How To Not Forget A Language (Or Let It Get Rusty)

  • Donovan Nagel
    Written byDonovan Nagel
    Donovan NagelTeacher, translator, polyglot
    🎓 B.A., Theology, Australian College of Theology, NSW
    🎓 M.A., Applied Linguistics, University of New England, NSW

    Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator. Founder of The Mezzofanti Guild and Talk In Arabic.
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How To Not Forget A Language (Or Let It Get Rusty)

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Greetings from Seoul!

After a tiring month-long visit back home in Australia, the misses and I made a fairly last minute decision to reward ourselves with a visit to Korea en route to the US (we actually met each other here when we both lived here a few years back).

I can’t tell you how good it is to be back in Korea! (^ that’s how happy I was to eat Korean BBQ again) 🙂

Since living in Korea a few years ago, this place has kept a special place in our hearts.

And after putting such a huge amount of energy into learning the Korean language for so long, I’ve wanted so desperately to come back and use it (I haven’t tried to keep it fresh during my travels).

It’s actually become rustier than I thought!

I spent a solid year learning Russian in Kazan in 2014, a few months on Italian while living up on the Swiss border and of course, the rest of the time has been spent on Arabic in the Mid East working on Talk In Arabic so my Korean which I worked so hard on has been left by the wayside until now.

What I’m finding at the moment is that my instinctive reaction most of the time has been to respond in Russian or Arabic when people ask me something in Korean (listening comprehension is fine) so I’m having to take some serious time to fire up the engine again.

It’s so fun to get back into it!

The good news is that because I did learn it so well back in 2013 (I spent an entire year associating only with Koreans in a small town near Daegu), it’s only taking a quick reminder to get it all back.

The better you learn the first time, the harder it is to lose

“I learned a language before but I’ve completely forgotten it now.”

When I hear people say this I always say that it probably means they never learned it well to begin with.

If you learn a language well, it’s always going to be there.

I’m discovering more and more that with languages, the better you learn them the first time, the more deeply engraved in your memory they become and harder to forget (even if you don’t use them for a long time).

This is why I encourage people to focus on one language and learn it extremely well before moving on to another one or trying to learn multiple languages simultaneously.

If you’ve been following my blog for the past 5 years, you’ll know that I tend to choose one new language and spend a year or more totally focused on it and nothing else.

I treat each language like nothing else in the world matters at the time.

That way later on it’ll stick permanently even if I move on to something else for a while.

Even when I feel like I’ve ‘forgotten’ words and expressions, they’re usually just slightly beneath the surface of my memory so a single glance at a word (I’m refreshing my vocab using Memrise at the moment) can bring it all back very quickly.

In the case of Korean, I’ve found that over the last few days it’s taken just a couple of hours of glancing at vocab to get me communicating again.

Keeping a language active is easier than reactivating it

Of course, keeping a language active is a lot easier and more effortless in the long run to do than reactivating it after not using it for a long time.

The trick is to not let it get rusty in the first place! 🙂

I’m realizing now more than ever that if I had of put even 30 minutes a week into my Korean, I’d have no need to reactivate it after being away.

It would remain active because it’s being used regularly.

My Russian and Arabic by contrast never get rusty because I use them regularly enough.

So I’ve decided that in order to do this, from now on I’ll be doing weekly (or at the very least least bi-weekly) conversation sessions on italki with native Koreans to keep it fresh from now on.

No matter where I am in the world.

As an added bonus, I’m lucky because my fiancée learned Korean a few years ago too so we’re both now encouraging each other to keep at it as well as speaking to each other in Korean. 🙂

What this means is that although I’m not currently learning Korean (improving it is just not a priority for me right now), I’m keeping what I do know already in use so that it doesn’t get rusty again.

Passive activities help as well of course (reading, watching media or using great online learning resources like TTMIK, KoreanClass101 or Rocket Korean) but they’re not going to keep my speaking skills active.

Regular conversation helps us negotiate meaning which is the most natural way to improve.

Have you “forgotten” a language or had experience reactivating a rusty language?

What helped you?

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek


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Hello, Donovan,
Nice blog ! And very usefull article :)
At, we also help people willing to learn french and English.
We would love to help each other ! or get in touch !



There is nothing better than keeping a language alive if are really keen to learn that second language. And this can only be done by using it frequently with other people speaking the same language.



This is really encouraging! The first language I learned was French, and it often takes a backseat to current interests, but because I learned it *really* well, simply listening to radio, reading something, or watching a movie reactivates a lot of it. My Spanish, while good, isn’t so solid, and I really feel it when I take a couple weeks off.



What about a language you haven’t used for a long time? By that, I mean 10 to 20 years? In the 1990s, I learned Japanese to a decent level but haven’t used it since around the turn of the century. I’ve thought about trying to reactivate it, but wasn’t sure 1) how, and 2) whether the effort would be worth it.

Benjamin Houy

Benjamin Houy

I’d actually love to reactivate my Korean too. The thing is I didn’t learn it as deeply as you did, so it would require lots of effort and for now I prefer to focus on Russian (because I need it).

I’m actually reactivating my native language, French. It may sound funny, but now that I live in Germany and almost never speak French, I find it hard to speak French. I can easily reactivate it of course, but my instinctive answer is always in English (except in my dreams).

And you’re right, I think the best way to maintain a language is simply to make the conscious decision to use it every week.

And regarding what you say about learning several languages at once, my experience is that when I learn several languages at the same time, I tend to feel bad, because I don’t focus entirely. So no I try to focus on one language at a beginner level, and one at a higher level that I just maintain by reading and talking.

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
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