Why I don’t worry about “losing” additional languages
A high school teacher once told me to stop studying (I had come to him terribly stressed about not fully understanding some calculus principles before a test) and instead to let the knowledge settle.
The concept has come back to me in the last two weeks, as I’ve reengaged with Turkish and Arabic through language exchange programs. In Turkish, I felt comfortable saying familiar phrases, and people praised my pronunciation. In Arabic, I put together a few basic sentences of meaning for my partner, and for the first time started thinking of some Arabic words in the Arabic script, versus only in transliteration. In short, I don’t think I have backslid that much in the months or years without practice; rather, some of my knowledge has actually solidified.
The sediment approach
As my high school teacher suggested, sometimes a break is what is needed for understanding to settle and become fixed. Even though it runs counter to scientific descriptions of the brain’s functioning, in which networks of neurons fire together, the image of layers of sediment layering at the bottom of a river appeals to me as a metaphor for language learning. I can’t always be stirring the language up, wondering if what I’m saying is correct or chasing new grammar.
It feels particularly true for Turkish learning, and it’s something I noticed a while ago. I started learning more than a dozen years ago, when my family first traveled to Turkey on holiday with a basic teach-yourself language book. I learned a few more words every summer. After university, I traveled for four months in the country and made huge leaps by comparison. Years later, with minimal exposure to the language, I went back for almost a full year, and was surprised by how much I remembered. In some ways, I felt more confident. It was as though each interval of time laid down a new amount of progress. Looking back, I will call this the sediment approach in action.
So, if it has been a few months or years since you last used an additional language, take heart. Imagine the layers of sediment waiting for you, waiting for a new layer to be laid on top.