The Bad News About Human Memory

I have some bad news for you about human memory. It’s possible to forget your mother’s name. In fact you will forget her name if you don’t think about her for enough years. You forget absolutely everything that goes unused for long enough.I have met many people where were native speakers of Russian as children, teenagers and even as adults who could not…

…speak it at all after many years of not speaking Russian. This is not the place for a detailed article on how human memory works, but just remember this. You will forget everything that goes unused in your mind for long enough.

I met a 50 year old woman who was a native speaker of Russian but had quit speaking it ten years earlier when her father died. She couldn’t even carry on a simple conversation in Russian.

I have also met many other native speakers of Russian who had totally forgotten Russian after many years of not speaking it.

If you are worried about forgetting Russian, my suggestion is to switch your movie watching and TV watching to Russian TV and movies. You will be just as well entertained and you will keep your language understanding skills.

  • Eva

    I have little problem speaking Chinese even after living in U.S for 12 years and with no contact with any other Chinese person for an extended period. I only talk with my mom occasionally over the phone, like once or twice in a month.

    But I can’t react as well with other Chinese other than my mom over the phone because my inner talking and thoughts are completely in English. I have to be very focused to do so.

    • Brent Van Arsdell
      Brent Van Arsdell

      Hi Eva,

      It’s a good thing you still talk to your mom in Chinese, otherwise you would have lost even more of your Chinese skills.

      You might enjoy finding a Chinese club, or trying to do an online language exchange from someone from China. Look for Chinese clubs on

      Language exchange doesn’t work for beginners, but it would work for you since you already know Chinese well, but you are just a little rusty.

  • John

    My girlfriend’s step-mother is a native Russian who has lived in the U.S. for about 15 years. But now her Russian accent in English makes her almost incomprehensible, but when she travels to Russia to visit family, everyone thinks she is a foreigner and can barely understand her. It is a sort of cruel trick from a fading memory.

    • Brent Van Arsdell
      Brent Van Arsdell

      Hi John,

      Sadly, I think so. It’s also a muscular thing. The muscles you use to speak Russian are different than the ones you use to speak English. Use them or lose them.

  • Jostein

    Does this mean I will forget my native language if I move to another country and completely stop speaking it? Even if I spoke my native language for the first 20-25 years of my life?

    • thomas

      Jostein –

      If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. This is the case for anything that the brain keeps memory patterns for. The paradox is that the contrary also exists – once you learn to ride a bike you’ve always got it. Although the first time after many years MIGHT be a bit wobbly, the basis for how to ride the bike is still in the body’s memory.

      I’ve met a few Asian people in my life who moved to the US 20 or 30 years prior who lost touch with some of their native language skills because of a lack of use. Yes, the details do go away. Yes, keeping practice helps keep it fresh in the mind. No, you won’t lose it completely.

      Like any useful tool it must be taken care of to be effectively used.

      If you move to a foreign country you’ll likely find it to be a source of delight and joy to run into someone else from your native country. Mostly just because you can speak the English with them, secondly because you can laugh about all the funny things that you experience as a traveller in that new land.


  • Alyssa

    Hello I am autistic adult, as a child i was speech delayed but with intensive speech therapey I gained verbal skills and am now in th 99th percentile for my verbal IQ. However recently I find the wayi used to know, understand and navigate my world being in pictures/video is changing and fast to be predominantly verbal. This really freaks me out and when I talk I don’t feel right. I have been concidering giving up speaking for a while in hopes that it will restore my vissual thinking. My question is how long could that take and will I likely loose my ability to speak again?

    • Brent Van Arsdell
      Brent Van Arsdell

      Hi Alyssa,

      I actually thin the world is becoming increasingly visual with things like YouTube. What makes you think it’s becoming more verbal?

      This is not an area of my expertise, but I definitely wouldn’t give up speaking and become what they call a “mute voluntary”.

      I used to be incredibly worried about everything and now I’m not worried about anything. So I could tell you how at least I got rid of my worries if that might help.


    • jwoolman

      Alyssa – I wonder if Temple Grandin has some thoughts on how to retain the visual way of thinking along with the verbal. She has a Ph.D. and many patents (and is high functioning in the autistic spectrum). Once someone asked her how she worked out her patents (for animal handling apparatus), and she said she doesn’t do it in words but sees it all at once as images. So obviously she’s maintained that ability along with the verbal ability (she teaches and gives talks, writes). It’s probably just another use it or lose it situation. But I think it would be hazardous for you to entirely stop speaking, since it took you so long to get that skill. You just need to find ways to also use the nonverbal mode of thinking. You might look for forums on the web where people on the spectrum hang out and ask for ideas. You might also start doing realistic drawings (any objects you want) to keep in practice – that’s entirely nonverbal, you need to properly see the object and draw what you see and forget any “rules” about drawing and perspective etc. you might have heard in school. Just a pencil and paper (and eraser…) is all you need.

  • Mia

    I’m Hungarian and have been living in Australia for 20+ years. If I don’t speak Hungarian, of course my vocabulary shrinks, but interestingly, if then I read a Hungarian book, my English becomes better as well.

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