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Languages Lost and Found: What to Do With 'Old' Languages I've Stopped Actively Studying?

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Almost miraculously I managed to speak basic Burmese. After having spent several weeks “hacking Burmese,” I got through quite a few basic conversations during my travels in Myanmar at the end of Dec 2013. I can’t claim any high level fluency but equipped with 150 words and phrases, I could bumble my way through situational dialogues. It also made my trip to Burma wicked funny-interesting at time too!

So, what to do now with my Burmese?

I’m no longer in Burma, have no Burmese friends and am not planning to travel there. This arguably is not a great situation to motivate me to maintain or continue learning Burmese.

At the same time, it’s painful, after a study hiatus, to feel the loss of memories, to know that you once knew how to say something but now it is simply a blank.

Even worse are those times when someone asks you what you can say in that language and you don’t remember much of anything.

Today I was reminded to review my Burmese in Memrise, where I built my course and added my memory queues or mems. Memrise reminded me that I had 154 “plants to water,” which is their way of saying that it’s time reinforce memory connections. Even though I’ve seen this reminder off and on for a couple weeks, today I decided to go back and see what I still knew.

The first question appeared and my mind flinched. I couldn’t recall the answer. Not surprisingly the month long break from any exposure or use of Burmese was quite apparent. I had been using some basic phrases and numbers nearly everyday a couple months ago and I could produce them without much effort, but suddenly I had a lapse in recall and had to think. Some numbers had basically disappeared from my recall and other vocabulary had failed to be quite as precise.

It’s a sad feeling to no longer remember. And yet the question remains: should I try to study a language that I have little likelihood of using again?

Moreover, in my obsession with time and productive use of it, would it be better to simply let the language memories go and return later to re-learn when I have reason to learn Burmese OR would my time be better allotted on occasionally reviewing Burmese, so the current memories and learning remains?

I suppose there is no perfect answer to how you handle past languages. If it’s a language you’ve put a lot of effort into and obtained a decent level, then I’d say it’s a pity to let it go. This is essentially true if you reach intermediate or higher levels. These are languages that I think should be pushed to the next level or maintained.

On the other hand, for a travel language hack like I did with Burmese, the answer isn’t so clear. I’ve already moved onto other projects and other languages, so allotting special time to studying Burmese doesn’t make a ton of sense.

At the same time, there are occasions where it’s fun to go back to those old languages and review them. So, today, in the midst of writing this post, I took a few minutes and reviewed some of my Burmese. I honestly didn’t remember a lot of what I previously knew, but to hear and remember just a few of the phrases made me smile and wonder.

What about you? What do you do with the old languages you’ve previously learned but aren’t actively studying?


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