Has this happened to you?
Have you spent a serious chunk of time in your past on language learning, only to set it aside and forget nearly everything?
For a decade and a half, I made an art form of it.
In between my serious forays into learning Italian and Spanish to advanced levels, I had a string of linguistic trysts with Spanish, French, German, Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Brazilian Portuguese, and Esperanto.
I would study them individually for weeks or months at a time, getting them anywhere from a high-beginner (~A2) to low-intermediate (~B1) level.
Inevitably, I would have to stop.
However, when I stopped, my skill level in each language would not stop with me. In fact, my skill levels were still moving, just constantly downwards.
With the exception of Spanish and French, which I have since returned to to positive results, I have very little knowledge of any of the above languages, and certainly cannot actively converse in them.
After spending all that time learning those languages to the extent that I did, however, it begs the question:
Can we ever put a language aside for a time without worrying about forgetting everything we’ve already learned?
I’m happy to say, the answer is yes.
How to Put a Language on Hold
Before I explain how to successfully put a language on the back-burner, I must mention that the best solution is to always maintain your languages by studying even for just a few minutes a day. That way, the “back-burner” isn’t even necessary, as non-focus languages just get less attention, as opposed to no attention at all.
However, if you find it ever necessary to put a language aside temporarily, the one truly precautionary measure is this:
Always learn your languages to a high-intermediate/low-advanced level before learning another or stopping altogether.
To use woefully unscientific terminology, the more well-developed a language is in your brain, the more difficult it is for you to actually forget it entirely.
With enough time and loss of contact, it is possible to completely forget a language, including your native one, so don’t forget to re-activate dormant languages from time to time.
In the beginner and low-intermediate stages, a language feels like a jumble of words and phrases floating out and about in the ether. You may be able to remember them when you need them, but you have not yet built enough underlying structure (i.e. knowledge of grammar, syntax, morphology, etc.) to truly mentally grasp how the whole thing “works,” and then operate it on your own.
If, for example, you try to learn Spanish and Italian concurrently, or before you get one or the other to a high level, the similarity between the two languages will cause considerable interference, as your “fluid” knowledge of each will cause them to mix with one another and create an unwanted language cocktail.
However, once you pass the “Intermediate Wall,” the exact mid-point of the language proficiency spectrum, the language tends to “gel” in your mind, and become autonomous from the rest of the languages stored in your brain.
At this point, Italian and Spanish will no longer mix (or at least do so very rarely with no lasting effects). This is because your more advanced language of the two will become a complete entity unto itself, able to fight off the influence of Spanish just because, quite simply, it isn’t Italian.
Similarly, this would be the time when you could theoretically set one of them aside to pursue the other in earnest, without having to worry it will evaporate entirely.
The Magic Trick
Let me give you an example from my own life.
I’m a language teacher in my professional life, and I know Italian and Spanish to an advanced level. I’m actively learning French, which I now have somewhere near the upper-intermediate stage.
For scheduling and/or monetary reasons, I don’t currently have the ability to pay tutors to maintain all three languages, so Spanish and Italian have taken up residence on the back-burner. Italian, unfortunately, gets the least “play” of all, as certain Spanish media is rooted into my daily routine.
So, today, I got an unexpected phone call for a job interview for a potential Italian teaching position. In the interview, I know I will be required to speak Italian.
Now, I wasn’t worried, but I was curious to know how rusty my Italian would be after not speaking it for months.
So, I go, and the time comes when the interviewer switches to Italian.
The moment of truth.
I begin speaking, and after a few seconds even I’m surprised how quickly and fluently the words are coming out of my mouth. For a couple of minutes, I spoke entirely in Italian without any feeling of ill-ease or any Spanish or French words trying to sneak their way out. I just said what I had to say, and it was done.
I was completely taken aback, and I was the person speaking the language!
After the interview, I tried to make sense of how Italian could come out of me so fluently, when I had hardly given it the time of day for half a year.
This is what I came up with:
You know the magic trick where a magician stuffs a handkerchief in his fist and asks an audience member to pull it out?
When the audience member pulls on the end, however, he doesn’t just get the single, white handkerchief, does she?
Suddenly, you see that the first handkerchief is tied to a seemingly interminable sequence of colorful handkerchiefs, one after the other.
That, I believe, is what happened to me in the interview.
For a long time, my advanced Italian was like a white handkerchief sticking out of my closed fist.
It had been so long since I had taken it out that even I could have sworn it was one handkerchief.
However, when the interviewer pulled the proverbial Italian handkerchief out of my proverbial fist, we both found that there was a whole lot of Italian to be found, tied thought to thought, end to end, allowing me to express myself quickly and smoothly, with little effort at all.
I am certain that, if I had never learned Italian to as high a level as I initially did, all that “magic trick” would have amounted to would have been a single, unimpressive, handkerchief.
Instead, since I had spent the time and effort necessary to learn Italian to an advanced level, I was able to retain much, much more, even after months of disuse.
The Wall Will Set You Free
If you want to keep your language learning efforts from going to waste, I strongly recommend that you get past the intermediate wall before you switch to a new language, or put your current language on hold.
Reach for a B2 or C1 level, a point of fluency that can be assessed either through professional examinations or informally by most tutors. Work hard to create an interwoven network of language knowledge that will stay intact even when you’re not actively using it.
Once attained, that level of knowledge should save you from the grief of potentially starting from zero (or near zero) every time you begin your studies anew.