Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Mysterious Case of the Forgotten Language

Over at Peter Rozovsky's Detectives Beyond Borders recently, the discussion turned to the curious fact that one of the members of the Swedish group ABBA, once fluent in English, has completely forgotten it. As several of us were trying to figure out how this could possibly be, it occurred to me that it would make a good post on this lapsed but not forgotten blog.

According to this informal but anecdotally interesting blog post, the facility with which children learn languages is exactly the reason why they forget them more easily when distanced from them too. In contrast,

Adult learners normally learn languages through grammar which gives them a skeleton onto which they hang the meat of vocabulary. Grammar based learning never delivers as good as result as immersion based learning but it does have the advantage of giving you hard wired rules that you don’t forget.

And another tangentially related article tells us that when people are trying to learn a new language, forgetting the correlate word in their own tongue may actually be an adaptive strategy. College students who had one year of Spanish under their belts were asked to name objects in Spanish, and the more they did so, the harder it was for them to come up with the word in English. Apparently, it gets easier to keep both in mind as you become more fluent in the second language.

Finally, I happened upon this rather poignant NPR piece about a Thai-American woman who was relearning Thai as an adult after her parents had made the decision that they would all speak only English in their new home in the Midwest--an adaptive strategy in its own right, but one that may have brought as many losses as it did gains.