Remembering a language from your childhood

Were you every exposed to a language when you were young, however, have thought that you have forgotten it?  The reality is, your brain has some foundation already set. The purpose of this post is to convey some recent experiences I have had on my trip to the USA regarding language learning and the brain which will illustrate how, learning a language is like riding a bike.

Remembering a language from your childhood

My mother is almost 80 years old and she spoke Ukrainian as a child. Now she has not used the language for most of her life.  For the last 30 years she claims she has forgotten the Ukrainian language completely. She has repeatedly said she does not even remember a word.

However, I am in the USA visiting her now with my family and when we speak Polish, which is a different language from Ukrainian, she can understand us perfectly.  Not only does she remember everything, but at some level she can interpolate between two related languages, that is Polish and Ukrainian and come up with an understanding of our conversation.

This anecdotally confirms one of my beliefs that most memory problems are a retrieval problem.  That is, memories are formed fairly easy and stay with us a lifetime, however, the issue is to call up the information when we need it in a meaningful way.

This is why again I think that language learning a us a little like riding a bike, once you have learned it you just need to get back in the saddle.

Learning a language as an adult and not forgetting it

I studied French for seven years however, have not used it in twenty. After being in Paris this week, it was not a big deal for me to understand what was being said.  I do not think I could form a perfect French sentence, but with a little time in the country I am confident that I could speak French. Your brain does not forget what you have learned.

If you have been exposed to a language use it

If you have every been exposed to a language as an adult or a child, have the confidence to try to learn it.  Do not be afraid of failing or you have forgotten it, learn it.  What if you lived in say a Spanish area as a child but never spoke Spanish?  Why not try to learn it?  I think subconsciously your brain as picked up a lot. Your memory has almost infinite capacity to store and retrieve. It does not matter if your memory was formed as a child or as an adult. Your memory will be different for a language your learned a child more native, but that does not mean adult exposure is less useful.

If you calculate all the possible connections your memory has formed in your lifetime, you should be how shocked how rich you are in terms of neural connections. So much of your brain is latent just waiting for you to use it.

Many people as me should they use hypnosis to recall experiences or languages they were exposed to once. Sure if you want, but there is not need to.  Just simply, reimmerse yourself again.  If you herd Spanish as a child take a trip to Argentina.  If your parents spoke Polish or Ukrainian or Russian, take a trip to Europe and try it out.

Here is a study that confirms my thesis.

Remembering a language from your childhood

Two researcher did a study of children who were exposed to languages when they were young, yet moved abroad in their childhood.

The results were very enlightening. Here is an external resources that validates the above:

  • Remembering childhood languages

Let me me know what you think of this idea or if you have every had a similar experience, I would be interested to hear about your exposure to a language as a child.

Author: Mark Biernat

I live in with family between two worlds, US and Europe where I create tools for language learning. If you found my site you probability share my passion to be a life long learner. Please explore my site and comment.

40 thoughts on “Remembering a language from your childhood”

  1. I originated from Panama; I spoke Spanish all my childhood life until about 8yrs old; After my father past my mother married a man from the Army and we left and came to US. When I was in rolled in school the teachers could not understand me so they told my mother to stop speaking Spanish to me and force me to speak only English; I still have the language in my head but to speak it out is hard because I just can’t put it all together to make a sentence.

    I realy want my language pack I feel that it was not fear that I was force to lose a part of my nationality and I want to get back what was taken from me.

    1. Interesting story, in my opinion you have a lot of laten Spanish and it will not be no problem to learn it again. I would just start using it and studying it on your own. Watching Spanish TV and listening to the Radio in Spanish. If you expose yourself to the language and study it a little it will not be a problem. I know others in a similar circumstance and and with patience they became native speakers again.

    2. I used to speak only Spanish when I was little but lost it close to the age of 4 when my parents moved me away from my Great-Grandma who spoke only Spanish. I know it’s there since I understand it fairly well, and I just lost the capability of truly speaking it back.

      I have been wondering if I would be able to receive some type of hypnosis to help me with retrieving it. I’ve studied Spanish all my life and watch novelas from time to time and everything. However, I don’t have my accent when I do speak it, and that’s actually what hurts me most.

      Do you have any ideas or advice for me?

      1. Yes, you need to practice like someone with a speech impediment must correct the pronunciation of their own language. I have seen many cases of people who obtain near perfect accent via recording their voice and practicing by listing to others. Work on individual sounds.

  2. I thought the article was very interesting. A language I was exposed to as a child, around age 8, was sign language. Use to be homeschooled and had a coop with many deaf people attending. So naturally there was a class for sign language. I remember maybe a dozen signs and the alphabet but when my teacher,at a public school, made a sign to focus she used the ASL sign for sleep. Immediately ‘sleep’ popped into my head, even 7 years later. Signs easily ‘come back’ to me when I see others sign.

    1. Very interesting, I think it is in many cases about memory retrieval as the memories are still latent in some way.

  3. I was born in Sweden and stayed till I was 7, since originally I’m from Iceland my mother believed it would be best if we would move to Iceland. I lived with my mother and sister and brother which had already moved back to Iceland before us.

    At home we spoke Icelandic and elsewhere Swedish, because my mother thought that if we didn’t use Icelandic regularly we would not learn it and that wouldn’t be so good.

    So now I’m 18 living in Iceland but I have never been able to meet Swedish, it had just fade away but I’m interested to see if I could somehow pick some of it up again.

    1. I think you would have no problem to learn it. It is there latent in your brain, I do not think it is gone at all, most memory issues are retrieval problems not formation. The language is there and if you relearn it you will most likely have no accent at all.

  4. This is off topic and on topic, but Ukrainian is kind of a mixture of Russian, Polish, and a little Finnish and Lithuanian. But mostly Russian and Polish, Ukraine was apart of Russia, but when the U.S.S.R collapsed, they made their own country, and then attempted to invade Poland for land. The Invasion was successful and non – successful on their end, they got some land, but all of the land they conquered, the people only spoke Polish, and the Ukrainians still spoke Russian, so it kind of fused together… There were Lithuanians living in Eastern Poland at the time too, but I don’t get how Finnish got in it…..

    And if you learned a language when you were young, or exposed to it, you remember it. Even if you say you don’t you do, everything you see, touch, hear, or smell, you remember permanently, it’s stored in your brain… Extracting the information is a entirely different matter, usually you’ll need to be exposed to it or exposed to a language that’s similar again and you’ll recognize it as native.

    1. About languages and storing in your brain I tend to agree. It is in your brain it is a retrieval problem.

      Ukrainians are Eastern Slavic people with some mixing of other cultures. Ukrainians are Ukrainians. Poles are western Slavic with some mixing of Celtic and German and Ukrainian, Jewish etc. Every group of people are a Heinz 57 of many other peoples and I think we are all better for it.

  5. Yes, no country is truely unique, everyone is truely a fuse from others.

    But Poland and Ukraine are different, being bordered between Eastern and Western Slavics, they were able to communicate, and thus are literally a small blend of the two. The blend is small, but is there, but some of Western Ukraine is actually Western Slavic, because it was conquered when Ukraine attempted invasion.

    And, a question, how are Poles a blend of Ukrainian? Most of Ukraine was originally apart of Poland but the Russian Empire invaded which eventually became the U.S.S.R and then Ukraine finally appeared in 1991 August 24th when the U.S.S.R broke apart.

    1. Easy, many Poles that lived in Ukraine with spouses from Ukraine returned home to Poland. I am Polish but also Ukrainian as are many people I know in Krakow. Ukrainians are the largest minority in Poland and Poles and Ukrainians marry. Again I know people like this. It is very common. I live in Krakow Poland. Many of my friends are part Jewish or have German names. Poles are really a mixed bag as much as some people do not want to admitt this. Many Poles that remained in Ukraine have Ukrainian spouses. There are more Ukrainians than Poles and it is all a matter of perspective. Many old fashion stubborn Poles do not like to admit this, but this is ridiculous. They feel that Lviv is their city. But if you consider that over 90% of the population in the Lviv oblast was Ukrainian that is not true. Only the old town was Polish occupied by Poland. I am Polish but it would be naive to say Poland was always in the right. If you use that logic we should give back many Polish cities to the Germans. Peace and love the future is about building bridges with Germans and Ukrainians and be part of a greater more peaceful Europe.

  6. I was born an Air Force brat and moved to Weisbaden, Germany when I was 2 weeks old. We lived with a German family who spoke no English. The mother was sort of my nanny while my parents worked and I spoke German very well with their family. We moved back to the states when I was 5 years old and I have not been exposed to any German since. I would love to go back for a visit and want to re learn the language. Any suggestions on where to find a good path to take on this?
    I also have a love for the language and country.

    1. I think you have an advantage Chances are if you were exposed to the language, even in childhood and did not speak it, you have some pathways in your brain that someone who was not does not have. I could go in more detail but no need to. That is the good news. The bad news is learning a language is still blood, sweat and tears. You will need to set your expectations low. You know German has a case system, but not as complex as other languages and orderly and logical. The words get really long also. However, English and German are closely related so it will be easier than most, but still work.
      Look, if I were you I would start amping up on vocabulary any way possible. Some people use mnemonics and others flashcards. I prefer flashcards. Even with no grammar and a lot of vocabulary you can be understood and understand. Focus on learning words. After you are at a basic level of conversation than and only than you can you start learning grammar.
      Also try to use music or whatever fits well with you to learn. Also listening to radio as opposed to TV is a good way to get a language in your brain.

  7. Recently I read on old book that has several stories that deal with this topic of remembering a forgotten language. Or I should say a language that the person never knew that they learned in the first place.
    The book is “The Law of Psychic Phenomena” by Thomson Jay Hudson.
    The stories are about remembering languages that the person had no conscious memory of ever learning as a child.
    The stories are in the chapter titled “Perfect Memory Of The Subjective Mind”.
    This book was written in the late 1890’s and is free to read from google books.
    I do not endorse all the opinions in that book but the stories about what our minds can remember are very interesting.

  8. I was adopted from the Ukraine when I was 6(3/4). My sister was 5. I lost the language when I had no one to talk to. To make matters worse, I lost most of my accent. I can read the alphabet, but only because I relearned it, but it didn’t take long. I feel like it is in my brain just waiting to be activated but it just hasn’t come out. I believe if I go back to the Ukraine to live there, I will again easily start speaking again.

    1. You will start speaking it again easy. I am sure of it. I have had friends that did something like this and learning the language was ten times easier than just some guy with no connection. It is easier because you have greater motivation and it is in your brain. Most mememory problems are a retreval problem, that means the brain holds the memeory but you need to clear the snow from the roads to get that neurological pathway working again.

  9. I was an Army Brat growing up and in 1991 my dad got stationed in Dexheim, Germany. When I was in school there I leaned German and became fluent but in 92 or 93 we moved back to the states and I soon forgot German. I took a German class in 9th grade and I was just ok, it kind of frustrated me because some of the words I was learning weren’t the same as what I started to remember. (not sure if it was a different dialect than what I learned in Germany or what) but my question is I heard that it’s easier to relearn a language than learning it for the first time. Is that true? I would love to take my husband to Germany but I want to relearn the language first. How easy or hard will it be for me to do. I’m 27 now.

    1. Your brain has laid down the pathways and is structurally different from someone who has not learned a second language. That is a fact. However, learning it will not be magic. You can learn German. It will take work and come gradually, I assure you, you have a real advantage that will manifest itself after the initial breakthrough of the language. Study for a year or so real hard and maybe live in Germany and you should be conversational if not fluent.

  10. It is comforting to know that I don’t have memory issues, I was born in Russia, Moscow in 1988, my mom studied there, I spoke Russian fluently, I have video cassettes of me speaking the language, I left Russia in 1996, came back to Namibia and I have not only completely forgotten the language but I have no memory of me in Russia at all, my mom says I behave, think and act like a Russian because I grew up with a Russian family but i have no memory of it what so ever. the language does sound familiar and its very easy for me to pronounce the words, but the language managed to just go away and mushroom for some reason makes me think of Russia. I am currently learning Russian, its not a walk in the park but its also not a dry walk in the desert.

  11. I was born in Russia and lived there for 6 years until i was adopted. After I was adopted, I would speak Russian to my sister but those adoptive parents didn’t like it and told me not too. So now I am 16 and wanting to learn Russian again. I have different parents now who support this decision. Do you think I could pick it up quickly? Would it be easier for me?

    1. I think Russian at your age will come back and if you practice you might not even have an accent. My friend who learned Polish at 21 has like no accent, you can do it.

    2. Same with me. I am 18 and was adopted from Russia at the age of 8. After a year or so I completely for got Russian. I now regret that and am trying to learn it once again. Will I have an easier time than others? What can I do to bring the language back?

      1. Yes all you have to do is study the language and it will come back fairly easy. You will see. Fragments of the language are in your brain and it will come back.

  12. I was born in USA and moved to the Netherlands when I was 7 years old. I learned the Dutch language very quickly, as children that age do. After almost one year in Holland, speaking exclusively Dutch, my mom noticed I was starting to “forget” English. She read English bedtime stories. We returned to the US almost one year later. We spoke Dutch in our home for a while; then we stopped. Many years have passed since then. I do not remember any Dutch, except a few phases. How can I best “recall” the Dutch I once so fluently spoke?

    1. I get this question a lot. I have looked into different way and maybe there is a better way. Maybe some subconscious remembering connected with childhood memories. But I believe the best way is to study. The pathways are latent in your brain and the brain has made room for this language, you just need to clear the jungle and the brain should start opening up. I think you can pick it up twice as fast and you might not even have an accent. A distant memory is like a town that lost connection to the world because the road was overgrowth and forgotten, but the town still exits. Through hard work clear the road, it is easier tan building a new one.

  13. I used to live in Russia and I haven’t spoken in a conversation since I was 6 ish but when I hear it now it’s a lost cause and I want to remember it and I have been trying to learn it but nothing is coming back to me.. how do I help the process of it coming back to me?

    1. Only way is study. It will come back 500% faster than others, and you will have little accent as it is in your brain. I would study anyway you can from Russian TV via the web, talk to people, there are Russians everywhere take lessons get MP3s, do it all and it will come back, but you need to uncover these latent neuron-connections.

  14. My father was an english teacher once but he’s not used the language for over 30 years now. I want to help him but we don’t live together, he lives with his family. How can I help him re learn his English? he does remember some but very vague. Would it be best to make him watch movies in English or documentaries? am afraid he won’t understand much at first.
    He also has no computer, tablet or smart phone so I need to print out everything that I want him to read. Is there an easier way? Thanks for your help.

    1. I think for a low tech person listening to the radio is one of the best methods as has a lot of universal words that makes bridging the gap easier. It forces one to think rather than get lulled into understading with images. I recommend listening to something like National Public Radio (NPR) online, or books on audio. Yes also watch things he really loves, even with subtitles intially.

  15. I am 18 years old and I really want to remember my Spanish. I was adopted at 6 and a half. My family taught me English before I started school so I could speak to my teachers.I completely forgot everything until now. I can feel it inside me that I know Spanish and I really want to remember it. I have taken 3 years of Spanish in school and just can”t seem to get the hang of it again. I know words and know limited sentences. What should I do?

    1. You need to go speak it. You need to put yourself in situatations where you must speak the Spanish language. The connections do exist as your brain was change by your exposure. However, you have to relearn it as a foreigner. That means learn a lot of vocabulary by using flashcards or audio loops like flashcards.

  16. I was born in Russia and was fluent in the language. I finally got adopted when I was 7 years old, moved to Texas and haven’t spoken Russian for almost 15 years. I have the option to take the language again for 2 semesters but i’m afraid it’ll be a waste of time trying to learn a language like Russian in two semesters. But I keep hearing from everyone i’ll relearn it fairly quickly. Is it possible in two semesters to learn the language again or should I pick a different language and study Russian outside of school.

    1. Study Russian it is a classical language that will not go out of style. My friend studied Polish and school for a couple of semesters and really did not feel he learned a lot, but when you went to Poland he was ahead of the curve and picked it up fast.

  17. I was born in Russia. My father was Russian and my mother Hungarian. I used to live in Russia but mom and me moved back to Hungary and so I haven’t spoken in a conversation since I was 5, but I was fluent in the language.
    Today I can not speak, can not understand and unfortunately I can not read and write. Because I started the school (writing, reading etc..)in Hungary.
    And now I am 28 years old and really would like to remember my “forgotten” language. What do you think can all come back? can the hypnosis also help me?

    1. Hypnotism to learn a language is a question I get frequently. You can learn a language in many different ways and specifically recalling a language is even easier , however, I found the most effective way to learn a language is simply starting to learn vocabulary the old fashion way. That is using flash cards are audio flashcards for whatever you need. You do not need a fancy program like rosetta stone that’s quite expensive. What you need are index cards that you can buy at the Dollar Tree store. You need to learn the language the old fashion way by memorization. If you have learn the language when you were a child when want to try to remember it this will help because you’re reinforcing the connections in your brain between what exists in your brain and bringing it to the conscious level. Hypnosis alone can help relax you it might help bring up the language at acontece level that exist in the subconscious brain. However to really strengthen these connections you need exercise. Just like your muscles have muscle memory that is if you were fit 10 years ago and you get in shape your muscles will respond quicker, so it is with learning a language. So this is my advice to you. I wish I knew a way to jest bring the subconscious Layton neurons into action so you’re speaking the Russian language, however I have not yet discovered a way to do that. The good news is you have a significant advantage over other language learners. Most likely the words exist there already at least in some form you just have to reinforce and strengthen the connections.

  18. My first language as a child was Spanish. I spoke fluently until I need to be able to speak English to enter kindergarten. My parents sent me with my cousins who spoke English over the summer and when I came back I spoke nothing but English. I am 30 years old now and although i can understand Spanish very well, it is very difficult to speak and communicate in Spanish. What do you suggest I do to help me get back to speaking Spanish fluently?

    1. The optimal way is to study Spanish vocabulary and memorize it, several thousand words and then expose yourself to the language though trying to speak it. I wish there was a more magical way, but I have not found that yet. The good news is the language is in your brain and has changed your brain structure so you should have a significant advantage in learning it with time.

  19. I was born in Norway but then I moved to Mostar 9 years ago. Now I am 16 years old and I really ca not remember anything. I started learning Norwegian but it is so hard and my parents keep telling me just watch some film and you will remember it but I have tried and I really can not. Help please with my linguistic issue.

    1. Easy solution, start watching Norwegian YouTubers, and try to let this absorb in your brain. I know it is a simple answer but you are 16 and you have the ability to absorb and relearn the language if it is done in a fun way.

Leave a ReplyCancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.