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.
Keep up your English studies and get into your TOEFL prep!
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