The Adage Use It or Lose It Doesn’t Apply to Languages

People store knowledge of foreign languages in their brains and can recall it decades later in times of need, according to research by linguists at the University of York’s Department of Language and Linguistics.

What to Know

  • There is no distinct area of the brain for different languages, but parts of the English language overlay with parts of the brain where other languages have been stored.

  • The knowledge of language is astonishingly stable over long periods and exists in a densely connected network within the brain. Only a small amount of motivation is needed to recall this language that was learned.

  • Vocabulary is memorized in the same way that facts, dates, and names are, and while this memory is vulnerable to erosion, grammar is learned in a similar way to how one learns to ride a bike — a kind of muscle memory, which is much more stable.

  • Small but regular stimuluses of even just one word periodically over time and even decades keep foreign language skills “awake” in the brain, even if the person is not using them.

  • Basics for a learned foreign language remain in the memory, and therefore it would not take a great amount of learning to pick it back up again at the point where it was left off.

This is a summary of the article, “Knowledge of Foreign Languages Lasts a Lifetime, New Research Shows,” published by Language Teaching on August 25, 2022. The full article can be found on

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