How to reactivate languages we have learned and we seem to have forgotten

Did you know that languages we acquired from infancy or learned later can be re-activated at any time?

Even if we have the impression that we forgot all that we knew before, the process of reactivating them can be compared with muscle memory that allows us to ride a bike after years we didn’t practice, or play the piano after we stoped playing it for a long time. If we learned playing piano or ride a bike, or any other skill up to a certain proficiency, once we get back to it, our muscles remember what they need to do. And so does our brain and tongue and mouth, and our ear, when it comes to languages. The brain remembers the rules, our tongue and mouth helps articulate the sounds and words, and the ear helps us recognize them.

When people ask me how to reactivate a language they have learned before, I always ask:

• What is the reason for you to want to speak, read or write it again?
• If the reason is because you have to use it at work or because you’ll move to a country where the language is spoken, I ask : what did you like about that language?
• What are your memories of that language?
• What do you associate with the language?

The reason I ask this is because I experienced language attrition in my early twenties and later in my thirties again. The language was German, one of my L1s, the language my parents used to speak with me when I was a child. The reason I was losing it was because I didn’t like it, and I didn’t need it on a daily basis.– German has never been one of my favorite languages and the memories I associated with it were not very positive for several years which lead to this neglect.
I grew up in Italy and I perceived speaking German as something unpleasant and rather annoying. I was one of those children who would not want to respond in the home language. But as a teenager growing up in Italy I wanted to fit in and belong to the group.
The reason I started welcoming that language into my life again, was that I met other German speakers that were the kind of Germans I could relate to.
I also realized that I had missed speaking German, and discovered a side of the German language and literature that was pleasant.

But let’s go back to the questions:

If you want to reactivate a language, make sure to have a valid reason that is pleasant, enjoyable and that triggers curiosity. For me it was curiosity to learn more about my families history as well as contemporary literature and linguistics, movies, music etc. that made me focus on that language again.

I had good grades in German at school and was able to speak, distinguish different registers – formal, less formal and slang – read and write. I still could do read and write, no problem, but I was out of practice with speaking. Reactivating the language took me several weeks.

Let me share what helped me reactivate my languages.

1) Don’t expect to get back to where you’ve left in no time

Even if you still can read in that language or write emails or letters: getting back into the habit of using the language regularly needs adaptation. You need to make time for it, and invest time and energy.

2) Focus on topics you like
What you liked in the past, when you acquired or learned the language might not be appealing anymore. Choose to read books and texts that you are interested in, and determine what kind of vocabulary you want to use more frequently again.

3) Set your devices in the target language mode
I set all my devices in the language I want to support more. From the GPS to the operation system on my computer. I also watch movies, listen to music, play games in the language.

4) Talk to yourself in that language
Make it a habit to switch to the target language when you think about things you’re going to do, when you talk to yourself.
And try to talk aloud in order to get used to hearing yourself speaking that language again. Adjust the intonation. – It’s a very effective way to get the feeling of the language again!

5) Reduce code-mixing
At the beginning you might insert words of your most dominant language or languages into your target language. Try to take time to remember the word you would use in the target language instead.
If you notice that you are struggling with a certain kind of words – nouns, certain expressions, verbs, verb forms, adjectives or others – make a list of these words and form three to five sentences using these words right away.
For example, when I reactivated my English in my late thirties, I unconsciously mistakenly used “awesome” and “awful” interchangeably with the effect that you can imagine. I would say things like “that play was really awful! I so liked …” to the surprise of people around me, thinking I was slightly disturbed… Funnily awful had the meaning of awesome from 1300 until 1809, and this perfectly made sense to me: on a subconscious level I must have combined awe and full which clearly conveys a positive feeling and image in my head. But the meaning of this word clearly shifted and this shift had to take place for me too.
So what I did was to repeat sentences with awesome that mark the positive meaning, and play with the intonation of it and other sentences with awful with a clear negative meaning and another kind of intonation. – It helped.
If you make a list of the words you are struggling with, try to use them regularly in different contexts until you feel comfortable and confident using them.

6) Don’t feel ashamed when you struggle and make mistakes
When I restarted speaking French more regularly 3 years ago, I was shocked to see how little fluent I had become. – Unbelievable that after writing my PhD in French and most of my scientific articles in this language I would struggle speaking it! – But well, it  happened…
I started watching French TV channel, movies on Netflix and re-read to the x-st time novels and poetry and scientific articles.
Interestingly, my written French didn’t suffer as much as my oral conversational skills. The small talk and talking about every day things was what I mostly struggled with.
When I was asked to hold a talk in French, I noticed that didn’t need to prepare much as I still recalled the vocabulary and was still fluent in holding talks – and the topic was about linguistics/multilingualism.
As for every day conversations to flow again, I took the habit to sing along songs on spotify, watch movies and news in French, and spoke to myself in French whenever possible.

7) Give the language a place in your life again
I know that I don’t want to loose any of my languages again. I really feel the best, the most fulfilled when I can speak all my languages regularly. – I make sure to use at least three per day, and all of them throughout a week.
Giving all my languages all a place in my weekly life again, helps me to keep them all alive, and to enjoy them as often as I wish.
Maintaining them all – German, Italian, French, English, Swiss German and Dutch – is a real challenge for me. Especially because I want not only to speak them regularly, but also write and read in them – except Swiss German as it is an oral language.

When multilinguals are required to focus on one or two languages only due to work or to the linguistic environment they are living in, it requires considerable effort to keep them alive.

In the past 30 years I have experienced language attrition with all of my languages as I had major shifts that lead to the preference and dominance of one or two of them for extended period of time, and consequently the suffering of the other languages.

I know now how I can keep a certain balance among these languages and enjoy them all.

Have you reactivated a language that you had acquired or learned at some point?
Please let me know in the comments.

Read more:
Language Shift in Multilinguals

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