Forgetting a language

My blog documented the first year of trying to acquire Korean language.  Now, I am wondering about maintaining and forgetting of language.  What do experienced language learners do to maintain the knowledge they have acquired?  How quickly is knowledge lost?

Use it or lose it

The obvious way to maintain language is to continue to use the language. If you have reached conversational level, or have a pen pal you are writing, then perhaps just using the language is enough. If not, can watching dramas, reading articles, and listening to audio be enough to keep the language active in your brain? How often do you need to work your flashcards for words you have already learned? How do you assure you are reviewing all the grammar you learned?  Do active vs. passive affect

The brain retains

Clearly, there are people who learn a language to conversational level, then don’t use it, and forget a lot. Does it mean they will relearn it quickly when the need for that language arrives again? Perhaps the act of learning a language has changed neural pathways in your brain, so they will be more easily reactivated later, like an adopted child who loses their first language, but whose unconscious brain retains the language years later.

Lazy Student? Or just unmotivated

I was voracious at first with Korean.  I listened only to Korean shows.  I searched the internet for new websites.  I lusted after Korean textbooks.  I quite simply doused myself in Korean all day.  It took me a long time to start to get a rhythm for learning that was effective, so much of that effort was wasted.  However, the enthusiasm carried me along when my focus and skill were sorely lacking.

After nine months, and 2 Korean classes online, I was exhausted.  I thought I would take a break from being driven at someone else’s fast pace to explore on my own.  I expected I would review all the material I had covered and consolidate the knowledge.  I expected to work on my blog, proceed through the many Korean textbooks and audio I owned, and do the Korean Digital Academy Level 3 videos on my own.  I was sure I would keep up with my morning flashcards.  I thought I would practice more sentence writing with my Korean friends.

In fact, what I did was slack on learning Korean.  Flashcards became sporadic.   Reviewing Active Korean textbooks became boring.  I listened to a lot of audio, but I wasn’t writing sentences, and soon found my hard won grammar and conjugation skills slipping.  Then the day came when I was in front of a Korean speaker, I opened my mouth, and nothing came out.  I had become too rusty.  My Korean had run away.

Without intending it, I got to experiment on how quickly I would forget Korean, and it was FAST.

Where did I go wrong?  I never intended to stop.  These were my key errors.

  1. I changed my routine.  Instead of daily morning flashcards, I switched to morning chanting.
  2. I added new interests.  Curiosity about Korean religion led to many trips to explore Zen Buddhism.  I decided to learn the Heart Sutra.  Interest in hanja characters writing led to hours spent doing calligraphy.   Practice to learn how to handle a brush led to Chinese brush painting, watercolors, and drawing.  New interests took time from my Korean language studies.
  3. I stuck with textbooks I found boring.  I should have realized that just going back to the beginning and reviewing old material in a new book was not going to keep my interest.  I was determined to slog through.  When there was nothing new to learn, drilling flashcards became a chore.
  4. I allowed English entertainment back into my life.  Watching TV shows was a relief from all the studying, but quickly took over time I had been using more productively.  Cancel Netflix!

I know that I can’t do it all.  I have to carefully weigh my options.  It would probably be easy to stop watching English TV, but giving up the time I am spending walking in the woods, gardening, Chinese calligraphy, and drawing will be more difficult.  To reignite my Korean language passion, I will have to give up some things.  My inner voice already is bargaining that it should be put off until the Fall, leaving me August to continue my road trips and outdoor adventures.  Until I have motivation to go further with Korean language, it is easier to just float along following my whims, which obviously are not letting me study enough to retain and enhance my language.

My blog is Hanguk Babble.  How could I choose a direction that is not studying Korean?

How do long term language learners stay motivated?  How do they balance new interest with maintaining what has already been learned?  What has derailed your study efforts?

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3 Responses to Forgetting a language

  1. alina says:

    So I have gone through this a few times: once with Korean and twice(?) in Japanese.

    Korean –> Studied in college two years (2011-2012), finished college (2012), dabbled but never studied seriously after that, started studying again this year
    Japanese –> Studied 4 years HS (2004-2008), 2.5ish years of no study, 2 years of college (2011-2012), worked in a Japanese company for about 2 years (2012-2014), currently not studying at all (and losing my vocabulary and grammar fast! T_T)

    In regards to your questions:

    Can watching dramas, reading articles, and listening to audio be enough to keep the language active in your brain?
    I suppose it would depend on how much you can pick up to begin with? I imagine if you can’t understand anything it would be a little more difficult but still it would get you used to listening to the language. In my case, I put the news on in the mornings or watch a few variety shows (mostly as background noise, not really trying too had to pay attention). I did pick up a few patterns and I guess my intonation improved a bit so that helped.

    How often do you need to work your flashcards for words you have already learned?
    The last time I’ve actively done flash cards was back in college. I use Semper as a phone lock to force myself to look at vocabulary sometimes but in general I just never use them. I think it’s different from person to person but just straight memorization doesn’t help me much with actually using the words. If I learn the word in context I can remember it much better. So one of my favorite ways to practice is writing journals on Lang-8 where I can actually use the vocabulary.

    How do you assure you are reviewing all the grammar you learned?
    As much as I like grammar I don’t really make it a point to constantly review strictly grammar points even when I’m actively studying. Instead I usually try to just use it and if I’m wrong or confused I’ll go back to my book to understand it better? Even if it’s been a long time and I forgot grammar it usually just takes a quick review to remember it. (Maybe grammar is just my stronger point)

    Do active vs. passive affect
    Maybe there was more to this question but I never used to believe in passive studying but this year surprised me. I hardly studied for the first half of the year and rarely spoke in Korean. But somehow I suddenly started speaking Korean like 60% of the time and it’s fairly comfortable.

    Does it mean they will relearn it quickly when the need for that language arrives again?
    In my experience, yes. I didn’t really have to REALLY relearn all the grammar that I had forgotten and the vocabulary took a little more work but almost everything came back to me more quickly than it took to learn. I think the knowledge is still there, just rusty.

    How do long term language learners stay motivated?
    Good question, still trying to figure that out.I like classes because they give structure but sometimes it’s hard to find a class that matches your level (and price point). Recently the TOPIK made me at least practice my writing?;; but I’m not really sure about a long term commitment. Will think about it;;

    How do they balance new interest with maintaining what has already been learned?
    Perhaps pursuing some hobbies along with your passive studies can help (e.g. painting while listening to a podcast or putting on Korean audio when you go on your road trips)

    What has derailed your study efforts?
    Laziness. Difficult to see progress. Hockey season.

    Sorry for the wall of text. Good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Evita says:

    I would say that you shouldn’t feel guilty about your other activities and shouldn’t necessarily drop them. If you get more enjoyment out of practicing to write Chinese characters then what’s wrong with that? It’s all a question of motivation. If you start to miss the Korean language, if you feel enthusiastic about studying it again then it will naturally take precedence over your other activities. If not then don’t force it. Self-studying a language you don’t really want to study makes no sense if there’s no external reason forcing you to do it.

    As for flashcards, I know you don’t like Anki but it’s been an invaluable tool for me. It’s the most efficient way to learn vocabulary and it also doesn’t let you forget the language. As long as you keep your deck active, you will be reviewing everything you might forget. If you have a smartphone then you can do your reviews even while walking in the woods. There’s no downside to it.

    If you want to stop forgetting Korean but don’t want to spend much time on it then creating an Anki deck containing the words and phrases you know is my recommendation. Anki was invented to keep people from forgetting stuff, there is no better tool for this. And once you’re done with the words you know, you might start adding words you don’t know yet. Just a few, maybe 2-3 a day.

    If you don’t want to create a deck yourself, you can use my decks that I’ve shared on Ankiweb. They’re very good, especially the sentence deck will be good for reviewing grammar.

    Liked by 1 person

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