The Real Reason You Forgot The Language You Studied In School

Do we forget languages?

Do we gradually forget languages?

What happened to the foreign languages we learned in school? Are they lost and can we pick them up again quickly if they are?

Now that my year in Korea is over, I’ve been spending some time over the last few weeks getting in some practise with other languages before heading off to start another challenge (I’ll announce my plans later this week on Facebook when I hear back about the visa as it’s one of the hardest countries in the world to visit ;)).

I deliberately blocked out everything for the last year so that I could avoid distractions and keep focused on my goal to become fluent in Korean and even though it would have been possible to learn Korean and improve other languages at the same time, doing that would have been a recipe for burn-out and my Korean would have suffered for it.

I had enormous success with Korean because of this but over the last few weeks I’ve noticed how rusty I’ve become in some languages after months of inactivity.


Skills get rusty and dusty but they’re always there

Like a lot of people I used to worry that if I didn’t use it I’d lose it but I’m now convinced that if you learn a language well to begin with, it’s always going to be there.

A short while ago I went back to French after not having studied or used it for over 6 years and I thought that I was definitely going to be back at square one for sure.

I took two lessons with a practice partner I found on italki and when I took the first lesson I quickly found that I still had the same comprehension level that I did 6 years ago (even though my speaking skills were rusty as hell).

Despite my speaking being really out of practise due to years of total neglect, my listening comprehension had not really changed at all.

By the time I had my second lesson in French, I was already getting back to where I was 6 years ago. The same thing happened with my Irish when I was spending time with the Irish community in Melbourne a few weeks ago.

Similarly, I had a chat with a girl in Algeria recently using Verbling after taking a long break from Arabic and although I had to stop myself thinking in Korean, it was all still there.

None of it’s ever really forgotten.

I’ve found that this is true for other skills as well (I used to play the violin and bass guitar, and I’ve found that after years of not playing it comes straight back as soon as I pick up the instruments).


But why can’t I remember the language I studied in school?

Most of us took a foreign language in school and yet a common complaint is that few of us can remember it.

I studied Mandarin Chinese for about 5 years in school but I can’t speak it as an adult.

Here’s why:

Some of you might disagree with me when I say this but if you can’t remember any of the language that you studied in school then it’s likely that you never learned it well in the first place.

I want you to consider this for a moment:

“At three hours a week by nine months of a school year, students enrolled in a foreign language in school may experience as little as 540 hours of actual instruction and L2 exposure over five years.”

That means that in five years the average school student gets only about 540 hours (equivalent of only about 2 months at 8 hours a day) of exposure to the foreign language they’re learning.

When you factor in all the other distractions we have as kids it’s probably significantly lower than this.

“By contrast, in the same chronological time window, learners in L2 environments may accrue about 7,000 hours of L2 exposure (if we calculate a conservative four hours a day).”

These are people who are actually living in the country and exposed to the language for about 4 hours a day (time when you’re out interacting with people).

Although the author says it’s only a conservative estimate, I’d say it’s more than what a lot of people get when they travel because of the common tendency a lot of us have to be unsocial or stay in an expat bubble.

“A sobering comparison is that children learning their L1 may receive of the order of 14,000 hours of exposure, also based on a conservative estimate of eight hours a day!”

That’s a lot of hours of exposure to a new language and there’s certainly a big difference between 14,000 hours and 540!

In my own situation with Korean I could safely say that if I had of decided to stay in Korea for five years then I’d be averaging about 10,000 hours of exposure based on what I’ve been doing.

As you can see, when you put it in to perspective and really think about it, the foreign language exposure we get in school is totally insufficient on its own – regardless of whether or not you think children have an advantage over adults.

We can’t expect ourselves to remember something that we never really learned well to start with!

If you’re a parent putting your kids in foreign language classes then it’s something I’d encourage you to consider.

Expose them to the language as much as possible outside of school hours by actively immersing them in the target language community.

Learn it with them and foster a bilingual atmosphere at home.


It doesn’t take a lot of effort to keep a language fresh in your mind

So as adults how we do avoid getting rusty?

It’s simple.

Regular usage.

Studying takes a lot of time and effort but maintenance doesn’t. Setting aside time each week just to have a chat in a foreign language is all you need to keep it fresh.


This was written by .

Did you find this interesting, useful or encouraging? A quick share on Facebook or Twitter will make my day! Thanks. :)

Comments: If you’ve got something you’d like to add to this or some constructive criticism you can do that at the bottom of this page. Just please be respectful. Any abusive or nonsensical comments will be deleted.

Why Language Immersions Fail: Unwillingness To Assimilate

Language Immersion

G’day all!

Well… my time in South Korea has come to an end (for now).

An entire year of solid dedication has brought me very far with Korean but it’s time to whack it on my maintenance list and start a new project!

So where will I be heading to now and what language will I be learning? :)

Without giving too much away yet I’ve just put in a visa application for a country that’s been on my to-do list for a long time. There I plan to take on a unique and adventurous challenge for the next few months.

Since it’s definitely one of the most difficult countries in the world to visit I won’t jump the gun and announce it with certainty until next week when I hear back from the embassy just in case they refuse my visa (unlikely but it could happen!).

Thankfully I have a back-up destination and challenge just in case ;)

Make sure to connect with me on Facebook as I post more regular updates about what I’m doing there.


Want to get the most out of foreign language immersion? Assimilate!

One thing that I believe really sets what I do and say apart is my constant emphasis on the relational and cultural aspects of language learning.

For me culture and relationships are everything.

I want to convince people to see them not as the end result of language learning but rather as essential from the very beginning – think of it as something as important as learning vocab or grammar. Your success depends on it.

I’m unashamedly a cultural assimilationist (if that’s the right word for it!).

“To the Arabs I want to become an Arab. To the Koreans I want to become a Korean…” 

In both Egypt and Korea the best compliments I ever received were not “you speak good Arabic” or “you speak good Korean”.

The best compliments I’ve ever received are “you’re like an Egyptian” and “you act like a Korean man”.

It’s not because of language skill that this happens either – it’s because I’ve made an effort to assimilate to such an extent that I become an important part of their families and communities (despite imperfect language skills). This for me is the difference between learning how to use a language and actually learning a language.

Languages are not just a means to an end – they’re not just a tool used for getting a point across (unless all you want is to be able to communicate as a tourist). If you think like this then you’ll always be disconnected from the people you’re trying to communicate with no matter how much you study. Your language will be lifeless and dull.


Picking up a new language should begin with a willingness to cast aside one’s own cultural identity temporarily and wear a new one.

Enter a new society as an infantobserve and absorb every facet of the new culture and language as if you’re starting life all over again.

Don’t think ‘I want to speak French’.

Think ‘I want to be French’.


I put together a short video compilation recently of some of my time in Egypt and Korea.

What I wanted to do here was to try and give an idea of the relational benefits of foreign language immersion and home stays as someone who takes an assimilationist approach to foreign language learning.

Photos and videos never do it justice but you’ll hopefully get an idea of how much of a close bond I formed with these communities.


I started the video with a short clip of my favourite quote from one of my favourite films, Lawrence of Arabia (a bloke well known for his assimilation into Arab society).

Make sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel as well:


This was written by .

Did you find this interesting, useful or encouraging? A quick share on Facebook or Twitter will make my day! Thanks. :)

Comments: If you’ve got something you’d like to add to this or some constructive criticism you can do that at the bottom of this page. Just please be respectful. Any abusive or nonsensical comments will be deleted.

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