Forgetting and Remembering Languages

Olga Khazan recently published an interesting piece on learning and forgetting languages in The Atlantic,  you can read it here.

This is definitely something I have experienced:

“People who are in an extended process of forgetting a language avoid using it because they no longer feel sure about it and they do not want to make too many mistakes,” Grosjeanwrote recently. “If they do have to use it, they may cut short a conversation so as not to have to show openly how far the attrition has progressed.”

I feel this horrible embarrassment anytime I meet an old friend I used to converse in Spanish with. They all also speak either English, German, or both, so it’s not a problem. But the initial embarrassment of not being able to speak Spanish anymore is followed by the embarrassment of speaking a language we didn’t use to use with each other — when we first switch, it feels fake and not at all authentic. Fortunately, we have known each other for more than half our lives at this stage and love each other to bits, so we persist!

I’m also pleased to read that

If someone came up and told you your childhood address again, “you would have the feeling that that information was somewhere in the recesses of your memory, and in fact, you would be likely to relearn it very quickly,” writes the lab of the UCLA cognitive psychologist Robert Bjork.

And indeed, some researchers think that forgetting information and later relearning it can actually be useful—the knowledge comes back in stronger the second time around.

If the same thing really does hold true for languages, as well, there may yet be some hope of me re-learning French, which I spoke until I was about four.

Anyone else forgetting or re-learning languages?

On the English language … again

I recently read an interesting article in The Atlantic on how tricky spelling is in English, and how this hampers learning in other areas for kids. Very interesting!  I have to admit that I used to be totally mystified by why learning to read was such a lengthy process in the Anglophone world … (I started my schooling in Germany). Now I know a little more. It explains the push to start literacy instruction earlier and earlier (but a link in the article also explains why this is not necessarily a good, developmentally appropriate idea). Lots of food for thought, as always. I can’t find the link now (found it), but it seems that the Italian education minister has announced that Italian-English bilingual instruction in several subjects will become widely available in public schools in the near future, so this raises interesting questions there too. I suppose this is where you debate which language should be learned first, and through which language children should first, formally be introduced to reading and writing (not English, it would seem!). I read about a series of case studies of bilingual immersion programmes in Canada a while back that addressed some of these issues by Jim Cummins, if I’m not mistaken.

Apparently a similar project is already underway in Lombardy. And it seems that the British Council is in on it too.

Accents and pronunciation

This article in The Guardian reminded me of a story I recently heard from a fellow mom of bilingual kids. A young kid (elementary school) who is growing up bilingual with one Irish and one Italian parent, got a lower mark than expected in an English oral exam. When the child asked their teacher why they hadn’t gotten full marks, they were told that their pronunciation was ‘not correct’ — they spoke with an Irish accent, and the teacher is teaching ‘British English’. I am assuming that by ‘British English’, this teacher meant RP, as much as biscuit v cookie vocab issues.

This has always been a bit of an issue for me when teaching English — as much as I love New English File, I’ve always absolutely hated the pronunciation sections. I don’t speak like that, so why teach my students to? Surely the aim is communication, not sounding like you’re from a very particular place and class? So long as your pronunciation (note that pronunciation and accent are not the same thing) is intelligible, you’re good to go, in my opinion. All sorts of cultural and class issues going on here …

Minae Mizumura’s The Fall of Language in the Age of English

The book’s basic premise, developed in a sinuous line through seven chapters, is that every language creates and nourishes untranslatable truths. Dominant languages infuse their verities into the wider world, crowding out alternative visions from more minor tongues. Linguistic asymmetry isn’t new—over the past two centuries, Latin, classical Chinese, and French each took a turn in the sun—but never has one language so completely eclipsed the rest, Mizumura says, as today, in the age of the Internet, with English.

An interesting  book review and article about what is lost in the rise and fall of languages (particularly the English language) , from Slate.