On forgetting languages

What’s it like to forget a language? or two? And what does that mean for acquired vs. ‘learned’ language? In this post I reflect upon my experience with two separate languages, and how different forgetting can be.


(Biblical) Hebrew

I studied Biblical Hebrew in Seminary, for three years way back in 2004-2007. It was all grammar translation (GTM), and I did quite well. I learnt my paradigms, used brute force rote-memorisation to get a lot of vocab in my head, and passed my exams, and took my Old Testament subjects on the Hebrew text rather than English. I didn’t do a fourth year though, and I didn’t really continue on with Hebrew in a significant way. I could use my grammatical knowledge to leverage commentaries, I’d occasionally employ it in sermons, but I didn’t have any ongoing regular use of the language. In 2014 while in Mongolia I ended up teaching a Hebrew exegesis course on Amos, which would not have been my choice! Anyway, I still had enough conceptual knowledge that I could work over a text and parse/analyse to figure out its meaning and how to teach it. This, though, is a long way from an active knowledge, let alone even a passive reading knowledge. These days I recognise that I actually don’t know Hebrew. I’ve begun again with more communicative-based approaches, because I believe only that will stick.


I learnt Mongolian in Mongolia. In 2012 I started, with one-on-one tuition for 4.5 hrs a day, 5x a week. Beyond that we were involved, though not heavily involved, in day to day life with Mongolian speakers, e.g. at our Mongolian church. After the first year I began teaching, while still doing some language specific work, but now I was working/operating in a Mongolian environment. I taught exegesis classes in New Testament, primarily in Mongolian, and then other content-based classes usually with a translator. By our third and final full year in Mongolia, I could happily participate in most conversations, teach in the language, and deliver sermons, but it was still stretching my abilities. Nevertheless, it was an acquired language that I was competently proficient in.


2015 is the last year I spent time in Mongolia. I’ve had a very few occasions to speak it since, but they are uncommon. I made the choice not to spend significant amounts of time maintaining the language, which I could have. That is, I could read/listen/watch and otherwise consume Mongolian content, but I don’t because I’ve chosen to invest my time elsewhere. And yet, the difference in my forgetting of these two languages is marked to me. I literally don’t know any Hebrew, beyond the little I’ve relearned in recent study. I couldn’t produce a paradigm, I read words that are basic and high frequency and don’t recognise them, I can’t get through anything more than a basic sentence. It’s like I never learnt it at all. That’s what it feels like to forget a GTM learned language – you have to start over. Sure, there are bits and pieces of knowledge in my head, which come out and re-activate, but it’s fragmented and it’s not a system. Mongolian is more like… dormant. If I try, I can switch my mind over and formulate complete fluent sentences with good idiomatic, even informal, language. I could probably hold a conversation, but it would be a little slow. I often can’t find a word that I know, but if I then hear it I recognise it with an, “aha, of course”. I’m sure it is becoming more dormant, like a dragon in a long slumber, but I also know that it could be reawakened. Because it’s a complete linguistic system in my mind, and I could functionally operate in Mongolian.

That, for me, is the difference in forgetting a ‘learned’ and an acquired language.

One response

  1. Thanks – interesting as always. Perhaps I could counter with my experience of ‘forgetting’ Latin and Greek. After my BA degree in Classics (heavily linguistic-based) I read neither language at all for 14 years (pretty busy getting involved in financial regulation in London UK and singing evensong – but that is a different matter.) I then decided it was time to teach Latin and Greek. so took a year out to get a teaching qualification. I focused on Latin to start with – not much of a problem to get it back up to where it had been previously, although to be honest, it was never particularly fluent. Vocabulary came back very quickly. Greek was entirely different. I started Greek two years after Latin at school, but it was a much slower process to recover it. I had an enlightened Head of Department, so I took a second year Greek set of 14 year olds and built up my skills with them. I did find on the first two and three years that, on reading Greek, I could read through a sentences and not recognise a particular word: then a couple of seconds later I KNEW what it meant.

    Didn’t stop me from ending up teaching undergraduates full time for twelve years, but has given me an interest in what it means to learn and/or acquire languages.

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