How To Remember A Language You Forgot

Think all is lost? Think again — and then, most importantly, start retraining yourself.
girl writing in a notebook

Is it possible to completely forget a language you once spoke fairly well? To be honest, it’s a bit complicated, but assuming you didn’t have to strain your mind too hard in order to successfully make your way through a conversation, you’ll probably always have latent abilities in that language — it’ll take some practice to get back to where you were, but it’s not too hard to figure out how to remember a language.

Somewhere in the deepest recesses of your mind are traces of old vocabulary, grammar rules and memories of how things are supposed to sound. And because you learned it once before, it’ll more than likely take you less time to relearn it a second time, even if it’s been a while since you practiced. Hermann Ebbinghaus, the German psychologist who discovered the forgetting curve, tested his own ability to recall certain syllables and found that it statistically took him less time to relearn the same material, even a year later.

Additionally, researchers have cause to believe that when you forget information and relearn it a second time, it’ll be more indelibly etched into your memory.

Without further ado, here’s some advice on how to remember a language you’re just a bit rusty in (but you’re working on it, you swear).

1. Walk before you run.

We can take this metaphor a bit further and assume that learning a language is, in many ways, like training for a marathon. If you’re out of shape, you can’t expect your body to perform at the same level it did when you were training five days a week.

Before you do anything else, begin by reintroducing yourself to basic, beginner-friendly material — like rudimentary language lessons and children’s books.

This will not only help you ease back into your language studies, but also give you an accurate assessment of your current language level. Chances are pretty good that you’ll breeze right through the lessons on how to say hello, but you might find that as soon as you get to verb conjugation or rules for addressing someone formally, you falter. That should tell you where to apply your efforts.

2. Commit to a routine.

We often talk at length about the importance of habit formation when it comes to your language studies. If you’re looking for the secret “how to remember a language” sauce, the biggest “make it or break it” factor is always going to be consistency. The reason you forgot the language to begin with, after all, is because you stopped using the language with regularity. So there’s your biggest clue.

The nice thing is that you don’t have to have a ton of extra time on your hands. It’s actually more effective to study for 15 minutes a day, every day, than it is to cram for four hours and then burn out and take a week off.

3. Break it up into microgoals.

The big goal of “becoming fluent in Portuguese again” can feel pretty daunting when getting there requires mastering several modules’ worth of material. So don’t think of it as a single goal. Approach each module systematically, and over time, the small wins will add up.

Additionally, this will help you prioritize. It’s fine to aim for the ideal of perfect fluency, but you’re probably going to wind up discouraged and unmotivated if you hold yourself to an unreasonable standard. Suffice it to say that relearning a language will likely boost you up on the language proficiency scale, but you probably won’t achieve perfect command of the language unless you’re fully immersed in it every day. Picking a few topics, grammatical rules or vocabulary sets will help you focus your attention wherever it matters most.

4. Immersion!

Speaking of which, one of the best ways to rekindle your dormant language memories is simply through repeated exposure. You don’t even necessarily need to actively engage with the material at first. If you’re just getting started, begin by listening to foreign-language podcasts on your commute, or attempting to watch a movie with the subtitles off. Even if you only understand 40 percent of what you’re hearing, you’re beginning the process of reinforcing your linguistic memory.

As you begin relearning the language for real, foreign-language media will continue to be one of your best allies. Don’t sleep on podcasts, movies, books and TV shows.

5. Free associate.

Polyglot Luca Lampariello has a few trusted techniques for remembering words. One involves association, or linking new information to old information that’s currently lodged in your long-term memory. Perhaps you might create your own mnemonic devices to free-associate new vocabulary terms with stuff you already know well.

6. Rinse and repeat.

Regular review and repetition is key to retaining information and moving it from your short-term memory into your long-term memory. That’s why Babbel uses the spaced repetition timing technique to regularly reintroduce information you already learned, and our Review Manager is another tool you can use to go over vocabulary (especially the words you have the most trouble remembering).

If you want to do this on your own, flashcards are the time-tested method because, well, they’re simple and they work. But it’ll be up to you to remember to use them consistently!

7. Find a partner.

If you’re going to bring a language out of storage, you’ll want to make sure you have reasons to use it; otherwise, it’s just going to sit in the corner and collect dust again.

If you’re not already in an environment that’s conducive to speaking in your language on a regular basis, you might have to create one for yourself. You might be able to find a study group in your area, or a partner who you can practice with.

The key is to take things from “studying the language in theory” to “using it in real life.” The latter may be messy, imperfect and riddled with tiny mistakes, but at the very least, it’s active and alive.

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