Fabricating the Known from the Unknown

This past week I started studying Spanish again after not studying or using it for over 7 years. I really didn’t know how I was going to do in my one-on-one lessons, considering my teacher would use only Spanish and I was expected to respond in Spanish. In my high school days I was reasonably fluent, but that was over 10 years ago.

It turns out that I did OK. I understood probably 95% of what my teacher said, and I managed to express myself. Sure, I blanked on words, I screwed up conjugations and prepositions, and had to pause for uncomfortably long periods of time while I reached back into the recesses of my mind and fished around for the Spanish I needed. But it really wasn’t so horrible, and it was good to be that struggling language student again.

I am sure that 7 years is enough time to completely forget a foreign language, but I think I know why I haven’t completely forgotten Spanish. The main reason is that I made a conscious resolution not to forget Spanish.

You see, when I graduated from high school and started at the University of Florida I was fairly fluent in Spanish, but I was tired of studying it, and I had never used it for real communication (i.e. in a Spanish-speaking environment). It was for that reason that I started studying Japanese and basically quit Spanish. I made a sort of decision about Spanish then: “I don’t need this anymore.”

Only two years later, after an amazing experience in Japan, I decided I did still want my Spanish, but was shocked at how much I had already lost. It was as if my brain had overwritten the old, unwanted Spanish with Japanese. I spent my third year of university reclaiming what I had lost, and a summer in Mexico to ground it in reality and bring it to life.

After that, I basically stopped using Spanish and shifted to Chinese, but I gave my brain a command: don’t lose this again. And I really haven’t, even if my Spanish is not even close to fluent anymore. But I’ll drag it all back to the front of my brain, chunk by chunk, and I’ll get there.

But a funny thing happened after my Spanish class on Thursday. I was on the subway and walking through the streets of Shanghai, and I could swear I was hearing Spanish all around me. Just random words, not coherent conversations. If I’d listen carefully and concentrate, I’d hear that the people around me were speaking Shanghainese. But it was as if my brain, trying hard to please me, was conjuring Spanish out of unintelligible (to me) Shanghainese noise. Rationally, I knew they weren’t speaking Spanish, but through my brain’s cognitive slight of hand, I just couldn’t stop hearing it. I couldn’t turn it off.

I’m back to normal now.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I have a similar situation. (Almost) I live in Canada where in school your other language choice is French (being a national language and all). Spanish is usually a choice later on but not or all four years of high school. Studying Chinese, I wonder if I will be able to hold to them through out life. I live in Ontario and don’t get up to Quebec much. God knows where I could practice my Mandarin. (Chinatown, Toronto?) Good luck with your Spanish studies!

  2. I have also experienced this. After studying Chinese in Shanghai for over 2 years, I move to Italy and and began learning Italian. I did however continue to meet with Chinese friends in Italy to retain what I had learned. Oddly, when I would walk out the door after speaking and listening to Chinese, I would swear it those Italians were speaking it all around me. It took only about 30 seconds for my brain to switch back to Italian listening mode.

  3. How did you Korean studies go?

  4. Sorry, my computer doesn’t like to type “r”s sometimes…

    How did your Korean studies go? Are you still studying it?

  5. Bob Mrotek Says: October 28, 2007 at 5:28 am


    Hop on a plane and come visit me. I will have you up and running in Spanish again in about two weeks. You will also gain about five pounds 🙂


    Mexico Bob

  6. Allie,

    I’m glad I’m not the only one. It lasted for about an hour for me, though…

  7. dmh,

    Due to lots of special circumstances, the Korean is on hold. I’m not giving up on it, but I think it will probably have to wait until I’ve graduated if I really wanna learn it.

  8. Mexico Bob,

    I like the sound of that! What part of Mexico are you in?

  9. They say that while listening and speaking need constant practice, reading will stay will you for a long time even if you are not exposed to language.

    Not sure whether it’s true, especially regarding Chinese or Japanese reading skills.

  10. John

    Disregarding the writing systems, do you find Spanish easier to learn than Chinese and Japanese? I’d imagine that English-speakers would have an easier time learning Spanish than say us Chinese-speakers since it’s an Indo-European language. It’s only a guess, though.


    I doubt it. If you don’t make it a habit to read in a given language, obviously you reading skills will rust and your vocabulary will shrink. The thing about reading, I think, is that you can take as much time as you want, at your own pace, whereas it’s a whole different story in real-time conversations.

  11. Nah, I have to agree with Vitaly, reading skills take longest to fade. I can still read Russian fine, even though I understand one word in twenty if I’m lucky- meaning the script is no problem it’s my vocab and grammar that let me down. German I can wade through and get the gist of newspaper-level stuff. French, no major problems, but I certainly miss some of the finer details. My French seems to be in the state of John’s Spanish, from John’s description, so listening is difficult, but comprehensible, and speaking is hard work, but reading? No big deal.

  12. My first impression of 吴语 was a strange mixture of Chinese and Spanish, actually. At the time, I was just starting to learn Mandarin and so I didn’t have the phonological categories in place in my brain to hear Shanghainese as a language related to Mandarin. Now, a year later, when exposed to Shanghainese it didn’t have the same Spanish-like vibe.

  13. john, one quick question:
    do most of Turkish people understand English? Do you speak Turkish?I am thinking to audit a Turkish class soon to get ready for my Xmas trip.thanks!

  14. Marco,

    Most Turks under the age of 40 or so have a basic understanding of English, especially those working in the tourist areas. If you’re planning to head to some of the more remote areas in the east, you might encounter some communication problems. Otherwise you should be fine.

  15. Marco,

    I agree with Matt. It was not a problem. I learned Turkish for fun, not because I needed it to communicate.

  16. I was at the train station one time, and I could’ve sworn that the couple next to me was speaking Spanish to each other. Not until half an hour later do I realize that it was Québécois French.

  17. I have 3 methods for retaining Chinese should I ever need to:

    1. I have all my Chinese vocabulary on PDA flashcards with a backup on my computer, so I can review them periodically. (on the basis of that “memory spiral” theory if you’ve heard of it, works perfectly)

    2. Read Chinese materials, even if only 20 minutes a day it has a massive impact on your vocabulary

    3. Email/skype your friends back in the mother country. Everyone has Skype these days. Additionally, find a local Chinese friend. Chinese people are everywhere, really. I could easily find people to chat with in Mandarin in Belize of all places, and furthermore Hakka, Taiwanese, and Cantonese. I found them in Africa. They’re around, just poke.

    Casual chatting uses maybe 10% of the Chinese vocabulary, the rest of which mainly appears in writing, just as it does with English, so you really need to read those books.

  18. […] while back I wrote about studying Spanish again. Well, I have a little secret about that to reveal. My teacher is none other than the vivacious […]

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