Do Polyglots forget their languages

When you see topics like these, you might be surprised. I mean, isn’t language ingrained in people? Shouldn’t you remember a language the same way you remember your name? Well, except you have some serious neurodegenerative conditions. If you are asked to list things that one would forget, you would list other things except ‘language’. Polyglots are people who know, understand and speak multiple languages. There are different ways of learning languages, some of which include;

  • Naturalization

Naturalization is basically the process by which an individual is born and taught a particular set of principles, norms, culture and language. Naturalization ensures that children learn their first language (also known as “mother tongue”) as well as the official language of their country.

  • ●                Language Classes

Another way to learn a language is by taking classes. Many people take classes to learn languages that are foreign to their first language.

When a language is learnt, one might assume that it will not be forgotten. But it is possible to forget your language. This process is known as Language Attrition.

It is possible for polyglots to forget a language if they do not use that language very often. However, once they start practicing and using that language again it is possible to remember that language again and build stronger neural connections

How long does it take to forget a second language?

First, I need to mention it again that it is possible to forget a second language. Some people might not agree with the word “forget”, but rather say that it is possible to have a decline in language skills. Second language attrition can occur due to certain factors. Let’s look at some of them.

Degree of Use

Second-language attrition can happen when a speaker does not use his/her second language often and even when it is used, it is not sufficient enough.

Change in the environment

If an individual learns a language foreign to his natural language, it becomes his second language. However, if he relocates to a country that speaks a different language, there is a tendency that he will not speak the second language as frequently as is needed. This can also lead to a new language becoming dominant.

According to research, the process by which a second language can be forgotten depends on the period between when the language is learnt and the period when language competence is tested. This research postulates that the most frequent time of second language attrition occurs between the period when the individual stops learning the second language actively, and the period at which he is tested for competence in the language. You will agree that this period is not the same for different individuals. This is because we all learn at different paces, which means the time of language attrition is also different.

Also, as important as time of learning and time of language competence testing are, other factors need to be considered. Factors like method of learning, ease of learning, and how effective active learning occurs in the individual can also contribute to second language attrition. Usually, it is after a period where there is no active learning that one can then measure language attrition.

Can you forget a language completely?

This question has been debated by researchers and non-researchers alike. In fact, this debate is not likely to end anytime soon due to certain reasons. Some people think that because the brain is a super organ that can store decade-old memories, it is not entirely possible to forget a language. However, research has shown that it is possible to forget a language completely. Several factors may be responsible for this.

Level of competence

We all learn at different rates and this also affects the strength of our ability to retain what we learn in our memory. Thus, the higher your competence as a learner, the less likely you are to forget what you learn.

Socio-psychological factors

There is an attitude to learning. I am sure you must have heard the phrase before; but it is true. Your attitude to a particular language and its culture determines how fast and easy you will learn the language. Having a positive attitude will also spur you to find ways to ensure that you retain your lingual skills and competence.


This might sound like the same thing as attitude, but there is a slight difference. Attitude towards a language is an internal factor, meaning it solely depends on you and how open you are to learning. Motivation, on the other hand, is largely influenced by external factors, e.g. learning aids. A quick example is if you have classmates who are eager to learn a language, you will soon find that your interest in learning the language increases. Motivation and attitude are related as one affects the other directly and indirectly.


I know you probably expected this point as a factor. Children learn languages faster than adult learners. However, this study shows that the rate of attrition in children is also faster than in adults because their literacy in language is often limited. They can, therefore, forget if there is no attempt to hone their literacy skills.

There have been many cases where people forget a language completely, especially languages they fail to apply in the course of their lives. This is also possible if the individual does not engage in active learning in addition to the factors listed above.

Can you forget your native language?

Language attrition, which is the reduction or loss of language(s) in an individual affects native languages in people too. Your native language is basically the language you learn from infancy. This language is also known as “mother tongue” or “first language”. It is easy to learn your native language from infancy because when a child is born, the brain forms neurons. Connections are also created between these neurons, a phenomenon called neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity makes it easy for the brain to learn different activities (such as how to brush, eating habits and table manners, languages, and so on). These activities become ingrained in the memory so much that as children continue to grow, some of these activities become almost automated. Memories can be assessed based on two things; the strength of the memory and the ease of recall. What this means is that the stronger a memory is, the easier it is to recall the information. Studies have shown that a native language can be forgotten in the following ways;

Lack of use

This is a basic way in which languages can be forgotten. In fact, lack of use affects almost every skill you might have. Whatever you do not use frequently, you tend to forget. This is why polyglots forget one or more of the many languages that they know. On the other hand, a certain school of thought postulates that forgetting a language is good as it makes recall stronger. What this means is that when you forget a language and relearn it, your recall of the memory comes back stronger. It becomes harder for you to forget it again.

Psychological Effects

It is possible to forget your native language due to psychological effects. An example of this effect can be seen in adopted children. When a child is adopted by a family that speaks a different language from his/her native language, there is a high tendency that the child will learn the language that he/she is adopted into. This new language becomes easier to learn (remember the neuroplasticity of the child’s brain?) and lack of use of the former language makes it recessive while the new language becomes dominant. As the child grows, the native language is steadily replaced by a new language.

Exposure is another factor to consider when talking about psychological effects on languages. The amount of exposure to your native language determines how fluent you will be in the language.

Environmental Effects

A change in environment can make you forget your native language. There is region, you tend to pick up the language of the new town easily. This will help you relate with your new friends, neighbours, and salespeople in stores within your new region. If you do not find ways to ensure that you retain your literacy in your native language, you will most likely forget it in an attempt to be a member of the “new place”.


This is often not talked about as a reason why native languages can be forgotten. Those that point it out highlight it under psychological effects. Trauma is one uncommon reason why individuals forget their native language. It is an extreme case and is seen when individuals who experienced traumatic situations such as war deliberately forget their native language in an attempt to repress the painful memories caused by the war.

When one or more of these factors are combined, there is a very high chance of forgetting your native language.

How do polyglots maintain their languages?

It is very important for polyglots to maintain the languages that they know and speak. It is one thing to learn the languages, it is another thing to maintain the languages learnt. So many routines and methods are adopted by polyglot in their bid to remain polyglot and we’ll review some of them.

Making time to practice

Remember the phrase “Practice makes perfect”? This phrase applies to almost every skill that can be learned by humans. From playing instruments to sports, and even learning languages, practice leads to expertise. And you can say expertise is what separates the “boys” from the “men”. You become good at whatever you put your time to learn and practice. Therefore, make time out to practice speaking and writing the different languages that you know and are fluent in.

Thanks to technology, there are apps with which you can learn languages. These apps also have practice sessions and other creative ways with which you can test your language learning skills. Sometimes, these apps allow you interact with other learners in an online class setting. At the end of the session, you will be given a report of your assessment. Another fun way to practice your fluency in other languages is by interacting with people who are fluent in the same language. You can have lunches, dates and other fun hangouts with these friends. This way, you are sure that you will be motivated to learn more. Another advantage of interacting with friends that speak the same language (especially indigenous speakers) is that you understand the intricacies of the language, not just vernacular.

There has also been the opinion that a simple but practical way to practice your language skills is by watching movies that are interpreted in the language that you are interested in. You can also read books or listen to music and interpret what you read in the language you are practicing. It is true that practice can get boring, and you might find yourself thinking; “but I can speak the language quite fluently, so I can skip practice for a few days”. This is like climbing up a hill (through learning a new language) and then cruising downhill (by skipping practice). If you do not practice the languages you know and can speak, you will soon forget them.

Just ensure that you incorporate practice into your normal routines. This way, you can practice active learning and memory retention in a creative way. Whatever you do, do not stop practicing the language(s) you know.

Sticking to a learning/study schedule

It can become cumbersome when you are proficient in foreign languages. As much as it is important to practice the languages you know, how do you know which one to learn (and practice) first? Do you start with the ‘easier’ languages or the ‘difficult’ ones? How do you practice the languages? For how long? And how can the practice times be spaced such that one language does not become dominant over the other? In fact, is it possible for all the languages to be studied in a way that one maintains fluency in all of them? The more you think about it, the more you realize that there is a lot involved when it comes to learning and practicing languages. This is why there is a need for a learning/study schedule.

Schedules bring order into the otherwise seemingly haphazard world that knowing many languages might cause. Without order, one of two things will happen; either you “crash and burn out” from trying to keep abreast with being fluent in all the languages you know or your fluency in some languages increases, while the fluency in others decrease. This is why you must create a schedule that works for you. While creating a schedule, incorporate your daily routine (including your work schedules and breaks as well) to make the learning/study patterns seamless.

You should also space out the study times and input all the languages you know. This kind of spaced studying allows you rotate the number of languages equally. You can also mix a number of learning methods in your learning schedule to make it more fun. Do not forget that your learning schedule should be unique to you.

Using books

The beautiful thing about using books to learn a new language is that books teach you the lexis and structure of the language you are learning. This helps you develop a good vocabulary from the moment you start learning. Books also teach you the correct spelling of words; and because of the way we are wired in schools, the brain picks up words from hard copy print faster than any other means. So, reading books on the languages you are learning makes it easier for you to understand and learn the language. It is also easier to practice language fluency using books. Another ingenious way of using books to maintain the languages you know is by reading and interpreting in the language you are practicing. Say it out loud so your hearing as you read; this way you maximize the advantages of both reading and pronouncing words.

Using audio

This is another good way of studying and practicing languages- using audio aids. Listening to audio materials helps your speaking skills, as you learn how to pronounce words and speak fluently. Another advantage of using audio is that you can listen and carry out other activities (e.g. jogging or working out, cleaning, etc.)

Using TV shows

Watching TV shows in the language that you are practicing is a fun and creative way to learn and study. With TV shows, you also learn how to pronounce words and improve your fluency. You can also turn on subtitles in the language (if you like), and enjoy reading and listening to the language you are practicing. 

Travelling… a lot

Traveling is a good way to not only learn a foreign language, but to learn the culture of the region as well. Almost every language has a rich history that is interwoven with the culture of its natives. When you travel to such places, you understand the culture of its people and learn the language faster.


If you cannot afford to travel to countries where you can immerse yourself and learn/study the languages you are fluent in, then socializing is a good option. Socializing involves meeting people who speak the language(s) you have learnt. This meeting occurs in a relaxed and fun setting. This takes the load off the rigid structure that a class offers. A good example of socializing is language exchange. In language exchange, you get to meet people who are learning the same language as you. You spend time with each other, conversing in the language, correcting each other and exchanging ideas. Socializing helps you improve on your language skills and social skills as well.


In all of these methods, one thing is certain; it is better to learn a language and keep improving on it than to forget a language and try to relearn it (even though some experts say this is not such a bad idea). Imagine the frustration of spending several months learning a language only to forget it a few years down the line. Your best bet is to learn these languages with consistency and put them into good practice.

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