Old Violins and New English

Old Violins and New English

Like the legendary centuries-old violins of Cremona that must be removed from their glass cases and played regularly, or Sam’s nervous line to Ilsa in Casablanca (Sam: “Oh, I can’t remember, Miss Ilsa, I’m a little rusty on it”; Ilsa: “I’ll hum it for you…”), our skill in using a second language (or our ability to spontaneously recall the melody of “As Time Goes By” – hint “you must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss”) depends on upkeep.

This is common sense, rooted in the human experience of observing muscles atrophy, memories fade, and skills wane with the passage of time. Indeed, the brain’s capacity to adapt to the ever-changing world we inhabit depends significantly on how much it is used.

A fascinating study by Gardner and Lysynchuck (1990), which examined the retention of second-language French learners, seems to bear this out: after a nine-month absence from French studies, students reported significant losses in all four macro skills. Gardner and Lysynchuck have linked language attrition, as this phenomenon is known, to many different factors occurring in the ‘incubation period’ or the period of time between the end of a language course and a proficiency assessment.

I have seen too much evidence of unsuccessful ‘off-season’ second language maintenance. Every second language teacher has been delighted to bump into a former student, then a bit saddened to witness someone flummoxed and obviously out of practice.

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17 Replies to “Old Violins and New English”

  1. I would like to say that I agreed with the contents, because I have experience similar to that. When I was a high school student, I learned French in school. However, I didn’t use it both outside and other classes in school. As a result, my language ability was rusted compared to when I was younger than now.

  2. Absolutely I agree with this article. When I learned Chinese in China for one month, I could write Chinese words correctly. However, after 2 years, I have lost my writing Chinese skills. Just I can speak simply Chinese sentences.

  3. I must too join that sad language losing club. I was schooled in a French Immersion program in Canada but I’ve lost most of my French–a fact that I was recently reminded of at a restaurant in Seoul: I saw a couple chatting beautifully in French and said hello, asked them a couple of questions and then realized that I was ‘running out’ of language. Use it or lose it!

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