. But not everyone is motivated by the end results. For people who don’t actually enjoy the process of learning a language (Benny is a self-admitted example of this), the GOAL-focused approach is probably very beneficial. If you are more excited at being ABLE to speak a language and what you will be able to DO with it, then by all means focus on a goal and work your butt off to get through the tough parts and make it to the end.

I on the other hand, like several other people I know, am more interested in the journey than the destination. I am more motivated by my experience doing something than by where I will end up. And when it comes to language learning, I love learning the language itself more than getting to some eventual “level” in that language.

For the past year, I have been experimenting with the goal oriented and focused approach, and I can definitively say it isn’t for me. I can also say that, though I have had some fun, I also don’t think my languages have progressed as much this last year as they have when I have taken a enjoy-the-journey approach to my languages.

Most of my languages I learned by simply enjoying them while I learned other languages on the side. It hasn’t been the fastest method, but it has been the most fun. And that’s why I learn languages, because I love learning languages. So it’s time for me to go back to that.

Adventure Time

This takes me to the present moment. My wife and I are currently packing up our apartment and moving all of our things into storage. In 5 days, we will be on a plane to Vietnam, where we plan to spend the next 3 months.

Do I intend to learn Vietnamese while we’re there? Absolutely! I will probably even dive in and obsessively learn it for a large part of the trip. And I will definitely blog about it. But am I setting a goal for it? Not in the least. I know that I’ll enjoy learning the language, as well as geeking out about the language, so I’ll be content with whatever level I end up at.

I also have several other languages that I care about (including Gaelic), that I intend to continue using, reading, studying, listening to, singing. Why? Because I like them. I’m also fine with taking my time to learn them if it means I go at a pace that is right for me. The point is, I’m going to go with the flow.

Do what you Love

It’s important that we do what we love. And doing what we love depends on taking the time and making the effort to be more self aware — we have to learn what we love.

What do you love? What motivates you to learn a language? Are you more goal oriented or experience oriented? Do you prefer to learn one language at a time or many? Does it matter to you if you have a community to speak with or not? Share with me in the comments.

Write Your Own Grammar: A Gaelic Case Study

Today I wanted to talk about something I think is pretty important for how to learn grammar, but that I never hear anyone talking about. And since today puts me I’m in the middle of a Scottish Gaelic Mission, I’ve decided to use my experience with Scottish Gaelic as an example.

That being said, the concepts apply to all languages, and I’m sure they will help everyone who’s trying to learn a language, especially when they encounter difficulties in the grammar.

Take Your Lessons with a Grain of Salt

Where would we be without our lovely language books, podcasts, and video courses? They are great! The distill a lot of information, making it easier for us to learn our languages. Although it is certainly possible to learn languages without materials, it is significantly harder. I vote that we keep the using the materials that work for us.

But all language materials have an inherent problem: they have to try and be “one size fits all.” Any language book, for example, is written to be purchased and used by as many people as possible. This means that it can’t address everyone’s particular needs or their particular learning styles. This is why a teacher is so helpful. A good teacher will learn what you need and present the material in a way that is best for you.

But the onus isn’t all on the teacher. As a learner, it’s your job to figure out what works best for you. It’s also your job to engage with what you are learning. And sometimes that means being critical of the very materials you are using to learn.

Now, I don’t mean criticizing them and tossing them aside. I mean looking to see if there is a better way that the lessons are presenting the information to you. And that means digging deeper.

There is no time this is more apparent than when you are learning grammar.

Languages are complicated. It’s a fact. That’s part of what makes it fun to learn them. But it’s also part of what makes it difficult. And a lot of that complexity is in the grammar.

A lot of the time, lessons will make you learn things in ways that seem overly complicated or dismissive because they don’t want to overload you with too much information at once. This usually comes in the form of “You will learn about this in a few units, but for now just do X.” Sometimes you aren’t told a rule will come, but grammar is taught like it’s a series of exceptions. While this is helpful at moving you along, sometimes it adds complexity where it isn’t really there.

At these times, I tend to ignore the grammar. In my experience learning languages and studying linguistics, if it’s being presented as something complicated, it rarely is complicated. So, I make a note that something seems fishy, and I keep my eye out for more clues as to what is going on.

Gaelic Definite Articles

There is a great example of this over complication of grammar in the vast majority of Scottish Gaelic materials. The Definite Article (or essentially “the”).

Early on in your Gaelic studies, you learn that the definite article is an. But you start learning that an changes to things like a’, am, an t-, and a few other forms, all in different situations based on the first letter of the next word, the gender of the next word, or if there is a preposition before an. Very quickly, it starts to look complicated and full of exceptions. What’s interesting is that it seems like all of the Gaelic material out there handles the definite article that way.

That’s when I start to smell something fishy going on!

Well, it usually takes several chapters before you come across an explanation: Noun cases. The 3 main cases in Gaelic are the Nominative, the Dative, and the Genitive. (There’s a Vocative as well, but it’s really irrelevant here, so we can ignore it). And if you understand that most prepositions take the Dative case, and some take the Genitive case, most of those frustrating exceptions turn out to be rules.

Great! After all the hard work, the truth has been revealed. Thank goodness for the grammar. Now you can learn what was really going on. They all lived happily ever after. Right?

Make Your Own Grammar

The problem is that not only do a lot of students finally learn about things like these noun cases already confused and believing there are awful exceptions. But in the case of Gaelic, these cases are presented as a list of rules. In other words you aren’t asked to engage with the material, merely memorize it. This is when your job as a learner is to look at what you now know and see if there is a better way to present it.

After a little effort of looking in different books, I was able to compile this chart of Scottish Gaelic Definite Articles:

Gàidhlig Definite Articles
Gàidhlig definite articles organized by case, number, and gender

It’s a little disconcerting that I would have to compile that chart, or even have to put effort into finding a chart like that. (Not that I’m biased or anything). Merely constructing a chart for myself makes it easier to look up what form is used when / if I get confused.

But why stop there? The chart doesn’t necessarily help me if I don’t understand how to learn from it. Sure, before the chart it was hard to keep track of how many sets of articles there were to remember. And mathematically speaking, there would appear to be 9. A lot different from the seemingly endless exceptions.

However, my job isn’t over. Humans are pattern oriented. It’s in large part because we see patterns so easily that we can learn languages at all. Therefore, I need to scrutinize this chart to look for patterns that might make things easier. Some of you may have already seen it, but here’s a color coded chart to clear things up (pardon the awful colors – I wanted to make sure it was easier for people with color blindness):

Gàidhlig Definite Articles - Color Coded
Gàidhlig Definite Articles – Color Coded

Wow! There are only 4 different sets of definite articles for me to learn?!? This grammar pattern went from extremely complicated to a LOT easier. Now I can go to work coming up with good mnemonics and sample sentences to help me learn these rules better.

How come this isn’t explained in the textbooks? Well, it really doesn’t matter. The truth is that this chart may work really well for me and not for you. But that’s the key! I needed to be willing to ignore what the lessons was telling me about the grammar until I could figure out a way to make it make sense to me. I didn’t just let the the books tell me what to learn.

How do you make your own grammars?

What are some ways you have reworked grammar from your various language learning materials until it made sense? And if you are a Gaelic learner/speaker, do you find this chart as helpful as I do?

How are your language goals coming along?

Let me know in the comments!