Forgetting and relearning languages
On speaking Japanese for the first time in years.
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People who hear of my love for languages sometimes ask me how many languages I speak. I find that question difficult to answer because the answer fluctuates. In particular, while reading skills seem to remain mostly stable over time, speaking skills deteriorate if you don’t use them.
Further, if you study several languages, they can interfere with each other — for example, I was speaking Japanese last night and said está bien for “that’s good” because I had spoken Spanish a few hours earlier.
Luckily, items in one’s long-term memory that go dormant can be revived. I haven’t used Italian extensively since 2006, when I studied abroad in Pisa, so my spoken Italian skills feel rusty almost to the point of being lost. But I know that with a few weeks of review and a few conversations in Italian or days in Italy, I would recover most of those skills.
I am not as courageous about speaking other languages as I was in high school or college. I’m afraid of the accumulated rust. Social anxiety and feelings of perfectionism — e.g., “I’m not as good as I once was, so maybe I shouldn’t try” — lead me to shy away from speaking opportunities.
But I’ve recently been on a language kick and felt a rekindling of my old desire to be a polyglot. A few weeks ago, therefore, I visited Meetup.com to find local Japanese and Esperanto speaking groups, and I signed up for a Japan–U.S. networking event.
That event took place last night. Nora asked beforehand whether I was excited, and the honest answer was “no.” I was terrified, as I haven’t spoken Japanese in years and didn’t want to feel incompetent. I caught myself looking for excuses to avoid the event.
But I went through with it anyway, and I had a blast. The event used innovative software called Remo in which you can visit different virtual tables and talk with whoever is sitting at each table. I ended up having fun conversations with two people across the ocean: a Japanese homemaker and a retiree who cleans parks. We switched between Japanese and English so that each of us could practice the other’s language.
At first, I felt that frustrating barrier in which you know what you want to say, but can’t find the deep-buried words. You feel you have forgotten even the basics. But as I listened to my Japanese conversation partners, I started thinking again in the language, and the dam suddenly broke: I could speak again. The skill is still there in my mental “muscle memory.”
I didn’t just reawaken my Japanese skills, however. I overcame fear and stepped outside my comfort zone. That is the only way to grow.
Ryan McCarl is an attorney and educator in Los Angeles who is committed to lifelong learning and growth. If you’d like to receive my new posts by email, please click the button below to subscribe. Subscriptions are free unless you choose to pay: