Knowledge of foreign languages ​​lasts a lifetime, according to new research

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Posted on August 25, 2022

The old adage use it or lose it doesn’t seem to hold true when it comes to a person’s ability to retain and use a foreign language, a new study has found.

The basics of a language remain in the memory for a lifetime

Participants in the University of York study were tested on their French 50 years after their last exam – and were found to perform at the same level as recent students.

The team tasked almost 500 people who had taken the GCSE or A-level French between the 1970s and 2020 to take a French vocabulary and grammar test. They included a survey of whether participants had used their knowledge of French over the years since their exams, and excluded anyone who had studied a language later in life.

They found that there was no change in language proficiency over time. Participants who had taken their exam 50 years ago and had not used French since obtained the same level as young school leavers, as well as those who used French occasionally.

Urgent reminder

The study also showed that in times of special need, such as problems at an airport or a health emergency abroad, participants were able to recall the correct words in a foreign language in the short term, which which suggests that the brain only needs a small amount of motivation to recall this language learning.

Professor Monika Schmid, head of the Department of Language and Linguistics at York University, said: “We often say that if you don’t use a language you will lose it, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Language knowledge is surprisingly stable over long periods of time, compared to other subjects such as math, history or science.

“This is probably due to the way the language is stored in memory. Vocabulary is remembered in the same way as facts, dates and names, for example, and although this memory is vulnerable to erosion, grammar is learned in the same way as riding a bicycle – a kind of memory muscular, which is much more stable.

“Vocabulary knowledge, on the other hand, exists in a densely connected network, which means that we only need to recall a word that sounds like a foreign language word for our brain to remember it – a slight boost in the right side of the brain and it comes back flooded.

Net language

The researchers describe this system as a “linguistic network” in which all it takes is a single word stored in one part of the network, even if it is a word spoken in the language of the country of origin, to stimulate other parts of the “network” where foreign words may be stored. These small but regular stimuli, over time, keep foreign language skills “wake up” in the brain, even if the person is not using them.

Professor Schmid said: ‘We don’t have separate areas of the brain for different languages, so parts of the English language will overlap with parts of the brain where you’ve stored the French you’ve learned, for example.

“If you hear the word ‘apple’ in English, the mental representation of the word ‘pomme’ for apple in French will receive a small amount of stimulus each time you say it in English. This stimulation is even stronger if the two words are similar in both languages.

Refresher courses

The researchers pointed out, however, that people won’t suddenly find themselves fluent in a foreign language after years of not using it, but the study suggests that the basics of the language remain in memory, and so it shouldn’t be necessary. lots of learning to pick up where it left off.

Professor Schmid is currently investigating whether language renewal programs could be developed to reactivate and build on the knowledge that most people still have, rather than encouraging people to start language learning from scratch as most language courses do.

Professor Schmid said: “Many people are reluctant to revisit the languages ​​they have learned because they fear they will have to relive some of the more ‘boring’ parts of lessons, such as grammar, but our work suggests that this We hope this will encourage more people to pick up foreign languages ​​if they knew it would only take a short time in refresher courses to bounce back to the original level.

The research is published in the log Language teaching.

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