Is learning a language like riding a bicycle?

by Translation Guy on May 4, 2010

Now, riding a bike, that’s something you don’t forget, no matter how long you’ve been off two wheels. A few years ago we rented some bikes in Amsterdam and, even after all those long years without two wheels between my legs, I found I could still push a pedal or two around and about the canals. Now, I was no Lance Armstrong―probably peddles and chews gum at the same time―but I hadn’t been able to ride and chew before either.  The same thing is true when it comes to language acquisition. Once learned, you don’t forget, or at least you don’t forget as much. Languages learned during childhood and later lost nevertheless leave their tread marks on the neural pathways of the brain decades after the language is no longer spoken. According to researcher at the University of Bristol in the UK, adoptees and immigrants who have no memory of their native tongue retain at least some information.

Linguist Jeff Bowers and his team found that early learning leaves an indelible imprint on the ability to perceive the sounds of a language. They discovered that persons who were exposed to Zulu and Hindi early in life could distinguish the sounds of those languages readily even after not hearing or speaking the language for years and years, even though these childhood speakers had forgotten their mother’s tongue many years past. In contrast, adults who had never spoken those languages were unable to hear them. So it’s easy to imagine that those who have lost a language will find it easier to pick it up if they need to. Language leaves deep ruts in the grey matter.  Karen Schrok writes in Scientific American Mind that “because memories are neuronal connections that get reinforce with regular access, so the findings mean that even connections that have not been re-accessed for decades do not disappear completely.”

Personally, I find this a little frightening―seems it means I’m going to have to donate my brain to science, since it’s pretty clear that I am an exception to this rule. I have the habit of using “umbrella” and “rainbow” interchangeably, and I still can’t tell the difference between Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino. And Japanese…forget it. All those long days of study spent pouring (beer) over my kanji books, the endless hours reciting Japanese verb endings in the university language lab, and all those arguments lost to my Japanese wife were for naught. Now, like the waters of Basho’s poetical frog pond, which I’ve forgotten, my Japanese language skills are still. Strange thing is, for years, I had no idea. For years. For a long time I thought my Japanese was still pretty good. But rather than take personal responsibility for my poor study habits, I hold my father-in-law responsible.

I was a Japanese New Year’s prisoner trapped in my father-in-law’s house. During the Oshogatsu New Year celebration, which lasts for days, there is absolutely nothing to do but watch TV and sit around eating tangerines, and I don’t have the attention span required for television viewing. My father-in-law and I and another less familiar relation were sitting around curled up under the kotatsu (a kind of heated coffee table covered with a blanket and the only way to keep from freezing your tail off in a Japanese house in those days), having a pleasant chat in my fluent Japanese. At one point, I noticed that Dad was following up on everything I said, kind of elaborating on it, expanding it, explaining it…then it hit me like a squirt of tangerine juice in my eye.

“You’re translating for me!” I accused, waving a tangerine skin at him.

“Oh no, no I’m not. I’m just commenting…” I was ready to spit a seed at him, but that’s considered rude in Japanese society.

I turned to our visitor. “Does my Japanese make any sense? Can you understand what I’m saying?” A pause. She had that cornered look in her eyes.

“Well, sure, generally speaking, yes.” Now that’s the literal translation from Japanese, but what it really meant was, “I don’t have a clue what you are saying.” A brutal revelation, which I expressed to my father-in-law in hopes that he could explain how I felt to our guest.

I wasn’t really upset, but grateful. Over the years, as the mighty edifice of my Japanese ability crumbled to dust, my father-in-law had hung on to my meaning, becoming the last man in Japan who could understand what I was saying. Or thought he understood. My wife would laugh at our conversations sometimes. “You guys think you are having a conversation, but you’re talking about two completely different things.” Despite severe cognitive decline in his later years, in our last hospital bedside conversation, I was able to get him to tell me where he had hidden his stash of home-made plum wine. Shows what my wife knows. It’s the thought that counts!

Any other stories on the lack of language retention? If I recall correctly, I’m not the only one with this problem.


  1. Ken,

    Thank you for this blog entry. My mom and aunties still get a kick out of my ability to distinguish between Tagalog and Cebuano sounds that don’t exist in English as well as my ability to produce these sounds accent-free, despite having left the Philippines at age 3 and being subsequently immersed in English and Spanish, forever (I thought) to the detriment of my native language abilities.

    As I’ve studied Tagalog sporadically in recent years, my pronunciation has been praised by instructors and scorned by classmates. I learned years ago that one’s native language can be brought back to an accent-free and fluent, if not native, level. From one Compuserve survivor to another, thanks for reminding me and motivating me to keep at it!


    PS – Is the SciAm Mind article by Karen Schrok specifically about language (or at least in part?)? I’d love to read it if you would let me know in which issue to find it. Thanks!

  2. Sydney1 says:

    Learning a language is more difficult, but I get it, the same as in you never quite forget it.

  3. Aaron says:

    I’d have to disagree, I’ve taken many languages as a we lad and completely forgotten them

  4. Research with children has demonstrated that the ability to learn new words is greatly affected by working memory span – specifically, by how much information they can hold in that part of working memory called “phonological short-term memory”. The constraining effect of working memory capacity on the ability to learn new words appears to continue into adolescence. But, as you grow in experience, building a vocabulary, this constraint becomes less important. Because working memory capacity is measured in “chunks” – and the amount of information contained in a chunk is extremely malleable. To a large extent, developing chunking strategies is what memory improvement is all about.

  5. Brayden says:

    Music and also has a lot in common with languages. Language like music is rhythmic. Your brain will learn by a mnemonic, simply the rhythm of the language. Here’s a personal experience with rhythm and how it is connected to music and language learning:
    About 15 years ago I had bleeding in my brain, a brain lesion, which affected my memory. While being tested for memory, the tester read a sequence of random number. I could remember 5. Which is 2 digits bellow the average of 7 for short term memory, as I was having memory problems. However, when the tester read in reverse I could remember 14 digits. Which is really almost impossible for short term memory. The way I did it is I listened to the rhythm of the testers voice. The tester had a very up down animated voice. When I did this the numbers were like a song. The take away from this is learning languages with music is a great way. Not only do you have a fun song to listen to but you can mnemonically attach the words to the melody.

    • Ken says:

      Brayden, that is very interesting. A musical memory palace as a substitute for recall. I figure that my memory is the worst, yet when I took one of those pychological memory tests, I got a perfect score, and I think for similar reasons, because in such a controlled situation that it was easy to create a clean structure that made recall easier. Impossible in everyday coffee-fueled distractions where I just have to let Outlook do the “chunking” for me, as described by Alexa.

      And Kylie, I came across a language instruction method based on music in my tweet research, but now I can’t remember where I put it. Since you guys are interested in music and language, I’ll do some posts on this fascinating topic soonish.

  6. Kylie says:

    In about six months will have music written just for the purpose of teaching Russian. but until then… hmm I will have to look around. But my general advice is the rhythm of the words should be integrated into the rhythm of the song. I think generally though if you like the type of music you are listening to you will pick it up. Although I am a classical music lover, I listen to reggae or spiritual music often for picking up new words. Reggae or spiritual music, I could listen to for hours if its beautiful, and it just kind of goes into your head after a while. But any music you really like is good, and you can translate the words. Even if you learn a couple of words a day though music, that is a painless progress.

  7. Brooke eeeee says:

    I found a Russian Reggae band called 5nizza.

  8. Thomas says:

    The Vulcan written language has several different forms, some of which combine with each other.

    The primary version resembles terrestrial musical notes and is written in vertical columns running top-to-bottom, left-to-right. The primary Vulcan script consists of a central staff, along which spirals, long and short dashes, and dots are written – much like music…weird, I never made the connection before reading this…

  9. Dady says:

    5nizza is a fine example of Reggae.

  10. Uff, I have this thing with Greek and German. I cant hold them in my brain at the same time. I have been living in and out of Greece and Germany for years and those two languages act like balls hitting each other on a pool table

LiveZilla Live Chat Software