Why Is Hard-Learned Language So Easily Forgotten?

New York via Pexels

Bangkok via Wikimedia

Coming to the end of a two-month stay in my hometown of New York, away from my home in Thailand, I overheard three young Thai women on holiday walking along the West Side Promenade talking about the city. It was a normal enough discussion of the buildings, the river, the lack of public toilets, all trivial things that any visitor might discuss. None of that was bewildering. However, what did surprise me though was what I could not understand. Taking into account that they were a bit younger and quite obviously from Bangkok, of course, there’s always going to be interference, but I pictured this same scenario back in Thailand, probably understanding everything, and I became perplexed.

For two months I’ve barely heard Thai and only spoke it on one occasion with an older lady who I met in a small Thai shop in Woodside, Queens who kept looking at the Thai soap opera on television to see if I was some how channeling the language. It must be a rare occasion that a forty-something American guy comes in and shoots the breeze with her in her own tongue. Two months isn’t long and, though weeks go by while I’m in Thailand that I don’t speak English, I feel like I’m losing my grasp on Thai after only having left so few weeks ago.

Photo via Wikipedia

Come again, please?

Learning a language is seen as a positive, even egalitarian effort, always congratulated, but no one really ever talks about forgetting language. When I hear someone say ‘Oh, my French has gone to hell’, what does that actually mean? A language hard-learned should be language hard-forgotten.

The study of forgetting language is a burgeoning one as the world becomes ever more cross pollinated with words. Language loss occurs mostly when the domain of a language is decreased or erased so that the speaker becomes a dormant bi-lingual or, in plain speak, when a person is separated from the language, no longer speaking or hearing it on a regular basis. Language loss is most readily marked by word replacement, that is using words from the dominant language to fill in gaps in the dormant one.

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I do this mentally when speaking Spanish. A language that I spoke passably well once but have had little opportunity to use in the last fifteen years. These days, when struggling to string sentences together the speech center in my brain will gravitate to the Thai equivalent of the Spanish word for ‘I want’. This combination, however, gets me nowhere of course. Something like perdón, señor, dónde está… uh uh … hang Nam? doesn’t get me very far.

Even when dormant bilinguals lose their ability to form sentences they generally retain their ability to broadly understand. The language is still there. Like an athlete’s muscle memory, the brain retains comprehension of the whole, but the fine points of vocabulary and pronunciation must be honed anew.

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Can we get our words back?

Case in point. An Australian friend of mine who works for the U.N. in North Western Thailand was born from Burmese Immigrant parents who spoke with him in Burmese until he was around five or six and then stopped. They decided that they would only speak English with their children  as a matter of respect to the country that took them in, so David didn’t speak the language for over twenty years until he was stationed in Mae Sot on the Thai-Burma border and began working in the vast immigrants camps there. He found right away his comprehension was okay and grew each day. When he spoke, even tentatively at first, the words felt right, the intonation and tone was good and he improved so quickly that he was conversant in a couple of months, much to the consternation of his colleagues with no previous background, but had been diligently studying the language, some for years.

We know now that studying languages is excellent exercise for the brain with benefits across the learning spectrum and that dormant languages come back very quickly for those who re-immerse themselves in them and I know that my momentary lapse in Thai is just that momentary, that when I land at Suvarnabhumi, I’ll be straight back in it, for better or worse.

If you find yourself losing your gift of gap in Deutsch, Japanese or Asante just sit down with a podcast or watch a movie or football game, maybe find a local who speaks it and hash out some convo. You’ll see that it might be half gibberish at first but you’ll find yourself quickly settling in.