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Is It Possible To Forget Completely?

Jake on September 25, 2011:

“I’m curious to know though if you think it’s possible to become completely illiterate in a language by letting your frequency drop down to 0 for an extended period of time. Personally, I don’t think you can ever forget all of what you learned, but rather just become “rusty” or “stale.” I think that if it is possible to forget a language that you were fluent in, it would take a longer time than any human lives, but that’s just what I think.”
Critical Frequency: A Brand New Way of Looking At Language Exposure | AJATT | All Japanese All The Time

I’m not an expert on this by any means, but literacy is a skill, and I have read about cases of people who only read in school, as part of their schooling, and essentially did not read at all outside of school. One case in particular was that of a low-SES American woman, a native user of English, born and raised in the US.

She lived in New York(?), and worked as a housekeeper or something. IIRC, she was from somewhere rural and went to school until about the fourth grade. Decades later, while not completely illiterate, she had dipped below functional level.

So, whether or not one can forget completely within a lifetime is irrelevant; the point is that (in very “normal”, human time) one can forget so much as to become sub-functional — to become functionally illiterate. It’s sorta like dehydration — it’s not that there’s no water left in the body, it’s just that there’s so little that it can’t run.

Again, I’m not an expert on memory, linguistics, literacy or dehydration, so…take everything I say with so much salt that it hurts 😀 .

  20 comments for “Is It Possible To Forget Completely?

  1. Apple Head
    October 8, 2011 at 02:57

    A couple of years ago, I had an opportunity to go to Japan that ended up not working out.  A friend of mine told me about a lady I could correspond with to help me out when I got to Tokyo.  Upon receiving an e-mail from this lady, I figured she was Japanese because her English was so broken and degenerated.  Nope!  She was American, born and raised, yet her English was absolutely appalling.  She moved to Japan when she was 23, I think, and got married and stayed there for another 20+ years.  The sad part is that she’s one of those people who never quite got the hang of Japanese despite living there.  She’s subpar at both languages and I think that’s a terrible place to be.

    • October 9, 2011 at 01:14

      It’s horrible when that happens. Speaking one language is better than “getting by” in two. I bet she sounded Japanese, too.

    • November 2, 2011 at 02:55

      Yeah this can happen to Japanese coming to the USA.  Though I think with my aunt it was that the Japanese language had changed rapidly during the 50’s and 60’s and when she went back she was confused.   She was understandable in English, but always had a thick Japanese accent.   Really, most people never get near native level in a learned language.  If you just let time take it’s course and don’t work on it, I think this is what happens. 
      Me, I think I forgot all the genders of all my high school German vocab.  Though oddly sometimes German words come bubbling back when I’m trying to construct a sentence even now.  Not sure what this means.

  2. Caren
    October 8, 2011 at 05:31

    When I was little, I visited Portugal a lot. My parents had a friend there who used to speak French fluently – he had lived in France for many years as a teenager. When I met him, he had forgotten everything (except very basic words like greetings) because he hadn’t gone back to France in over 20 years, and it was rare for him to find anybody to speak with over there, nor did he read books or watch tv or do anything in French.

    So yeah, I believe that with enough time and lack of practice, a fluent person can forget even to the point of absolute beginnerhood. 

  3. Jake
    October 8, 2011 at 05:53

    I knew these words sounded familiar! Thanks for your post Khatz, good point you bring up. I guess it doesn’t really matter if you forget everything, but rather enough to where you can’t even have a conversation and such. I guess, in a way, that’s just as bad as forgetting all of it. Thanks again, for bringing this up, you da man!

  4. ライトニング
    October 8, 2011 at 13:53

    Sometimes I imagine myself in Japan, with forgotten English.

    • October 9, 2011 at 01:13

      You’re getting there. Forgotten English? What the heck :p

      • ライトニング
        October 9, 2011 at 04:38

        What’s wrong with it?

        • zohan
          October 9, 2011 at 15:18

          I don’t know either, it must’ve been some kind of bad joke from her part. Just ignore her.

        • Sarkoth131
          October 10, 2011 at 04:38

          “Sometimes I imagine myself in Japan, having forgotten English.” Sounds a little more right to me but idk.

          • October 11, 2011 at 04:08

            Yup Sarkoth I agree with you. The first sentence sounded “weird” to me.
            PS: “on” her part.

            • Nagoya Blue
              October 13, 2011 at 12:44

              No grammar Nazis, please.  We all make mistakes, but the important part (communicating his idea) came through.
              Never made a mistake?  Ever native speakers mess up in normal speech every day.

  5. October 9, 2011 at 11:01

    I know an American guy totally fluent in Japanese woh has lived in Japan for 20+ years, he’s around 50 years old. His wife is Japanese, but they lived in the States together for many years when they were in their 20s. She spoke English very well then. Now though, she doesn’t speak -any- English. Their daughter grew up in Japan but has managed to become mostly bilingual because her father only speaks to her in English while her mom speaks to her in Japanese, and the girl is smart. She works for a multinational now in management.

    Anyway, so yeah, his wife totally forgot English. She had no reason to speak it at home, her husband and child both speak Japanese, she lives in Japan out in the boonies… there you have it!

    I used to speak basic French but that’s gone now too. 

  6. October 9, 2011 at 19:10

    This Japanese soldier lived in the Ukraine from ages 20-80 and couldn’t speak Japanese when he came home.

    • Agent J
      October 10, 2011 at 07:27

      Khatz has blogged about this before.

  7. Nagoya Blue
    October 13, 2011 at 12:45

    I met a Japanese woman who’d lived in the U.K for many years… Japanese friend found it difficult to understand her Japanese.

  8. Eh
    October 26, 2012 at 06:18

    That’s pretty much my worst fear – that my English will deteriorate and eventually disappear. That’s why I’ve resolved to still read a lot of books in English, write a lot, speak with English friends, etc, while I’m living in Japan. And yet still get copious amounts of Japanese in. What do you guys think?

  9. August 9, 2013 at 14:29

    One has to wonder whether the knowledge resides somewhere very deep in your subconscious memory. I would really like to see studies of these people who have “forgotten” a language they once knew well as they try to “re-learn” it. I suspect that their learning curve would look very different from that of an absolute novice.

  10. August 11, 2013 at 05:28

    With guitar I try to play every day not necessarily for mastery. Soeetimes I only play for five minutes. First of all, I like it and in a way I’m immunizing myself against forgetting. I create little islands for future land based invasions.

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