You just have to FIND it – Many of us learn a foreign language in school, but we forget it later because we never get to hear it or practice it. But it HASN’T vanished from our brain, it’s still in there, waiting to be accessed. How can we find it again?

Psychologists recruited volunteers who were native English speakers but who had learned either Hindi or Zulu as children living abroad. They focused on those two language because they contain certain sounds that are difficult for native English speakers to recognize and speak. The scientists asked the volunteers to complete a background vocabulary test to see if they remembered any words from the neglected language.

As it turned out, even though the volunteers showed no memory of the second language in the vocabulary test, they were able to quickly relearn and correctly identify sound bites that were spoken in the neglected language.

These findings suggest that exposing young children to foreign languages, even if they do not continue to speak them, can have a lasting impact. They conclude, “Even if the language is forgotten (or feels this way) after many years of disuse, leftover traces of the early exposure can manifest themselves as an improved ability to relearn the language.”

And it’s never too late! In his book The Brain That Changes Itself, neurologist Norman Doidge writes that “learning a new language in old age is good for improving and maintaining the memory generally.” He says that new language skills “keeps [the brain] in good shape for laying down sharp memories of all kinds.”

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