Many of my friends think that living and working abroad is a dream. It lets you immerse yourself in a foreign language and makes learning about your secondary language’s culture easier. All of that is true. There is, however, a flip side to that coin that you should avoid at all costs, despite how difficult that might be to do. As human beings, our brains are constantly learning and, like every good tool, if you don’t use and sharpen it, it starts to rust (so to speak). Put another way, if you don’t use what you’ve learned and continue building on that knowledge, you will forget it.
Years ago, I would have told you that this is all nonsense, of course. Honestly. I thought that once you learned something, it was engraved in your brain somehow. Like riding a bike. But what happens when you don’t get on a bike for an extremely long time? You may start off lumbering through the motions until, after some practice, you retrain your brain and ride like a pro again. Well, it’s the same with language, including native language. That’s right. You can lose the language you’ve learned from infancy, the one most of us dream in (we can sometimes dream in languages we’re learning or ones we hear frequently), the one in which we express our deepest love and most intense frustrations. You can lose it, slowly but surely.
I first experienced this after I moved to London from Spain, where I was born. After living in London for a while, I returned to visit my hometown. I remember sitting down to have a leisurely chat with my father when, suddenly, I completely blanked on the Spanish word for “screen” (as in, a window screen). I remember looking at the window, seeing the screen and thinking, “How do you say that?” Eventually, my father realized what I was trying to say and blurted out “mosquitera!” as if he were the sole contestant on my new offline game show “Brain Fart.”
“What’s wrong?,” he asked. “You can’t remember how to say ‘screen’”?
Uh, nope. I couldn’t. I mean, in London, I just don’t remember seeing any. Not one! And because I didn’t interact with them, the word fell into disuse. So I realized that the old saying, “use it or lose it” holds very true for language. Of course, “screen” is now a word that I don’t think I’ll ever forget, specifically because of that experience. But it taught me that I have to make more of an effort to keep language alive. Since then, I’ve created a regiment that’s served me well, even after moving to the US. I listen to Spanish radio, be that music or talk. I read books and online news articles in Spanish. And every so often I watch Spanish TV on the Internet. I should also add that I am lucky enough to be able to speak Spanish at home. Now, while all of this may seem like a bit of overkill, remember that the rest of my world is entirely Anglophone (it’s true that there’s a large Spanish-speaking population in New York but most of my friends speak English) so I welcome all of the Spanish content I can get.
Please feel free to comment and share your experiences. I would love to hear about them!
Thanks for reading!