Use it or lose it: Can you forget your second language?

Learn languages August 30, 2023

You’ve worked hard, you’ve put in the time, and you’ve finally reached your ideal language level –– no one can take the achievement from you…Except maybe time! 

Forgetting a language over time is every student’s worst nightmare, but we’re here to set the record straight! Keep reading to find out the truth about losing your second language and what you can do about it.

Can you lose a second language? 

The human brain is an incredible thing. When we’re younger, it soaks up knowledge and skills like a sponge, retaining much of it throughout the rest of our lives. However, such a complex organ doesn’t come without limitations – skills and knowledge need to be used, or they’ll start to waste away and be forgotten (anyone who has come back to school from summer vacation can attest to this!), but can this be applied to languages? 

The short answer is: Yes

Language attrition is a term that refers to the loss of language skills experienced by a student after a period of disuse. Interestingly this can refer to both your second language and your native language (for example, in cases of first-generation immigrants).

Second-language attrition is common and supported by anecdotal evidence (For example, try asking your parents how much of their high school language skills they remember now!) and plenty of scientific research.  

As German researcher Schöpper-Grabe once observed:  “Almost everyone who has learned a foreign language shares the experience of forgetting the language skills they have acquired after a period of formal instruction”, thus it’s inevitable for language skills to start deteriorating if enough time passes without practise. 

But how long is “enough time” and how much can you expect to lose?

How long does it take to start forgetting your second language?

Language attrition begins to take hold when the student stops their language classes and leaves their immersive environment. Generally, this is at its worst within the first three years after finishing studies, but it can actually happen before!

In a 1985 study, children were given a six-week intensive French course and given a language assessment six months after completion. It found that, while students kept most of their reading and writing skills, there was a significant decline in many of the student’s fluency in both speaking and listening. 

Once you start to lose your second language, the process begins to “snowball” as you lose confidence and use the language less and less, meaning that after three years, you may find that you have very little recollection at all! 

Scary stuff right? Well, maybe not as scary as it seems…

How can you prevent the loss of your second language

Language learners are all different, and from all of the research we found above, there were a few ways in which students were able to minimise or even avoid losses in their second language. In some cases, these factors are impossible to control (for example: age –– younger students are generally more vulnerable to language attrition) There are certain factors that you can control:

Continued use: This may seem obvious, but the 1985 study we quoted above found that students who returned home to areas where they may continue to use their French (or at least be exposed to it) did not experience any significant difference to their language skills. So it can be assumed that using your language skills, even occasionally, can make a big difference!

Enthusiasm: Students who reported genuine interest and enthusiasm about the culture of their language are much more likely to retain their language skills than those who didn’t. This is likely because these students are more likely to consume media related to their target language. 

Proficiency: You may have heard an expression similar to “the bigger they are, the harder they fall” but that doesn’t appear to be the case with languages! In fact, to quote a study about language attrition in Spanish students: “(the results) showed that those individuals with the highest Spanish proficiency before attrition onset were least affected by forgetting”. This is likely because students who are more proficient will have a stronger grasp of grammatical rules and syntax and, therefore will be less likely to forget them.

The best course to prevent language attrition

There are several ways that you can prevent the loss of your second language, one of the most effective being a language programme with us!

Studying with ESL involves travelling to a country that speaks your target language natively and taking daily language lessons. As you explore the country and progress in your lessons, you’ll get continued use of all areas of the skill –– with academic skills in the classroom and practical skills in the real world. This makes it the perfect way to “dust off” your skills and refresh all areas of your target language.

Furthermore, when you’re exposed to a language in a country that speaks it natively, it will no longer be just an academic subject, you’ll actually start to live it! As you consume local media, make local friends, try local food, and gain a meaningful connection with the country –– you’ll likely leave with the enthusiasm to continue studying. 

Lastly, while studying in your own country is a great start to learning a language, travelling to a country that speaks it natively is the best way to make real progress in your language journey. When you combine the high-quality language lessons of an ESL programme with the intensive immersion of spending free time in your host country, you’re all but guaranteed to make more progress than you would at home.

Ready to reclaim your language skills ?

Check out our programmes to find the most immersive courses at the lowest prices

Final thoughts

Losing your language isn’t like losing a sock. While the latter may stay lost in the void of your laundry room for all eternity –– your language skills are really just a few classes away! 

Most researchers agree that while students will likely experience language attrition if they neglect to practise (even potentially losing the skills completely) they will always find it easier to get the skills back than if they had started from scratch. 

So what are you waiting for? Dust off your language books, download your favourite songs in the language, and take out your passport –– Practise your language, because if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it!

By Christopher Robinson

What do you think?