Why You Forgot the Language You Learned in High School

“I took four years of High School Spanish and all I can say is ‘Where’s the bathroom?’” I’ve heard this 100 times. Have you? Frankly, it sounds like learning High School Spanish might be a waste of time. 

But that’s because you learned it.

Yes, because you learned it. You learned it the way you learn the periodic table or the capitals of foreign countries. You heard them, repeated them and then memorized them. You reproduced them on a test and then moved on to the next topic. To be fair, in many classes, you reviewed old material or maybe even had a cumulative test at the end of the year. But it was still “learned.”

Here’s what I mean by “learning.” When you learn something new, you process it knowingly and intentionally for the sake of the learning.


For a language to be “remembered,” it must be acquired, not learned. Acquisition happens unknowingly and unintentionally. Rather than being focused on the learning itself (“This is a regular verb that means ‘to be’ in English.”), you are focused on meaning and you have a purpose (I want to introduce myself to someone new; how can I do that?).

Acquisition looks different from learning in the classroom. In a class focused on language acquisition, you will hear the teacher speaking IN the language instead of ABOUT the language. You will also see a class focused on language acquisition, the topic being discussed doesn’t actually matter; the teacher and students can talk about whatever interests them… as long as they are doing it in the language. 

Of course, this is easier said than done.  A teacher must find ways to speak the language so that the students can understand. This requires creativity, planning, and often a willingness to be a bit silly. You might see a teacher acting things out, doing funny voices, drawing frantically on the board or screen…anything to help their students comprehend the language, and stay focused on meaning. The moment students switch to thinking about grammar concepts, they become conscious of form and begin learning again, rather than acquiring. 

So why didn’t you learn High School Spanish?  You did! You learned it. And just like other things that you learned (formula for calculating the area of a circle, bones of the inner ear), it is just a list of words or concepts that you can easily forget. And, if you acquire the language–develop the skill in communication with others through meaningful interactions–then you’ll have it forever. 

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