Reactivating lapsed language skills: an exploration of language memory

Author: Jill Llewellyn Williams


Training to be a teacher is a stressful undertaking but for trainee language teachers, whose linguistic skills are under constant and close scrutiny from mentors, tutors and pupils, this can be a particularly challenging time. Many students, for a variety of personal and professional reasons, allow their language competence and confidence to decline. This study investigates ways of reactivating lapsed language skills in the context of a PGCE programme where students have been invited to take part in a reflective activity to identify effective ways of regaining their former linguistic competence and to contemplate useful strategies to maximise their language memory and ways to develop effective learning styles. This research project is nearing the end of its initial stage and it is intended that the findings will form the basis for a guided learning programme for the next cohort of modern foreign languages trainee teachers.

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Table of contents

Languages in Higher Education Conference 2008: transitions and connections

This paper was originally presented at our conference: transitions and connections, 8-9 July 2008.


For all students of languages, the effort they make in acquiring new language skills is tempered by the almost sure knowledge that the hard work they invest in this process is undermined by the steady erosion of time; wearing away the vocabulary and structures they work so hard to commit to memory. The simple fact that human beings forget languages was first drawn to my attention at a very young age, during annual visits to an uncle who lives near Oxford. He had left his native Wales during the Second World War to serve in the RAF and had married locally. During our summer visits, my father would attempt to converse with him in Welsh, their first (and only language until they started school) but fail. My uncle has always maintained that he has forgotten his mother tongue. As a child, this seemed to me impossible. Later, as a teacher of French, I reviewed the idea of the temporary nature of language memory as I observed my pupils. Some seemed to retain nothing of the skills or knowledge acquired in a previous lesson, even though it had only been a few days before. Finally, as a language learner myself, I have been able to observe this process first hand in my own efforts to retain languages that I have learnt over the years.

In more recent years, as a teacher-trainer, I have noticed that my concerns regarding the transient nature of language skills have been shared by many trainee teachers, particularly those who, for personal and professional reasons, have taken time off between the completion of their language degree and their teacher training programme. The aim of this research into language memory has been to explore ways of reactivating lapsed language skills and can be summarised in the following research questions:

  1. How best can students reactivate and recall previously learnt language skills?
  2. Which type of language seems most resistant to loss?
  3. Which learning methods have allowed students to maximise their language memory over a significant period of time and how can these methods be adapted for future use?
  4. What impact does a clearer understanding of this process have on student learning?

These questions lie at the heart of the research aims of this study, which are to explore language loss by gathering data on this process from trainee teachers in the form of reflective logs, questionnaires and focused interviews. The data provided will form the basis of a guided learning programme, which will help trainee teachers to identify and use strategies to reactivate lapsed language skills in order that they might face the challenges of the classroom with renewed self-confidence and increased linguistic competence.

Review of research literature

In looking for current and recent research findings to support the aims of this study, the scope of the review was organised into three distinct areas:

  • How we acquire language
  • How we lose it
  • How we can get it back

This meant, in practice, a review of learning (language learning in particular), a study of language memory and loss and an exploration of how we can support the language learner.


In the study of learning, there is a vast quantity of research that was extremely difficult to navigate. Contact with mentor-colleagues and visits to partnership schools have made me aware of how much schools are in the thrall of whatever is the latest fashion in learning style. These have been well documented elsewhere. Following his review of over three hundred initiatives on learning styles, Frank Coffield (2005) warns:

The field of learning styles suffers from almost fatal flaws of theoretical incoherence and conceptual confusion… the logo for the learning styles movement should be Dichotomies R Us.

Learning has also been increasingly linked with neuroscience, with initiatives such as Brain Gym, Accelerated Learning and the concept of Left and Right brainers. Yet again, there are voices of caution, amongst them John Geake (2005), who advises:

Ban disconnected approaches to teaching by ignoring Left and Right brain nonsense, expelling MI from curriculum design, and eradicating VAK from pedagogy. Rather, encourage neural connectivity by promoting joined-up thinking, and rewarding creative analogising. And do lots of old-fashioned gym.

However, the wide range of research into learning is a positive context for this study, as long as it is not restricted to the straitjacket of one particular approach. The vast amount of research into learning styles and strategies can only benefit a study of this nature, as long as we keep an open mind about the effectiveness and validity of such approaches and as long as we, as language learners, continue to reflect on the process.

Language learning

In reviewing language learning styles, three different approaches suggested themselves: Grammar-Translation, Audio-Lingual and Communicative Language Teaching. The Grammar-Translation method, inspired by the Greek and Latin tradition, is familiar to me as a method used in the early years of my grammar school education. In my school, this had an uneasy partner in the form of the Audio-Lingual approach and my first years of learning French were a combination of these two methods. My experience of learning Latin, however, was firmly rooted, as you would expect, in the Grammar-Translation method. Latin, at that time, was committed to memory by rote learning and it is surprising that, despite its neglect, I can still retrieve large chunks of Latin such as sum, es, est, sumus, estis, sunt. I wonder if the chunks of audio-lingual phrases would be so easily retrievable had I not continued with my study of French? The loud beep, which instructed the teacher to move to the next slide, is, however, firmly lodged in my memory. Finally, Communicative Language Teaching also has a resonance for me in that it was the method in which I was trained as a Languages Teacher in 1983. These methods and approaches form a backdrop to my study of language loss and initial discussions with trainee teachers have made me consider whether, when we strive to reactivate lapsed language skills, the way we were taught influences our chosen strategies.

Language memory and loss

In the search for literature relevant to language loss, in contrast to the research into learning, I was faced with a relative dearth of literature. I attempted to concentrate my research in the areas suggested by the following key words: language memory; language recall; language retention; language reactivation; lapsed language; dormant language: language loss. None provided access to the literature that was needed to support this study. Fortunately, in reading literature connected with the field, I encountered the term language attrition. This provided me with a rich vein of research relevant to the study, though much of the literature is connected with first language attrition (interesting in the context of my uncle but not relevant to the study in hand). Second language attrition is the field that provides a useful context to this study.

Recent research (De Bot and Stoessel 2000) can be summarised as showing that, in our efforts to retrieve lapsed languages (in this instance, items of vocabulary), language can be sorted into three categories:

  1. language we are able to recall
  2. language we are able to recognise
  3. language we are able to neither recall nor recognise.

It is the final category that is the most interesting. This research has demonstrated that when lexical items that have been neither recalled nor recognised (and have apparently been forgotten) are placed in a new batch to be re-learned, they are more easily retrieved in a later test, suggesting that they were not truly lost at all but that some residual trace was left in the language memory. This phenomenon is known as ‘savings’.

While this is good news indeed, the bad news is that current research is still seeking to find ways to reactivate these traces of lost language memory: “There is clearly a retention of linguistic knowledge over a long period of time… but how best we can activate them is still unclear.” (De Bot and Stoessel 2000: 352)

In one study of language loss, where experimentation of this process, using pseudo-words instead of real vocabulary, it was concluded that: “Current methodologies for studying large-scale lexical processes like language loss leave a lot to be desired.” (Meara 2004: 151)

This is not encouraging for small-scale studies such as the one undertaken with my students. Added to this is the acceptance that previous large-scale studies have tended to use either single items of vocabulary or pseudo-words, whereas the one I have in mind relates to real language in its wide complexity. This makes the task of identifying strategies to combat language attrition in a complex, real-language context rather a tall order.

Supporting the language learner

While literature on Second Language Attrition has not been particularly encouraging, there is a wealth of research into ways of supporting the language learner. Richardson (2000: 28) identifies three approaches to learning: the deep approach, which relates new knowledge to prior learning; the surface approach, which relates to task demands; and the strategic approach, which allows the learner to organise the time and effort required by the learning. All of these approaches are useful and relevant to trainee teachers. In the design of a guided language programme, it is also worthwhile bearing in mind the attributes of good language learners, as recognition of such characteristics would be an important feature of the design of such a programme. These have been summarised as:

  • being active
  • having technical know-how and developing language as system
  • being willing to practise and use the language
  • having a personal learning agenda
  • being self-evaluative
  • being sociable
  • constantly looking for meaning. (Stern, cited in Grenfell 2007: 9)

It is also useful to keep in mind the distinction between a learning style and strategy which, according to Oxford (2003) is that learning styles are general approaches to learning or solving a problem whereas learning strategies are specific actions or behaviours consciously used to achieve a goal. In the context of a guided learning programme, strategies are more relevant and worthwhile approaches to the challenge of reactivating lapsed language skills and knowledge.

Language learning strategies, according to Klapper (2006) can be divided into four categories:

  • Cognitive (inference, deduction, memorising, clarifying, for example)
  • Metacognitive (such as planning, identifying problems, self-evaluation)
  • Communication (which would include paraphrasing, circumlocution and use of synonyms)
  • Socio-affective (such as cooperation with peers, contact with native speakers).

Memorisation strategies are especially interesting in the context of a programme to support language reactivation. Cotterell (2003: 242), in her review of study skills, lists the following strategies:

  • mnemonics
  • active listening
  • association techniques
  • written notes repetition
  • personalising information
  • self-awareness of existing knowledge.

Of course, good language learners, as described above, are not always consciously aware of the strategies they use, nor are the strategies equally useful for all learners. Nevertheless, an audit of student learning strategies would provide a useful and fruitful basis for a language reactivation programme.

Research design

The research study has come to the end of its initial phase and a significant amount of data has been gathered. This has been done by means of a focus group, a reflective e-log, student interviews, mentor questionnaires and interviews with fellow teacher-trainers from other higher education institutions. These will be briefly described below.

The initial data were gathered by means of a focus group meeting with trainee teachers. Students discussed the strategies they had chosen to get their language skills up to an acceptable level in preparation for starting their teacher-training programme.  The trainees had chosen a wide range of methods. This ranged from digging out old textbooks, re-learning grammar rules and doing exercises that illustrated these rules. At the other extreme, some trainees had simply exposed themselves to the language in its oral or written form, by reading magazines, watching language films and listening to the radio. It was interesting to note that the older students seemed to favour the former approach whereas the younger students tended to favour the latter. It seemed likely that all students had selected methods that they had used at school – hardly surprising given that we instinctively revert to familiar, tried and tested strategies.

The next year’s cohort of students were used for more systematic data gathering and the information provided by the focus group allowed a list of questions to be drawn up that went some way towards answering the research questions listed in the introduction above. These questions were divided into groups of two or three and sent to students by email at intervals of a month or so. Students were encouraged but not obliged to participate or respond to these questions. However, many did and over the months a great deal of interesting and useful reflection took place and added to the corpus of this study. The data gathered in these e-logs was further supplemented by interviews with individual students.

As it is important to provide this study with the perspectives of other interested parties, a questionnaire was also sent to mentors in partnership schools, asking them to reflect upon the linguistic difficulties experienced by trainee teachers who had been placed, over the years, in their schools and asking them whether they thought the language skills of trainees had declined and also which feature of language (such as vocabulary, pronunciation, knowledge of grammar) caused the trainees ongoing difficulties. For ethical reasons, they were asked not to comment on this year’s trainee teacher(s) and to generalise. It is accepted that generalisations are inadvisable but it is hoped that some useful information can be gleaned from the exercise.

Finally, interviews took place with some fellow providers of initial teacher training programmes in order to explore their experiences and identify what has worked well for them while at the same time identifying pitfalls to be avoided.

To date, much very pertinent and useful data have been gathered and it is in the process of being evaluated and analysed. This will form the basis for the guided learning programme that will take place in future months. It is anticipated that the programme will include a range of strategies and approaches that will help the trainee teachers to unlock the language skills and knowledge that is lost in the dusty corners of their memories. In addition to improving their language skills, it should also provide a useful meta-learning experience that will be of particular interest to them as future teachers, encouraging them to reflect upon the learning process that will benefit not only themselves but also their pupils. As confident and competent language teachers, they will be able to withstand the scrutiny of their mentors and tutors as they use their language in the unfamiliarand unnerving environment of the classroom with increased ease and confidence.


Coffield, F. (2005) Kinaesthetic nonsense.Times Educational Supplement.14 January 2005.

Cottrell, S. (2003) The Study Skills Handbook.Basingstoke: Palgrave.

De Bot, K. and Stoessel, S. (2000) In search of yesterday’s words: reactivating a long-forgotten language.Applied Linguistics.21 (3), 333-353/

Geake, J. G. (2005) The neurological basis of intelligence: a contrast with ‘brain-based’ education. Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Conference, University of Glamorgan.

Grenfell, M. (2007) Language learner strategy research and modern foreign language teaching and learning.Language Learning Journal.35 (1), 9-22.

Klapper, J. (2006) Understanding and Developing Good Practice.London: CILT.

Meara, P. (2004) Modelling vocabulary loss.Applied Linguistics.25 (2), 137- 155.

Oxford, R. (2003) Optimizing language learning styles and strategies. Paper presentedat the 9th Annual TESOL Arabia Conference, Dubai.

Richardson, J. T. E. (2000) Researching Student Learning.Buckingham, Open University Press.

Stern, H. H. (1975) What can you learn from the good language learner?Canadian Modern Language Review.31, 304-318.