Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Getting Language Back

The other day, I needed a flashlight. Sure enough, the batteries in my regular one were dead. I did have another flashlight, one of those models where you turn a crank to charge the built in battery. I tend to avoid this one because you have to turn the crank a full two minutes to get it to do anything if you haven’t used it in a while. But in this case, it’s all that was to hand so I cranked it up and after a few minutes I had a weak beam, but enough for my purpose. Two minutes later, the light had faded so I had to crank it up again. But after the third crank, it gave pretty decent light and it lasted until my work was done.

There’s a lesson here in terms of language skills. If you let a language lie dormant, it’s not going to come back all at once. But that doesn’t mean there’s no point. Sometimes it takes a while to recharge your skills. But if you do enough to activate them, take it as far as you can and then push on, you’ll be amazed to discover how much is not in fact forgotten, but is just waiting to come to light again.

For the past few months, I’ve been idly traipsing among the various Indo-European families, trying to get a sense of how some of the languages I’ve studied fit together. It’s no great surprise that French, Spanish and Italian come easily – I’m always speaking and working with them. On the other hand, I’ve been astonished to see my Latin pop back in little time. And looking at New Testament Greek, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much of my Classical Greek vocabulary still lingers.

Right now, I believe, people are focused on the holiday season with Christmas just around the corner. But we’re almost to the new year, and resolution season again. Now might be an amusing time to review last year’s resolutions and maybe use time on the airplane or time in the car to re-awaken that language you were going to learn this year for sure. Or you could fall asleep listening to Michel Thomas instead of the big game on a Sunday afternoon. Whatever the case, as long as you’re breathing, language skills you’ve once acquired are never truly dead. So if you had language learning plans that didn’t work out, don’t despair. Use any free time you can spare this holiday season to reawaken that language you really meant to learn last year and come January 1st you can feel good about resolving to continue your studies.


Anonymous Jim Morrison said...

>> Whatever the case, as long as you’re breathing, language skills you’ve once acquired are never truly dead.

I know this is a bit different but I was wondering what you think about this.
I have two friends (twins) who lived in france until the age of six when their family moved to England. When they arrived in England, they spoke better French than English but then they forgot all their French within a few months. The reason they 'forgot' it was that they got teased at school for being French, and they just rejected it and refused to speak French anymore.
My question is this. Is that French still in their heads or has it been erased. If it is there, could it be brought out and back into use by hypnosis or something.
I am not expecting you to have a definitive answer on this but I was just wondering what you think.


1:03 AM  
OpenID ichestudiolangues said...

Great comparison! I think I will be "cranking up" my French soon. I was in French immersion in Canada from Grade Primary to Grade 12, but it has been lying dormant for nearly four years. It would be too much of a waste to not re-awaken it!

3:51 PM  
Blogger gbarto said...

Good luck cranking up. I think you'll be surprised at how quickly things come back, but make sure to stick with it until they do.

I'm glad you're not expecting a definitive answer!

I'm pretty sure your friends have some latent French stuff running around in there. However, because they were young when they left, what they have to recover wouldn't likely be too sophisticated. I'd expect, though, that they would get the hang of certain sentence patterns more quickly than pure non-natives, and that certain words would mean more to them than just the English translation. I had a co-worker who learned, then forgot, French in her childhood. But when she took French lessons, she started speaking quite quickly. But when you tap into it at that level, it's not like it pops back all at once. But certain elements ought to come more naturally even though they might have the feel of being learned for the first time.

As for hypnosis: In my very limited hypnosis training, I've learned two things: 1) mental blocks are powerful things; 2) the brain has a lot of stuff in there. There are some people who even make claims about past life regression, which suggests that finding something from this life, however early, ought to be, well, child's play. However, in my experience, memory and language can be tricky. For example, if I think back to living in France, I remember a lot of phone conversations with my parents in French, even though we spoke English - I only had the conversation in English once, but I told people about it in French 3 or 4 times, and it was in recounting it that I had to organize my memory of it.

People often have the impression that if you put someone under hypnosis, all their memories are instantly accessible. But in reality, hypnotherapy can take months or years. What it mainly does is limit the extent to which the subconscious blocks or hides things that wouldn't come out in regular analysis. I've no idea if you could recover your French identity under hypnosis, but I'm pretty sure it would be quicker just to learn French and be happy for the patterns and words that come to you more easily than they come to purely native Anglophones.

8:41 PM  

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