A couple of months ago, I tried and failed to read a sign in Hebrew that I passed in the Hasidic part of Williamsburg. I realized that I was forgetting the alphabet, or rather, the Alef Bet. This filled me with horror, since I’ve known how to read Hebrew almost as long as I’ve known how to read English, and I thought the ability to do so was an unshakeable feature of who I am.
Then I realized that I had already forgotten how to read one other language that I used to know fluently. Three decades ago, I could play sheet music on my clarinet, effortlessly. (I mean, I could read the notes effortlessly. I could not play the instrument to save my life.)
I took clarinet lessons at school and was in the band from fifth through eighth grade. Then I stopped playing, cold turkey.
I didn’t pick a clarinet back up again until a visit home from college, when on a whim I pulled it out of the closet, along with the music for Pachelbel Canon, and shocked myself by remembering instinctively which notes on the paper corresponded to which keys on the instrument. My eyes scanned the page and my fingers flew into the right configurations, with no conscious thought required.
But by a few years later, that ability had vanished. I looked at a sheet of music one day and realized that it was all Greek to me — dots and lines rather than A sharps and B flats. It felt tragic — like losing a superpower.
I cannot, will not, lose my ability to read Hebrew. That is just too much backwards progress for me. So, for a few days in a row a couple of weeks ago, I sang the Alef Bet song to myself while writing out the letters in cursive. Then I had my dad quiz me over Skype, and I felt like it was coming back to me slowly. I also started reading aloud from my hardcover of “The Little Prince” in Hebrew, since print and cursive look totally different and I’m forgetting both of them. It was slow going. I sounded more disjointed (and much less cute) than my five year-old niece who taught herself to read this summer. And I had no idea what more than half of the words meant, even though I know the story by heart.
My Hebrew practice lasted about three days before I started avoiding it. I know I need to go back to it, but in the meantime…
My niece and nephew are both starting bilingual kindergarten in a few weeks, and I tried to use them as inspiration to reboot my Spanish. A few nights ago, I pulled out my Spanish notebooks from 2015 — for the first time since 2015 — and was in awe. I actually knew this at one point??? Not anymore.
I spent a few hours copying the lessons from my original notebooks into another notebook, as a kind of review session. By the end of it, I could sort of string a sentence together — but only sort of.
Today, at my brother’s suggestion, I spent twenty minutes having a Skype conversation in Spanish with my eight year-old niece. She is already a couple of years into her bilingual program and about to go back to school after letting her Spanish get rusty over the summer. It was the first time she would speak it with me, and now that she knows how much better she is at it than I am, perhaps she won’t be as shy about it. We plan to talk again tomorrow.
I know that learning languages is tedious, and an uphill struggle. I also know that I will not forgive myself if I lose (and/or fail to regain) the Hebrew and the Spanish I worked so hard for. An hour of practicing my Hebrew letters was enough to resuscitate them, for now. Twenty minutes with my niece was enough to jog my memory and shake loose some Spanish words I had forgotten that I know.
So, it’s very clear: even though it’s a pain in the ass, committing a few hours a week to each language is all I need to do to get back on this horse and ride it into the sunset.
Have you ever lost a language and then revived it later? If so, I would love to hear about it. (P.S. There is quite possibly nothing that makes me more uncomfortable than asking non-rhetorical questions into the Internet void. I am genuinely curious in this case, so I’m taking the plunge. But it makes me feel so vulnerable, like I’m a wannabe influencer about to find out I’ve got an actual audience of crickets. All to say… THIS IS A SINCERE QUESTION AND RESPONSES WOULD BE MOST WELCOME!!!)