Figuring out how to relearn a language can feel like an impossible task of shame, frustration, and confusion.
But I have good news:
I know how to relearn a language because I’ve done it.
This article will address two groups of people who want to relearn a language:
- The people who tried to learn a language in school, but forgot what they learned
- Adults who were bilingual as children… but for complicated reasons, can’t speak their home language anymore.
By reading this whole article through, those readers will:
- Have a good understanding of why forgetting languages is a systemic problem in many countries (and not their fault)
- Have an elementary understanding of scientific language learning
- Have an elementary understanding of what steps they should take when they start trying to relearn the language
- Have an extensive list of tools and resources they can use to relearn a language
- Have a good understanding of how to never forget that language again
The research that universities and academics have done about how to relearn a language is extensive, and certainly, more than could ever be put into one article.
So I’m going to try to squeeze in what really should be a semester of university into one single blog post.
If you’re serious about relearning a language, my advice is to read the article in order. (And if you’re really really serious, bookmark all of the additional resources I point you to along the way.)
Now, let’s go!
You’re not alone.
By the time I was 26, I had confirmed with myself that I was a language failure.
I was born a bilingual baby into a Polish-American household, happily chatting away in both languages equally.
And when I started Spanish classes in middle school, I was ecstatic about adding a third language to that list.
But by the time I finished my first year of university, I had not only erased any trace of Polish from my brain but additionally forgotten any piece of Spanish I’d learned over 5 years of classes.
How was that possible?
Why we forget our home languages
I wish I had a time machine so I could go back and explain to my 19-year-old self that I hadn’t really “forgotten my own native language”.
And that, actually, losing our abilities to use our families’ languages is actually quite common.
Here is a typical timeline of how that process might look like. We’ll look at two hypothetical adults: Marie and Juan.
These two stories are illustrations of common trends found by researchers in many, many people who have forgotten their home languages.
Marie’s family speaks French at home, but they’ve lived in an English speaking providence of Canada for generations. When she was small, she spoke French perfectly but played with other kids in the neighborhood using English. When she entered school in fourth grade, she began using more English with her siblings as well since she was so used to using it in school. (And since her parents were also bilingual, would even talk to them sometimes in English.)
By the time Marie graduated high school, she spoke perfect English. But she never learned to seriously read or write in French. And there are so many words in it she doesn’t know, she never speaks–so she has no confidence.
Juan’s family speaks Maya at home in their community, and have lived in a small town on the Yucatan Penninsula of Mexico for generations. He speaks Yucateca Maya with everyone, and sometimes Spanish with tourists. But when they moved to a big city, it was more important that Juan spoke Spanish to do well in school. He also had to start taking classes in English, which he likes and does well at.
But his grandparents pass away when he turns 7, and his parents want to make sure he integrates well into city life. So they stop speaking Maya at home with the kids and switch to only Spanish. By the time Juan is 14, he can’t even understand it when it’s spoken to him.
Does either of these cases sound like you?
Marie and Juan are both Spanish speakers, and they have a few things in common–even though their languages or lives seem very different.
- Both start off as either bilingual children or having their family’s language as their dominant language
- Both start off by acquiring both languages in their lives naturally through home and play (French and English; Spanish and Yucateca Maya)
- But both hit what we call “acquisitional disruption”. For Marie, it was going to English schools (even if she had some French classes there). For Juan, it was migrating outside of his community.
- Both potentially feel an aspect of shame or guilt. Marie because she knows her French isn’t very good; Juan because of social pressure to speak the dominant language in his country.
And you’ll be surprised how common stories like this are.
A study based on the 2010 US Census suggested that in the US alone there are potentially 28 million adults like Marie or Juan in the US alone. [source] There are additional huge groups in Canada and Mexico, although no conclusive studies have been done.
These studies are possible because Marie and Juan belong to a category of language users called heritage language speakers.
Heritage language speakers are a special group of language users or language students who have a family or ancestorial language in their life. Maybe they can still speak or understand it, maybe they can’t.
So why do heritage language speakers lose their abilities, or never fully develop them?
- National languages can dominate smaller ones. Even though Canada is a legally bilingual country, most residents speak of providences like Ontario or Alberta speak English and not French (the official co-language). Plus, Canada is home to a richness of local languages who were on the continent before English or French arrived from Europe–but who have little or no legal status. This is important because the dominant language is often the language of business and almost always of schooling. Less-used languages may fall out of use for the practicality of a dominant one.
- Linguistic interruptions can destroy language transmission. When Juan’s family moved to a larger city, Juan suddenly left behind a community that spoke his language. Even if he wanted to continue with his Maya, he may have had no one to talk to. An interruption can often look like immigration to a place or starting school (in Marie’s case), but can also look like genocide or the inclusion of new family members into a household that don’t speak the language.
- Racism can also be a tool. Did you know that huge parts of the United States were once French-speaking? (That might help you make sense of names like Illinois or Baton Rouge.) But because French speakers were looked down upon by the English speakers in power, many parents decided to stop speaking French with their kids in order to help them integrate. This is what happened in Juan’s case–many speakers of Mexican languages are looked down upon by wealthier city-dwellers still to this day.
- If you don’t use it, you lose it. We’ll come back to this throughout this article, but it stands as a fact. Unless you use a language, you will forget it.
We’ll continue with our imaginary friends Marie and Juan throughout this article, because they’ll help us put hard academic research into context. (I’ll share my own story too.)
So if you’re a heritage language speaker, we’ll help you out throughout this article.
But like I said: in my own story, I not only forgot my heritage Polish but also my school-learned Spanish.
Why was that?
Why language students forget their learned languages
We have one more person I want to introduce you to. Her name is Siobhan.
Siobhan grew up in an America city where her family only spoke English. But she grew up with kids who’s parents immigrated from all over the world, and she always thought it was cool to hear them speak Arabic, Russian, or Cantonses with their parents and grandparents. So Siobhan was excited to start language classes in high school, and continued with them through college.
She chose Italian, because she though the culture was beautiful and it sounded the prettiest of all the languages her school had. She did okay in classes in high school, but in university they were some of her best grades.
But when she went to Italy for the first time at 25, she found herself unable to understand anyone when they spoke. She could order off the menu, but people mostly switched to English because it was easier than having her try to speak to them. Siobhan eventually accepted that she just wasn’t good at languages, and that was that.
So what happened to Siobhan?
She started off so promising, and certainly “learned Italian” by academic standards.
Well, just like with our heritage language speakers, Siobhan’s problem is rooted in a very serious linguistic problem: linguistic dominance.
- In the English-speaking world, learning a second language during school is frighteningly rare. Siobhan was actually quite lucky that her school offered any language classes at all. In fact, only 20% of US students will ever enroll in a second language class. [source]
- The situation in the UK is a bit different. While half of British students are enrolled in a modern language course [source], only 38% of Brits can speak a language other English [source]. So does that mean that British foreign language courses are working? Nope: those numbers don’t account for the other 7 native languages of the British Isles [source], the three official sign languages, or the languages more than 7 million immigrants speak at home [source]. There’s no official source, but considering the population of the UK is currently about 67 million people [source], that likely means only a very small percentage of Britain’s language students retain their language.
- And in bilingual Canada? Even though French and English are legally mandated in every school, that doesn’t mean that every Canadian speaks both. 97.6% of the population is capable of speaking English, but only 7.5% can speak French. (About 2% do not speak either of those languages.) [source]
So why is English so dominant in places it’s spoken? Is there something wrong with just English?
Well, it’s complex. And remember: our heritage language speaker Juan forgot his native Maya for Spanish.
Here are some of the subtle ways that a dominant language can make us forget the languages we tried to study.
- Poor teaching strategies. We’ll look at bad teaching strategies soon. But for now, just know however Siobhan learned Italian in school (and how you likely learned your language) was unideal.
- Limited real-world application. In NYC, over 600 languages are spoken. [source] But English is the most common one by far–so it makes sense that most businesses, TV, and radio will be in that main language. If Siobhan grew up there, she might have some ability to use her Italian with immigrant neighbors or in local restaurants. But finding books in Italian? Communicating with native Italian speakers out of necessity? Casually hearing it on the streets? Unlikely. Outside of her classroom, she likely didn’t use it at all. (And if she lived in a more monolingual city of the US like Bangor Maine, she might never come into contact with it at all. [source])
- “English is easier.” English is the dominant international language of TV, movies, the internet, and business. So those Italians who switched Siobhan into English had more real-world applications in their English than she did her Italian, and thus thought they were helping her by switching the conversation into English. Unhelpful “helpfulness” like this can be extremely discouraging to English speakers trying to use a second language, and thus perpetuates stereotypes.
But why don’t our countries fix these problems if they’re so obvious?
Shouldn’t we all just courage multilingualism?
We should. But here’s why that’s not currently happening.
- Stopping people from communicating between themselves can be a tool of power. White criminals who kidnapped Africans between the 1600s-1800s couldn’t speak non-European languages. So to keep Africans from uniting and revolting, their native languages were destroyed. The children of enslaved people were never fully taught English grammar, and it was illegal to teach them to read or write. [primary source document]
- Refusing to create multilingual healthcare systems can save governments money. Immigrants fearing deportation are less likely to use essential social services, like hospitals, if they believe they will need a translator. [source]
- Monolinguals who speak the dominant language may be resistant to multilingual inclusion in their place of work. If you and your boss are both native speakers of the dominant language, you may have access to higher pay and more privileges than bilinguals who speak that dominant language as a second language. So a more inclusive culture could be seen as a threat to your privilege. [source]
- Small business owners may fear that multilingualism increases costs in other ways. Instead of translating everything, a business that only produces internal memos or marketing in one language saves time and money. [racist source] However, this is really just an excuse: feel free to google “multilingual business” and see what better sources have to say about this. (In my own business in the event planning industry, multilingualism is a huge economic gain.)
But the good news is that if you studied any language for even just a year or two, then you have a huge advantage over those who never did.
Being Bad at Languages
I want to bring you back to my own story for a second. Since like I mentioned above, at age 26 I had confirmed that I was a linguistic failure.
That year, I was sitting with my family in Poland, eating outside of a restaurant in Warsaw and chatting away. They spoke to me in Polish, and I spoke to them in English.
The only problem was my aunt.
My aunt couldn’t speak English. She could speak Polish and Italian, so sometimes my other family members would translate between their Polish and my English. Sometimes my mother’s husband would translate between my English and her Italian.
And I didn’t think about it very much.
Until my uncle pulled me aside later and, in Polish, asked me why I refused to speak Polish.
That same year, I was walking with an ex through a supermarket. A woman asked him a question in Spanish and, since he had also taken several years of university classes in the language, he did his best to respond to her in Spanish. She thanked him and we continued.
You really should learn Spanish, he said at check out. We live in a bilingual city.
I didn’t know how to respond to either of these statements.
I truly, truly wanted to speak Polish. But I couldn’t. It was all gone.
And I had desperately tried to learn Spanish. But I was never really able to.
I was a linguistic failure. If it was so easy for other people, why was it so hard for me?
Fast forward four years.
I was in Paris for my 30th birthday to celebrate a great milestone with art, food, and history.
A friend of mine was living there, and two other friends would be vacationing at the same time, so my birthday dinner would be an international reunion of sorts.
That night, we ate outside at Café de la Rotonde.
I met up with Kayleen and André, who I know from the US, and practiced my Portuguese as we chatted about how their trip had been. (André made fun of my accent a bit, since my Portuguese is rather Brazilian sounding to European ears, and we all had a great time.)
We sat down and Alex came up so I could introduce him to Kayleen and André. For that, we switched into English since it was the common language between all of us. But Alex and I couldn’t stop laughing–we know each other from Mexico and had only ever spoken Spanish together.
To order wine and food, we switched to French with the staff. The waiter made some recommendations, and we happily took them.
Alex asked how my learning Catalan was going, I asked how his learning German was going, and we all had a good laugh about all of our accents.
So what happened?
Was I secretly a language genius this whole time?
Or is there hope for anyone who has forgotten a language?
The Science of How To Relearn a Language
Now even in that café in Paris, I didn’t speak Polish.
Despite having learned 5 additional languages by that point, I wasn’t sure how to retackle my heritage language.
In the 3 years between that multilingual dinner and today, I’ve done a lot of research and more than a few experiments on myself.
Because the truth is that even in the online world of language learning, there’s very little information about how to relearn a language.
In fact, when I was already in the process of forgetting my heritage language, the term didn’t even exist. [source]
And until the year 2000, neither did really distinct definitions for various types of bilingualisms. Even today there are still polyglots who still deny its special status among bilinguals [source] and language professionals who had never even heard of the term before [source].
So while there isn’t a lot of real academic work on this (and what does exist isn’t at all complete), here’s what linguists and languages teachers know about how to relearn a language.
The history of language classes
Language learning is the stuff of legends.
Cleopatra was supposed to have spoken nine languages. [source]
Queen Elizabeth I could speak eleven languages including 5 of the native UK island languages. [source]
And John Milton of Paradise Lost fame could not only speak 11 languages but added another 603 words to English. [source].
But language classes? Teaching language?
That’s a different story.
Humans began studying languages and how to learn them in the late 1800s–only around 100 years ago.
Human knowledge was exploding. Just before this, Charles Darwin published his grand thesis On the Origin of Species. Karl Marx began to scientifically explore economics with Das Kapital. Tesla began to run the experiments which Thomas Edison would later patent and produce.
And with linguistics?
Well, you can say they lagged behind.
In fact, the first mass-published book about teaching languages was 1872 classic Nouvelle methode pour apprendre, a lire, a ecrire et a parler une langue en six mois, appliquee au Latin. [Source]
The title of that book literally translates do “A new method to learn reading, writing, and speaking a new language in six months, applied to Latin.”
19th Century clickbait.
But hey, science was new. Linguistics was just being born!
And it improved, right?
Well, much of 20th century “foreign language” education could be considered a failure.
Many courses were taught to give students a “reading level” in the language in order to study its literature or access documents, but those same students were never told to speak, understand, or write in the language. (I recommend the book The Teaching Langauge Controversy if you want to read some really scalding critiques from 1978, and you can find a digitalized version of it here.)
Think about how many times in school (if you were lucky enough to even take a language) you were told to simply memorize new grammar and vocabulary.
That technique of Grammar Translation at technique was popularized around the same time as the invention of the lightbulb. [source] And yet that was the method used to teach languages in classrooms for most of the 20th century and is still largely practiced today. [For example.]
That’s the equivalent of a doctor not using sanitation practices because the methods they’re using are from 1870: before germ theory existed yet.
And then the patient saying “I guess I’m just not good at staying healthy.”
So I want to be super extra clear about something.
You’re not bad at languages. You just weren’t taught well.
So were you one of the tens of millions of students left frustrating years after learning languages in school, to find out you couldn’t speak them?
Or maybe you were a heritage language speaker who attended community language schools on Saturday, only to find out they didn’t help?
Well, so was I.
Until I found methods that actually helped me relearn my languages.
The (new) science of language relearning
In this section we’ll go over a quick overview of language aquisitiuon theories: aka, the theories about how to learn a language.
However, we can’t narrow down an entire field of study into one article. (Nevermind one section of one article.)
And there are still huge gaps in what we know about RElearning languages, specifically.
If you want to participate in an original study I’m doing about how to relearn a language, click here. If you qualify, I’ll help you set up a free relearning languages plan for helping me.
Picture it: it’s the 1960s and the field of linguistics ais finally starting to grow.
There are journals and associations of language teachers sprouting up all over the world. New and competitive language learning theories are brought to light, tested, and debated. Teachers are trying experimental things like immersion in their classrooms, and finally starting to pay attention to things like dialects or even endangered languages.
Since around the 1970s, there has been an explosion in language learning theory.
So what were new theories?
What were they called, and how did they work?
Can they actually help you learn or relearn a language?
One of the first theories of language learning was the Communicative method, which debuted in the 1970s.
Communicative language teaching (or CLT) puts students in situations that simulate real-life (for example: performing skits where they talk to a cashier in a store or call a friend to catch up) and explore the language in how it’s used. [source]
The communicative method might be familiar to some language students in the 90s or 2000s since it’s relatively easily applied. This is also the main theory used by language immersion schools around the world.
However, generally, it remains taught with some emphasis on rote memorization or older “just memorize it” tactics. Just with a slightly different curriculum. (Real-life situations vs reading-only.)
Then in 1983, linguist Stephen Krashen writes his groundbreaking paper The Natural Approach. [You can read the full paper here.]
Krashen’s ideas shouldn’t be confused with any number of cheap “learn it the natural way” marketing tag lines.
His input hypothesis is basically that you read and listen to the language as much as possible but only at a level slightly more advanced than what you already have.
So if you’re starting from scratch, you would want to listen to very very basic “hello, my name is Marissa” type dialogues spoken extremely slowly with video or images as an added context. Eventually, those dialogues should become harder and harder.
Or, if you already have a basic understanding of the language, dialogues that are slightly more advanced: maybe about a specific subject or spoken at a faster rate.
Outside of the public eye, polyglot and war hero Michel Thomas began teaching celebrities with what he called The Michel Thomas Method. And with the money, he charged stars like Grace Kelly, Alfred Hitchcock, and Woody Allen? He brought his method into the poorest of LA schools to teach poor (often minority) students the joy of language learning. [source] (His biography is absolutely so cool, it needed to cite additional sources to make it believable. You can find it on Amazon.)
The method was unfortunately kept a secret until just a few years before his death in 2005.
Four audio courses were recorded with publisher Hodder & Stoughton, where you follow along with two students as a teacher goes through phrases in the target language. The idea was that you would understand the new language by “hooking it on” to concepts in your own language and then remember through spaced repetition.
Most recently, Neurolanguage Coaching has begun to grow in popularity.
With hints of all of the above techniques, neuro language learning also looks at psychology and neurology and how we can apply brain science to language learning.
A book that gives a quick overview of this approach is Neurolanguage Coaching by Rachel Paling, although it targets language teachers so it’s largely unhelpful for language learners themselves.
These are all very quick overviews on what should be a Ph.D. thesis by itself. But let’s compare what they have in common so we can start to talk about applying them in how to relearn a language:
These are just four techniques that I’m personally familiar with.
There are dozens more.
So what are some key conclusions we can draw from this brief overview
- Forget what you think language learning is. Rote memorizing? Flashcards? Endless verb tables? That’s so 1800s. In the 2020s, we use podcasts, YouTube channels, language exchanges with new friends, short stories, and journaling to immerse ourselves in languages.
- Listen and copy. Key to especially the Krashen theory of input hypothesis is that you should listen listen listen to a language. It can be enjoyable, and it will stick with you.
- Using the language is key. Especially in the communicative method and neuro language coaching and the communicative method, you must actually speak (or write) in the language. Transference in education is largely a myth–picking out words from a word box in DuoLingo won’t transfer over into speaking abilities. Speaking even before you feel ready to can shave months (or years) off your language learning process.
- Relax (even when it feels scary). At the beginning of many great language courses (including manufactured ones like Michel Thomas and Pimsleur), a talented instructor will encourage you to relax. Because as w e now know, being anxious about a subject will actually cause retention failure. If you feel stressed or burnt out, simply put down whatever you’re working on. [source]
That was a very, very quick overview. I know.
So let’s break that down even further and give you some actionable steps for how to relearn a language.
Recognizing Your Own Blocks to Relearning a Language
So how is it that even after learning another 5 languages as an adult, I couldn’t bring myself to relearn my heritage language?
Because that night in Paris, joking around between 4 languages with my friends, if a Polish person had sat down with us I would have instantly frozen up and not been able to say a word.
I already shared with you two guilt-stuffed moments I had after forgetting my Polish (why won’t you speak it) and my Spanish (you really should learn it).
But here are a few other real-life stories from language learners I know that you might find relatable.
- A grandfather criticizing his grandson for not being more familiar with great Russian literature, when that grandson left the Soviet Union at the age of 6 with his parents.
- A Latina woman being told she’s “not really Mexican” because her parents never taught her Spanish.
- An English speaking Canadian trying out their school-taught French in Quebec, but being told that English speakers “never learn any French” so they conversation would have to continue in English.
- A First Nations woman being told “your ancestors would be ashamed” because despite putting in effort to learn the Cree of her grandparents, she was struggling to make progress.
Those are all real stories that people have shared with me.
Comments like that are not only harsh but can actually make someone not want to relearn a language.
So recognizing your own blocks is going to be a hugely important but often overlooked step. But let’s dive in.
Why it seems hard to learn a language
So we’ve gone into why schools have made language learning harder than it needs to be: old methods that just plain don’t work.
But on top of poor teaching methods in language education, there are a few other factors that play into why learning a language seems hard.
After all, how many times have you heard someone say they simply don’t have the time or skill to relearn a language?
Or how many times have you said it?
In reality, however, it’s just a bad experience.
Here are some of the reasons we had such emotionally bad experiences with relearning languages in the past–and how you can start to overcome them.
PROBLEM: Exam dread. It doesn’t even matter how well you did on language tests as a student. But having your primary motivation to learn a language be a number? That can lead to some pretty bad anxiety, and it seems like it’s getting worse with time. And honestly, it’s a pretty terrible reason to study a language. [source 1] [source 2]
SOLUTION: Mantras. It seems silly. But honestly, just constantly reminding yourself that no one has ever handed you a report card during a conversation in English can help you through your language relearning study sessions. [source] My own test dread as a student transformed into a fear of being judged by others for my errors as an adult. But whenever I have to speak I just remind myself “there is no grade” has helped a lot.
PROBLEM: Interpersonal stress. Let’s be real: school puts us into complicated social situations. Make a mistake while speaking in a language class? Get laughed at. Make no mistakes in that class? Get bullied. Social stress is more common than it should be in schools and can lead to self-sabotage in language classes. [source 1] [source 2]
SOLUTION: Language exchange. There are so, so many people who want to improve their English. You are incredibly lucky. If you can find a language exchange partner, you’ll quickly find how little you judge them for their errors when they are trying to speak to you. The result? You’ll realize that you’re very, very unlikely to be socially punished for any of your own errors when speaking to others.
PROBLEM: Bad experiences. Everyone has a different threshold for what qualifies as a “bad experience”. For some people, it might be one bad grade in a past language class. For someone else, it might be having a learning style different than a languag e teacher’s teaching style. But they can have huge lasting impressions–leading us to think “we simply aren’t good at languages” or even that languages are impossible! [source 1] [source 2]
SOLUTION: Have fun. The biggest kept secret in language learning is that it can be extremely, extremely, extremely fun. Was away all of the bad experiences by surfing some Netflix in your target language, finding new music, doing a recipe right out of the language’s history, or chatting with strangers on social media. Whatever you do, just make sure you love it. It’ll wash the bad taste of memorizing drills and bad grades right out!
PROBLEM: The structure of modern schools. In schools, you are directly discouraged from taking risks. Try to sing in music class if you’re not good? Laughed at. Try to take an essay in a more interesting direction? “Stick to the topic.” Ask for help? “You should know this by now!” Schools discouraged creativity and risk-taking. [source 1] [source 2] But isn’t that why we adore artists ahead of their time and kooky entrepreneurs? [source 1] [source 2]
SOLUTION: Learn to fail. One of the absolute most important things I’ve ever learned in any field, either my professional career or my passion for language learning, has been the idea that “whoever fails the most wins”. [source] Once you learn that messing up sentences and receiving corrections is one of the fastest ways to accelerate relearning a language, you’ll start to soar.
PROBLEM: Language burnout. Burnout is an actual medical condition caused by having a large task that cannot be done with the limited resources at hand. That could be having a boss who demands too much, having a stressful personal life which you feel you can’t escape from… or perhaps, trying to instantly learn a language with no resources, help, or plan? Yikes. [quick source] [entire book]
SOLUTION: Enjoying the process. If this sounds familiar to an above suggestion… well, it is. But on top of having fun, when planning how to relearn a language it’s important to set reasonable expectations and find fun things along the way. I personally encourage setting small monthly goals based on actions (“I’ll study for a total of 10 hours this month”). Then, have annual goals that result from those actions (“if I do that every month then I should be able to improve my speaking by the end of the year”). And finally, have a 5 years vision goal (“and if I improve my speaking, then I can try having a conversation with someone I love!”)
If any of these ideas seem good to you, I want to encourage you to write them down.
Because for me, learning about how to relearn a language (and about linguistics in general) has been incredibly motivating.
Just knowing I had a plan felt like enough to keep me going.
So that said… let’s keep going.
Why languages are easy to forget (but they don’t have to be)
So if I’m making language learning out to seem not-so-hard, why did you forget yours in the first place?
Well, in the words of my favorite Catalan teacher: “Languages are so easy to learn and so hard to maintain.”
That’s certainly what I’ve found.
The simple reason is that languages are completely complex systems. Let’s look at an absolutely simple task: asking your friend if they want to go to the movies.
“Do you want to go to the movies?”
How could that possibly be hard? Any 4-year-old could say that.
Let’s look at it in French: “es-que que tu voudrais aller au cinema?”
Let’s take a look and give you your first introduction to linguistics.
English in red, French in blue.
- Do / es-que ce – “do” in “to do” means to take an action. “I do homework” could be paraphrased as “I execute homework” or “I complete homework”. But in English is also signals to the listener that we’re asking a question and has nothing to do with that person’s ability or inability to take an action. And if that person answers “I do!” it has nothing to do with anything at all! And in French? “Es-que ce” = is it that. Again–just another little signal. But an important one!
- You want / tu voudrais – in many Indo-European languages, we need to know how to conjugate the verb “to want”. In English we have some–I wanted, he wanted; you want, he wants. These little changes make little difference in English, but huge differences in other languages. In French
- Politeness – in French, “you want” is technically “tu veux”. But in a lot of situations, it can be extremely rude! So we correct this by changing “veux” to “voudrais”. These subtle differences are central to relearning a language but are often invisible in plain sight.
- To the / au – the tiny word “to” can be used to mean in the direction of the movies, which is very figurative here. The French equivalent, “à” can also mean on or in–just like in English the files on your computer are technically in your computer. Plus, in French, when you add the masculine “the” (le) your little à becomes au. (Never mind having to know the gender of words in most European and many other languages!)
- Movies / cinema – in English, sometimes is plural we often throw a little s on it. This is actually a super rare feature of languages! [source] Take into account irregular words (two foots are actually feet, but two moose certainly aren’t meete”) and it starts to get complicated. There isn’t even any real reason “the movies” is plural when “the movie theatre” is singular! And French has even more irregulars. (We won’t even talk about German or Italian.)
That’s an absolute ton of grammar! Just for one little sentence!
So what conclusion can we draw?
If you forget just one of these many rules in a language, you can’t even put together the simplest of sentences.
Other skills just aren’t as complicated. You can forget the name of a paintbrush, but still enjoy crafting. You can forget how to do a specific action while using computer software, but take 10 seconds to Google it and keep moving.
But with languages, we need every moving part to work together to speak the language.
So when our language abilities start to break down, even if we just begin slipping on a few of these many rules, we stop using the language.
This accelerates the language deterioration process and will make it harder and harder to speak.
But here’s the good news: as long as you keep using a language, these rules will become as effortless as they are in English.
Here are the absolute things I’ve done to maintain my languages when I’m not studying them. And take a look at how simple these actions are:
- Switching over my music, news, and Netflix into the language. This will help me maintain my “ear” for the language, as well as have broad exposure to a lot of different types of vocabulary.
- Write in that language. And I mean anything from journaling to blogging to grocery lists! Every time you write the words “soy milk, break, flour” in a language means you’re one day farther from forgetting those words.
- Find blogs, magazines, or books you like. If you’re a reader (I know I am) there will be interesting reading material at most levels for you. It’s just a matter of finding it and integrating it with your life.
- Asking friends and family to only speak with me in the language I’m trying to maintain. This is critical in keeping up your speaking abilities. Right now you may not have access to native speakers of that language, but that will come with time.
You speak English just fine without forgetting its rules, right?
So with enough practice, you will be able to integrate complicated rules from other languages into your life without a problem.
For more on this topic, feel free to read my article on how to maintain your skills in any language.
Why there are so few resources for how to relearn a language
We’ll get into even more actionable things you can do really soon.
But let’s check in on Marie, Juan, and Siobhan really quickly.
Marie signed up for an accelerated course at a local university. Juan joined a free community school for adults, paid for by the government. And Siobhan signed up for private classes.
But all three of them were shocked to find out that none of the programs they signed up for actually could help them relearn a language.
Why is that?
Let’s look at a few examples which can illustrate why despite being such a global issue, there is little organized effort by institutions to help people relearn a language.
- When Marie contacted the university about relearning French, they asked her if she could “speak it already”. Shyly, but truthfully, she said no. (She could understand it fluently, sure. But she hadn’t spoken it since she was a class.) They put her in a very beginner course, where she had to learn about colors and days of the week for a week.
- Juan found himself equally frustrated in a class full of non-Maya Mexicans (and non-Mexican tourists) learning about his language in a way that made him feel inferior. The course instructor kept talking about the Mayas like there were none present in the room. After class one day, when Juan mentioned his lengua heredada to the teacher, the man had never heard of it before.
- Siobhan started with a private teacher online, but they never quite found the right materials for her Italian. Most of the beginner stuff was too easy–she could recall stuff almost instantly and got bored. But the advanced stuff was too advanced for her–she had no idea what was going on.
There are 3 main reasons, in my experience and research, that organizations aren’t catering to students who want to relearn a language.
- Universities are unprepared for students at various levels. In some instances, this may be because they don’t have adequate placement tests. Others don’t have enough students to run classes at all of the levels necessary to adequately help those students. [source]
- Remember: the term heritage language only came into popular use in the early 2000s. There are still language teachers totally unfamiliar with the concept.
- Even those who are familiar with the concept lack resources. This website is devoted to changing that, but it’s a long road ahead of us.
- Finally, there are some language resources for false beginners. (Siobhan is the typical example in our story, but both Marie and Juan could be classified like that too.) But they are few and far in between, and may not cover dialects like Marie’s Canadian French or languages like Juan’s Yucateca Maya.
So from here on in, I’m going to assume you (the student) need to educate not only yourself but also your teacher.
4 Basic Steps To Relearn A Language
There are two big reasons this article isn’t a full guide to how to relearn a language.
First, there is too much research out there. I’ve read probably 50 academic papers and counting, so I’m trying to summarize some of the best advice here.
Second, there’s not enough research out there. Even with all of that, there are huge holes in the data which is why I’m running my own studies here.
But in this section, I’m going to leave you with as much practical advice as I possibly can.
Now, let’s get to the best part of this article so far.
1. Ignore (most) apps
Simply put: apps are not made for relearning a language.
And there are reasons to believe they don’t even help us learn a new language. [source]
I won’t go too much into this, but know in these next sections I’m purposefully excluding apps because of how limited they are for what we want to do.
(And including things I think will help you better.)
2. Find your real goals for relearning a language
Emotions play a huge role in how to relearn a language.
That’s why we had to go through all of the other parts of this article first.
A foundational work on motivation in language learning is Attitudes and motivation in second language learning. [Read it here]
Among other things, it suggests that there are two main groups of motivations for learning (or relearning) a language.
- Integrative, i.e., “the student wishes to learn more about the other cultural community because [they are] interested in it in an open-minded way to the point of eventually being accepted as a member of that other group. (Gardner & Lambert, 1972, p 3)
- Instrumental, i.e. a hope to derive benefits such as career opportunities, traveling, making friends, or understanding foreign media.
And beyond just language learning, whole books like NY Times Bestseller Switch have been written about how absolutely fleeting motivation is.
The biggest takeaways from that book is:
- Motivation is incredibly temporary. It’s an impulse at best and lasts for a few days at most.
- You need to find other ways to keep yourself going, otherwise, your initial burst of excitement will never ever last.
Now you can go and read these two books if you want. They’re long but interesting.
But I know you’re busy.
So here how we can apply the science of motivation to how to relearn a language.
- There are infinite goals to choose from. You can see above that there are two main types of goals, but the individual goals can be anything from travel to new films to making new friends to speaking with family abroad.
- It’s incredibly important to find a variety of goals. If your only goal is to relearn a language to travel… that can be done relatively quickly and with a low level. So after that trip you might find your motivation lagging. But if your goals are to travel, watch new films, and make new friends? You’ll find yourself more long-term motivated.
- Any goals you pick are fine–as long as they mean something to you. If your goal is only to have some aunties to stop judging you, you’re not going to find yourself very motivated. Instead, if community and fitting in is important, think about what kind of new growth or connections might take place.
So before even picking up the language, you need to define your goals as to why you want to relearn it.
Let’s revisit the protagonists of our story and see how they’re setting their goals.
- Marie’s original impulse was to sign up for classes because of feeling guilty that she can’t speak to her children in their heritage French. But after resetting her goals a bit, she’s now looking forward to traveling to French-speaking parts of Canada with her family; having her kids be able to talk to their grandparents in the language; and hopefully get a raise at work once she can work in two languages.
- Juan loved the idea of making more Maya friends in the city. But that happened on the first day of class, even without the language. Now, he’s looking forward to volunteering as a translator for elderly neighbors who don’t speak Spanish but need access to social services, as well as rediscovering his culture.
- Siobhan found her last trip to Italy disappointing because of her level of Italian but is still in love with the culture. So now her goals are to watch Italian films without subtitles; chat with the owners of the best Italian restaurant in her city; and going back to Italy to give speaking with locals a second shot.
Whatever your goals are, I highly recommend writing them down or even making a vision board somewhere.
Now let’s jump into how this connection with the culture and language will help you for actually learning
3. Practicing the 4 language skills
It’s generally accepted that there are 4 cornerstone skills in the modern use of languages: speaking, listening, reading, and writing.
But here are 2 quick notes.
- Signed languages are not spoken or listened too–they are produced with motion. Unfortunately, I haven’t found any research at all about relearning signed languages. So while this section mentions speaking and listening specifically, the methods discussed in those sections can still be used wonderfully with languages where you don’t speak or listen.
- Since more than half of all language doesn’t currently or historically use writing, [source] if you are trying to relearn a language that isn’t written you can skip those sections without any shame or guilt. Your language is real, complete, and wonderful.
Let’s go into how you can use each one of those skills to relearn a language.
If you’ve spoken your language as a child or to a higher level during studies, listening is your new best friend.
Remember how above we went into the Krashen input hypothesis? (That is: listening to a language spoken for hours and hours at a level you can mostly understand?)
You’re going to really want to throw yourself into listening practice if you want to relearn a language.
But it’s going to be super fun.
First, grab some interesting things to listen to (like podcasts, movies, songs, or anything else) in the target language.
Second, confirm that you are able to mostly understand them. Since you’re relearning a language, you should have a huge advantage here over new learners. In my experience, I would expect that our example learner Marie could understand most movies or TV; Juan would need extremely basic material made for new students; and Siobhan could understand stuff made for beginner students.
Finally, integrate it with your routine. Make sure it’s constantly on and constantly plugged into your life.
So why does this work? How can we reengage our languages by listening?
Here are my two theories:
- There are bilinguals who are passive–who cannot produce the language, but who can understand it.
- There are theories of memory saying that suggest that we never actually forget anything–we just can’t find the memory. It’s like misplacing a box in a large building–it’s not gone, our brain simply can’t find where it stored the memory.
In either one of these cases, we should have some resting pieces of the language in our heads.
In fact, I’m currently testing these theories. To help be part of the research group, click here to potentially meet with me and talk more about relearning a language.
But in summary, go find some beginner easy resources and start off by seeing what you can remember. Then, listen listen listen!
Once you start listening, it won’t be enough to just be able to understand a language passively–you’ll need to produce it too.
I have a video where I review various online teacher platforms, but my strong suggestion is that instead of jumping into speaking with family or native speakers, you work with a teacher first.
Online teachers are professionals at being patient. Any progress you make will be rewarded because you’ll have a fresh start with someone you don’t know–so you’ll never hear “why don’t you know this already?”
Plus, their training and experience will make them a great resource for learning grammar and vocabulary down the line.
There are many differing opinions about when you should start speaking (some people say on your first day of learning a language, others say after quite a bit of immersion) but all experts agree that you must eventually start producing the language in order to get good at producing the language.
Even if it takes a lot of mistakes and a dollop of anxiety to get there.
Reading / Writing
Reading and writing pose their own challenges, especially in languages that aren’t phonetic (like French or English) or that use different scripts (like Hindi or a Chinese language).
But here are some of the reasons you should be reading and writing during your studies:
- Reading can be a visual representation of the grammar and vocabulary you might be learning orally
- Written language tends to be more precise and follows the rules more closely, so you can weed out any bad oral habits you might have let slip while writing
- Writing also tends to use a different vocabulary than speaking, so you’ll expand the words you know
And some of my favorite ways to incorporate reading and writing into my language studies are:
- Using textbooks that have paragraphs of text in the target language (and which make you practice writing full sentences)
- Reading books which are full of short stories specifically for language learners
- Following Instagram accounts in my target language and reading the captions (as well as leaving comments)
- Journaling in the language to myself
- Texting with friends and family in that language, even if we largely speak English together
4. Beyond relearning: adding new grammar and vocabulary
You’ll notice this is last. Most of our associations with languages include grueling tests and long study sessions, but it doesn’t have to be that way. There are a lot of reasons those other skills are on top of this one on this list.
But when you want to relearn a language, by definition relearning implies that you will regain the knowledge you already had.
What about the parts of the language you never knew to begin with?
For heritage language learners, this might mean grammar that your community has disregarded (much like how many native English speakers don’t necessarily use affect/effect or less than/fewer correctly but are still understood.)
Or, if you’re relearning a language you used to know from earlier schooling, it might be grammar or vocabulary you never encountered the first time you learned it.
Eventually, you’ll have to dive into new and complex parts of the language and learn them for the first time–not just relearn them.
The good news is that implicit instruction (being explained something clearly and logically, not just absorbing it) does work. In a 2009 study out of the University of Illinois, Is grammar instruction beneficial for heritage language learners? researchers found that, yes, being taught new grammar works fine.
So even though I said no apps earlier, for this one section you can consider apps as a potential tool for learning new material.
We have a large selection of language learning instructional resources on this website, but when you get to learning grammar especially, here’s your checklist for making sure your resource is the right one for you.
- Is it just above your current level? Not too hard, not too easy?
- Does it have not only explanations but ways you can then practice using the new piece of grammar?
- Does it combine the 4 language skills?
- Do you personally like how the concepts are explained?
- Am I making progress in my ability to speak or listen, or only making progress in the app/textbook/workbook which I can’t apply to real life?
- Do I enjoy using the resource, or do I dread and procrastinate?
How to Never Forget a Language Again
A polyglot language professor once told me “oh, learning is easy, there’s such a clear path and so much motivation. But maintaining is hard.”
After all: you’ve already forgotten this language once right?
Might you forget it again?
So putting in the effort to relearn a language even worth it?
I don’t actually agree with my former language teacher. In fact, I find maintaining a language once it’s integrated into my life easy, rewarding, and fun.
Let’s look at how that’s possible.
Find goals for when language motivation fails
Motivation, in my experience and probably yours too, is fleeting.
You’re excited, you’re ready to go, you have time set aside… but eventually, that initial burst of energy fades.
And it’s okay. Maybe it was because you burnt out a bit, maybe it’s because long-term goals tend to wear everyone down.
But I’m a huge advocate of finding real concrete goals outside of “I want to speak the language”, or even the big daydream we mentioned above.
For that, I highly recommend finding daily activities that are motivation in and of themselves.
Do you love new music? Maybe this month your goal is to find 20 new bands to fall in love who sing in the language.
Love films? Make it a goal to this year watch the 50 most important classic films in the language.
Love food? Try to do a weekly new recipe (or eat out somewhere new every month) to connect with the culture and the language.
So how can this help you maintain your language long-term?
Language immersion (without leaving home)
Especially in the English speaking world, it can be really easy to fall back into the trap of doing all of our daily activities in English. After all, it’s the primary language of the internet, our friends and family likely speak it, and it’s the language of business in many countries.
But when you set yourself up to keep in contact with your language every day, you can find yourself living a bilingual life–even if those around you are monolingual.
Here’s an example of both my maintenance goals and how I implement them through immersion in Catalan. It’s worth noting that I’ve never been to Catalonia, have never studied the language in any professional institution, and have almost no friends who speak it.
- Goal: Find 1 new band every month.
- Immersion strategy: Throw on radio stations in the background, whenever I find a song that I just LOVE, add a bunch by that artist to various playlists of mine.
- Goal: Learn more about Catalan cuisine
- Immersion strategy: Cook 1 new Catalan recipe every month from sites that are published in the language
- Goal: Learn more about European politics in general
- Immersion strategy: Subscribe to news-related podcasts and YouTube channels which broadcast in Catalan, listen to them every morning when I’m making breakfast
If one day you start to add multiple languages to your plate, this can get hard. But if you have English as a dominant language and switch over things you love doing alone anyway to the new language you’re bringing into your life, you’ll find it easier than you think.
Connect with the language re-learning community
There are a million and one distractions that keep you from getting to your goals. Sure, speaking a language sounds amazing–but studying a language every day?
We have social lives, families, responsibilities, hard-to-maintain schedules…
But when you’re integrated with a community who is working towards the same goal, studying can become significantly more fun and distractions significantly weaker.
This website is dedicated to bringing together language speakers who have forgotten their language without guilt. Find resources and connect with other people who want to relearn a language by subscribing to our email list, subscribing on YouTube, or following on Instagram.
So what’s the best way to remember a language?
Imagine a language as the most beautiful building to ever be built. Its architecture is astounding, it’s details incredible, and it’s furnished with the most wonderful pieces of art and libraries you’ve ever seen.
This article is the equivalent of handing you, the architect, a series of possible blueprints and wonderful inspiration, and saying: “you’re gonna do great.”
Because I really do have faith that you can relearn any language you want to. And that once you’re done, the world will be a better place because of it.
But there is no one right way for how to relearn a language.
You’re going to find tools that worked for me that didn’t work for you.
You’re going to find that you’re the exception to some rules written here.
And that’s just fine.
So if you want to learn more about how to relearn a language or have a companion for along the way, I invite you to subscribe to all of our resources and keep learning about learning as you relearn your language.
If there’s anything this article didn’t mention to you or anything you want to be addressed in a future article, leave them in the comments below. I’ll be coming back here to address stuff in short messages or in long posts every once in a while, so let me know what else you’d like to see covered!