Almost 60 years ago I got to know a Czech woman, Alina, quite well. She lived in a South Wales mining town, Mountain Ash, where I frequently went to stay with an aunt and uncle. Alina and her husband had become good friends with my relatives and though they were all much older than me – I was about 14 at that time – they included me as an equal in their conversations.
I learnt some of Alina’s history – part of it was quite dramatic. In 1951, when she was about 20, she escaped from behind the Iron Curtain. It was a winter night and as she crossed the frontier she could hear the boarder guards and their dogs searching for people. The guides disappeared, abandoning her alone in in the dark and the snow. Alina lay down and waited. A dog found her… and licked her face. Alina loved animals and maybe the dog was sensitive to that. Anyway, it didn’t bark or betray her presence.
Eventually, she made her way to Britain. Alina had been studying medicine in Czechoslovakia but in Britain she became a nurse. One of her patients was a Welshman, Alun. They married and settled in Mountain Ash.
I wasn’t a language teacher, or even thinking of becoming one at the time, but I was curious about the Czech language and asked Alina to say something in Czech. With difficulty, she managed to say the equivalent of “Hello”, “Yes” and “No”. But when I asked her to say some sentences, she tried but was unable to do so: “I’ve forgotten all my Czech.” I was amazed that it was possible to forget one’s native language. At that time, there were no other Czechs in the town (and probably not in the whole of Wales) so she didn’t speak Czech because there was nobody to speak Czech with, but I hadn’t imaged she couldn’t. But that was what she felt.
Shortly after the Velvet Revolution in 1989 she went back to visit her family. For the first couple of days she was able to understand most of what was said around her but not to speak. And then suddenly she could. Nearly all her Czech came back though she hadn’t used it for 40 years. Her family and friends in Czechoslovakia said she sounded a bit funny “like an old film”. She didn’t stay long enough to update her Czech but, if she’s still alive, I am sure she can still speak the Czech of her youth. After my aunt and uncle died (they were a lot older than Alina) I stopped going to Mountain Ash and lost touch with Alun and Alina.
The story stayed at the back of my mind for years because I was puzzled as to why Alina said she’d forgotten her Czech but later demonstrated she could still speak it.
Then I came across Caleb Gattegno’s distinction between “memory” and “retention”.
As I understand it, memorising information costs the learner a lot of energy to make arbitrary elements stick together. For example, the names of objects, places and people. This is part of learning a language but just a small part because only a few such words are necessary to master a language. If they are not used regularly, these words may be forgotten.
By the age of 5 all normal children (not deaf or brain damaged) are fluent in the language of their environment but that’s not because they’ve acquired a lot of words. They’ve learnt more important things. They can put the words they know into sentences with the correct grammar and say them with the correct rhythm and intonation. (By “correct”, I mean the way their family and other people around them do it.) They retain this part of the language with practically no effort – just keeping their eyes open and paying attention to what they see and hear; both the situation and the sounds associated with it. Sound and light are forms of energy to which we are naturally receptive. They carry information in the same way the water a sponge absorbs contains food. Human beings are information sponges. What is learnt this way can never be forgotten because it was never memorised in the first place.
Several of my older relatives suffered from Alzhiemer’s Disease. It was clear which parts of the language they had memorised because little by little they forgot them. They forgot the names of uncommon objects and places they never visited, and then the names of people they didn’t know very well and eventually the names of their spouse and children. But what they could say, they said correctly with the grammar and accent they’d always had.
If Alina is still alive, she’ll be in her nineties. Unless she has completely lost her power of speech, I’m sure she can still speak Czech.
If you’re interested to know more about Gattegno’s distinction between Memory and Retention it is discussed by Piers Messum and Roslyn Young on YouTube: The Silent Way, part 4c: Memory and retention; acquaintance
You could also read Caleb Gattegno on “Memory and Retention,