The Real Reason You Forgot The Language You Studied In School

  • 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.
  • Read time5 mins
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The Real Reason You Forgot The Language You Studied In School

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.

Do we forget languages?

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 Donovan Nagel.

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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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Nurul Bintoro

Nurul Bintoro

Yes, regular usage is important if you want to avoid a language become rusty. I used to learn Japanese at school but I’m not fluent in it despite 3 years of learning it because I never use it in real life. I never speak Japanese, never read articles in Japanese, never watch Japanese videos on YouTube, etc. I don’t have any interest in learning Japanese, that’s why I only learn it just to pass the exams.

However with English (it’s not my native language either), I know the importance of understanding English in this globalization era so I choose to use it in real life. I browse internet in English, choose English as my phone language, watch YouTube in English, etc so I can avoid it from getting rusty. Currently I’m not yet fluent in English, but I’m getting there because I actively use it everyday.



Sometimes I feel like you’re the only person on the whole of the internet who “gets it”. Any language learner forum has endless debate about this very topic, and I’m like “did you log your hours? How many hours in were you when you put it on pause?”

Then you have the ones that were “almost fluent” but after 6 months “I forgot almost all of it” and I’m just left speechless-- are they just liars or..? Maybe they’ve even deceived themselves? I’m so confused.

Alexander Krasnov

Alexander Krasnov

I support Scott’s question. I would like to hear your Korean as well, Donovan.
I myself studied Korean for around 5 years now, although I can’t say how many hours I clocked in on the language. It was rusty during most of the time of studies, except one point where I got to know and befriended a bunch of Korean guys who were studying Hebrew in Israel.
I used to hang out with them a lot, and because we were studying each other’s languages, what happened is that I spoke to them in Hebrew and they spoke to me in Korean. After a while, they started speaking to me in Korean more and I was able to answer quite well.

Regarding the language back in school, the one I lost is Arabic. I remember being quite good at it during high school (studied for 3 years), but that’s about it. I don’t remember almost anything in it now, not even basic grammar or simple vocabulary. Nowadays, Arabic is still not on a very high priority in my list of to-do languages, but I will likely get back to it someday (if I don’t get distracted by other languages, like it happened recently with Mongolian, for which I pushed Vietnamese back a bit on the list).

Scott B

Scott B

Glad to hear your language mission was a success, will you be doing a final video demonstrating the level you have attained? I was impressed by your last one. I’d also love to hear more about what specifically you learned about the Korean language and Korean culture.

Ruth Elisabeth

Ruth Elisabeth

I’m currently brushing up my French after a 7 year break. Like you, my comprehension is (almost) as good as before but speaking is a bit more difficult. I’m not used to switching between languages so I’m still struggling a bit. I keep on using Vietnamese grammar to make questions!

But to support your second and main point, I don’t even say I know any German these days despite 5 years of schooling. I’m sure if I learnt it again, it’d be like starting back at the beginning but slightly quicker because I can remember a teeny amount. Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth teaching languages in schools if they’re not going to be taught well because people leave with a negative view of their language abilities. Perhaps it does more harm than good?

Donovan Nagel

Donovan Nagel

That’s definitely true for languages like Irish. Most Irish people have no interest in ever learning it because of the way it was taught in school.

But I’m not sure if removing foreign language classes from schools is the best way to go. I suck at math and can’t remember much of what I learned in school but I’m sure it benefited me in some way. :)

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