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Scientists: people remember foreign languages even 50 years later

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Researchers at York University have shown that people who took a foreign language test 50 years after the exams perform as well as recent students.

“We often say: if you don’t use a language, you’ll lose it, but that doesn’t seem to be true,” said Professor Monica Schmid, author of the study.

The scientists intended to understand how long our knowledge of foreign languages lasts. The team recruited nearly 500 participants who took French for A-levels between the 1970s and 2020 and tested their French vocabulary and grammar.

The participants were also asked whether they had used their knowledge of French in the years following the exams. The results showed that language proficiency had not changed over time.

Participants who took the exam in the 1970s and had not used French since then showed the same results as those who took the exam in 2020.

The study also showed that participants could quickly recall the correct French words in case of an emergency – such as a medical emergency or problems at the airport. This suggests that the brain needs only a small amount of motivation to recall a learned language.

Unfortunately, researchers report that people cannot suddenly speak a foreign language fluently after years of disuse. However, they suggest that the basics of language are preserved in the brain, and it doesn’t take much training to master a foreign language again.

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York University Cambridge

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