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.

5 Secrets to Learning More Vocabulary

Do you sometimes feel like you aren’t learning enough words? Vocabulary is the biggest sticking point for communication. Sometimes if you are learning a language that’s very similar to another language you already speak, such as Portuguese and Spanish, you might not feel as hindered by a lack of vocabulary. A lot of times those similarities will allow you a large amount of passive comprehension and the ability to “fake it” to be understood. We all know that’s not ideal, but it makes the language less emotionally challenging.

But sometimes you don’t have this luxury. Learning vocabulary for my Turkish Mission, for example, there were a few loan words from English and French, but not many, and it’s still a barrier when I’m trying to read a newspaper. Likewise the English cognates with Gaelic are not always very apparent, and I actively have to commit a lot of new words to memory.

Memorizing words (or better yet, memorizing sentences) can feel like a chore, and it’s easy to think that means you just need to take lists and start crunching them out. But this doesn’t always work. Sometimes you get stuck on material. Sometimes you abandon a list (or language) entirely. Overall, it can seem like you aren’t making progress or like your progress isn’t what it could be.

Maybe this means you should look at what you are doing and make a change.

Here I’ve assembled a list of 5 of my own secrets when I’m memorizing words and phrases. These have all increased my retention and allowed me to learn more words at a time:

Enjoy Yourself!

I know I’ve said this before, but it’s worth saying again: You learn it when you love it. Nothing stops you from learning material faster than disinterest. That can be at the macro level of not being interested in a language, or not being interested in the subject matter. But if you aren’t interested, it is a good idea to ask yourself why and figure out if it’s worth it to keep going.

A great example to me is the ever-present “Going to the Doctor” chapter in language learning books. The bore me. I never use that material, and if I need to go to a doctor I will look up the material then. Maybe it would be different if I were really interested in medicine or if I wanted to be a doctor in the country. But as it is, it’s not interesting to me and I’m not going to spend my time slogging through it. So what do I do? I read the chapter for the grammar points and memorize a few key words/phrases (i.e. “I need to go to the doctor”, “My head hurts”, “hospital”). Then I move on to the next chapter. The rest of it I can learn later.

On the other hand, if you are like me, you really enjoy the chapters on food and interactions at street markets. They give me material I want to put in to practice immediately. They entice me to learn more about the culture. The same goes for music and poetry — I want to sing songs and read poetry, so I use them as tools to learn vocabulary and grammar.

So prioritize what interests you, what makes you excited.

Lose it or Use it

There are of course subjects and vocabulary items I learn that don’t make me giddy. I’m not super excited about transportation systems. Nor about birthday parties (I try to avoid my own, in fact). But these subjects come up in lessons and are full of dull yet relevant information.

They are also full of dull and irrelevant information. Your job as a language learner is discern which information is relevant to you and which isn’t.

I walk, take the bus, own a car, use ferries to travel around my state, and love to take trains. Do I need to know these words if I want to talk about my life. Absolutely. These are words I will use, despite how interesting they may or may not be. I will also tell people I work as a programmer and talk to them about my passions for language and education. So it stands to reason that I need to know vocabulary from these subjects because I will use them as well.

As for the aforementioned doctor’s office vocabulary, this is material I may use and even then only rarely. Other topics I personally put in the “may use” category are (1) renting an apartment and (2) making an appointment with someone at an office. Sure, I may need them, but I can put that off for later.

Focus on the vocabulary you will use over the vocabulary you may use. And if you don’t think you will use it at all (or almost never), just lose it.

Diversity is Good!

We tend to learn vocabulary and phrases in batches, usually by subject matter. It’s helpful when you have a dialogue where the people can talk about a subject, and it lets you focus on an interest or a relevant topic. At first this might seem like a good thing. There is, however a pretty significant problem here. If things are too similar, it is easy to get them confused.

For example, if you are learning the word for a chair, armchair, stool, and bench might slow you down. It’s not impossible, to learn them all at once, and sometimes you just need to do them together so you can be more discerning. But this is the kind of thing that works better with real life context and a lot of repetition. This is what we might call a semantic similarity, and it’s really the basis around a lot of vocabulary lists out there.

It’s also a way that psychologists purposely interfere with memory during experiments (see this study presented recently at the Polyglot Conference in NYC). You’ll note they also use words that sound similar to hinder memorization. So how do you work around this? Add a little variety, and space out learning similar concepts. For example, if you are learning the words for objects around the house, maybe you learn the words for chair, desk, mug, and coffee today, and a week or two later come back to stool, table, glass, and wine. Or you might want to split up words like troop and truce or flee and free, since they sound so similar.

I also find that learning a little bit of several subjects at a time can help keep confusion down. A few sentences about food might go well with a few about art and a few about family.

Slow but Steady Wins the Race

“But, Alexander,” you might be thinking, “I thought the point was to learn faster!” That’s right. I’m not suggesting you slow down and stop learning your language. I’m suggesting you take a little more time with the materials, especially with new material. There’s a lot of great information out there about how to memorize material, but a common thread with all of it is that you remember things better the more attention you give to them.

I don’t just mean looking at the word and saying it over and over again. I mean really looking at the word, writing it down or feeling it as you sign it. Paying attention to the subtle letters or gestures and really thinking about the whole word. Otherwise you are just going through the motions, and wasting the time you are putting in to it.

Think about it this way

Put one hand behind your back, and don’t look at it. Can you describe it? Do you know what the skin looks like? Which knuckles have hair on them? Where any freckles or moles may be? Why not? Don’t you see your hands hundreds of times a day?! As Sherlock Holmes said, “you see, but you do not observe.” Well start observing your words and phrases.

This is why I prefer to do my flash cards by hand over downloaded or typed lists in my phone (though I might still use my phone from time to time). The same holds for my preference for a physical notebook. I’m taking the time to observe right from the beginning.

Languages for Dessert

I like to make my flash cards slowly over a few days, adding new batches here and there as the time or thought arises. But then, I find that the best time for me to study my flash cards, especially the new ones, is as I’m winding down for bed.

Sleep still isn’t understood all that well. But some recent studies have found that while you sleep your brain will review what you were studying right before bed. People who are making new mental connections (like memorizing vocabulary) see a greater retention rate if they study right before bed than if they study earlier in the day.

That same benefit didn’t happen when people were asked to remember relations between objects they already associated together (like pen and paper) suggesting that this doesn’t work as well for reviewing material you’ve already learned.

What are your secrets?

These tricks have all helped me greatly increase how much material I can learn, and how quickly I learn a language. Have you tried any of them, and do they work for you? What else have you discovered helps you remember your languages better?

Let me know in the comments.