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  • When you forget a language: How to bring it back (and a video demonstration!)

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    Forgetting.jpegA few months ago, I realized that I had forgotten a great deal of my French. My book was taking up 40-50 hours of every week, so I didn’t have extra time to study, and I didn’t really want to study French, either. This year is my Hungarian year, and what little time I have, I like to spend on that language. Languages benefit from focus, and so I try to avoid studying two of them at once.

    I needed some way to bring back my French without actually having to work at it, and I found it in the form of television.

    On Forgetting

    When you forget a language (or anything else), it never actually goes away. You just lose the ability to bring it to the surface. There’s a neat study by the father of memory research, Hermann Ebbinghaus, in which he spent 4 years memorizing long lists of gibberish syllables:

    12-Syllable Series:
    1. Guf Ril Zhik Nish Sosh Mip Zhal Dut Poff Biss Fep Shish
    2. Gar Hap Lesh Gep Zess Ret Muss Pek Jum Jak Nal Zhan
    3. Zat Sul Ket Wun Kaf Tet Dup Fir Rep Saff Dal Gik Noss
    And so on…

    The guy was kind of a nutcase, but his data is unparalleled (probably because no one else would ever subject themselves to these sorts of tests). He memorized millions of syllables to the tick-tick-tick of a metronome (he repeated every syllable to himself at a rate of 150 per minute), and timed precisely how long it took him to learn them, forget them and learn them again. By comparing these times (how long it took to memorize them the first time vs how look it took him to re-memorize them a second time, some time later), he discovered the forgetting curve:

    Forgetting Curve

    There are two surprising things about Ebbinghaus’s curve:

    First, we forget tremendously quickly; Ebbinghaus lost nearly 70% of each memory within 24 hours (meaning that if it took him 100 seconds to memorize a particular list of gibberish syllables, it would take him 70 seconds to re-memorize that list 24 hours later).

    But second, some trace of every memory remains with us forever. Even an entire year later after memorizing some garbage like “Zat Sul Ket Wun Kaf Tet Dup Fir Rep Saff Dal Gik Noss,” Ebbinghaus could expect to spend 15% less time; if it took him 100 seconds to learn in the beginning, it would only take him 85 seconds a whole year later.

    So how does this relate to my French?

    French is more memorable than “Wun Kaf Tet Dup,” and since I had learned it with Spaced Repetition and a good bit of immersion, I could expect to retain quite a bit of it for a very long time. But still, after 2.5 years of disuse, I lost access to it, and I needed to refresh those memories in order to speak it again.

    When you forget a language: The Television Cure

    24Heures.jpegSo I watched TV. A lot of TV. I got 3 seasons of 24 with Kiefer Sutherland (dubbed into French) and vegged out in front of the TV for 2-3 hours a day for a month. It just replaced my standard evening vegging out on Reddit. As it turns out, the show is just as addictive in French as it is in English (and I hadn’t yet seen these seasons, so I really did want to know what was going to happen).

    Why TV? It’s the simplest way to get a lot of input. You hear words from all over your vocabulary - from the Bonjours of your very first days to the armes nucléaires of news broadcasts from the end of your studies. Every old memory is touched and reignited in some manner. At the same time, you’re having fun, which helps you learn much more easily than you would during any stressful, frustrating and/or tiring study sessions.

    It took me a few episodes before I really felt comfortable, but after that, I had a great time. In fact, I find TV in a foreign language significantly more enjoyable than TV in English, since it combines relaxation with feeling really productive.

    After 2 seasons, I began dreaming in French, and by the end of the third season, I finally felt like most of my French had returned. I found myself thinking in French several times a day.

    To be clear, this isn’t really a method for learning a language from scratch. You’re not going to have an easy time learning Chinese by watching Chinese news broadcasts; it’s just too hard. I also doubt it’s going to bring a language from “I sort of learned this in high school” to “I can speak this fluently.” If you’ve never really reached some level of fluency in a language, you’ll need to build that ability before you can refresh it with a bit of TV.

    But if you really do know a language, and if a few years of disuse has caused it to atrophy, then TV has got to be the easiest way to give you back your language.

    Some advice:

    -No Subtitles: If there are subtitles, you’re going to read them. If they’re in English, you might as well just watch TV in English. If they’re in your target language, then you’re basically reading while listening to an (illustrated) audiobook. This isn’t a bad use of your time, but if you want to recover your listening comprehension and your ability to speak, you’ll get better results through pure listening/watching without subtitles.

    -Genre: Comedy relies on word play and it’s easy to miss punchlines and feel frustrated when trying to watch a comedy series in a foreign language. Try action or drama instead; it’s easier to follow, and it does a better job of throwing a lot of language into your ears without any discomfort or frustration. I can highly recommend 24, as well as Lost (the voice actors are awesome in Russian), and in a month or so, I’ll be able to report on The Walking Dead in Italian).

    -TV vs Film: TV is a lot easier than film. You only need to figure out who’s who and what’s going on once, and then you can watch the next 20-50 hours worth of TV in peace. In film, you have to concentrate for the first 5-45 minutes, or else you might miss what’s going on. I find it much less relaxing.

    A Video Demonstration

    FrenchVideo.pngI’ve uploaded a new page to the site, under “The Story,” entitled “My Languages.” It contains a couple of videos I recorded, one in March of this year, when I was still fairly wobbly with my French, and another yesterday, a few days after finishing my last season of 24.

    That’s it! If you have questions or suggestions, post in the comments section below. Like what you see? Subscribe to site updates!

    4 thoughts on “When you forget a language: How to bring it back (and a video demonstration!)

    1. Pingback: Weekly Roundup 26/5 | sydneytoseoul

    2. Michael

      Do you ever revisit your old French deck? I notice I never go back to my portuguese deck now that I’m learning spanish.

      1. Gabriel Wyner Post author

        Good question! No, I never have. Theoretically, my old deck should be even *more* effective after such a long delay, but TV is a lot less work and I like to focus my Anki studies on one language at a time.


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