Can you really “lose” a language that you’ve learned?

Polyglot Camille Hanson

I think I am a language nerd. Yeah, it’s pretty safe to say I am. I love languages and studying them is one of my favorite things to do. Truly! I really want to be a polyglot, which means being able to speak 5 or more languages at a high proficiency. I’m not quite there yet, but I like to think that I am on my way. English is my mother tongue of course and I am currently studying my 5th foreign language, French.

My first foreign language I learned was Spanish. I want to say that I learned it pretty well. We (my husband & I) had a private teacher for 3 months in Mexico and lived with a Mexican family during that time. My little world during this time was Spanish. In total we spent a little more than 3 years in Spanish speaking countries.

However after that, for a few years, my Spanish was pretty dormant. Then I decided to learn Italian, literally on a whim. It’s my preferred language to speak at the moment. I became quite obsessed with studying Italian, using every free moment to learn. For months I averaged 3 hours a day of making Italian my world.

At first, when I would go to speak Italian, Spanish was my default. Naturally Spanish words would come out of my mouth when I didn’t know the Italian words. It was so strange. But after awhile I noticed my Italian becoming stronger and stronger. Then the most unexpected thing happened. I began to forget my Spanish. Even the simplest things wouldn’t come to me.

I started to panic because I didn’t want to LOSE my Spanish. Learning Spanish was one of the most challenging things I had ever done. Seriously, birthing babies and learning languages. Both super hard, both super worth it!

On another note, I feel like the first foreign language you learn is the hardest. But after that you learn how to learn languages and the proceeding languages can be learned at a faster speed, at least in my experience. Also I am sure it depends on what languages you are learning. Keep pressing through, regardless!  Italian and Spanish both come from Latin roots and there is a crossover in some of the words. I wanted to say easy things in Spanish but couldn’t and I felt like this time the Italian words were there first to come to my mind.

We were about to set out on our journey to Europe which included Spain and seeing a lot of our old friends. I knew I had to do something to avoid the embarrassment of my lack of Spanish in front of our dear friends. Calvin encouraged me to start practicing Spanish on Hellotalk (a language app) because I was already there practicing Italian everyday. About 3 weeks before our trip, I signed up on the app for Spanish as well.

It was strange at first, but little by little Spanish started coming back to me. I would say within a month, I felt comfortable again conversing in Spanish. It was challenging at first switching back and forth between Italian and Spanish throughout the day (depending on who was on the language app). But it was worth it!

So, the question is, can you lose a language that you’ve once learned?

I think if you have learned it well, it’s in there in your brain somewhere. But I do believe if you don’t practice it, you will struggle when it comes time to converse. If it lies dormant for years, it may take you some time and effort for it to come back again. I do my best to converse daily in Spanish and Italian because I want to keep both languages strong. It took some time for my brain to learn to separate the two languages and I still confuse words on a daily basis from the languages but overall I feel like I manage to communicate okay. It’s all part of the process.

Language learning is a never ending journey with the possibility to learn something new every single day! But in order to keep the languages you’ve learned, you have to put forth the effort and practice them at least a little bit everyday.

What about you. Have you forgotten a language that you once knew or have a language learning story you want to share? I would love to hear about your experience!

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