Language atrophy and regeneration

It has been about 5 months since I left Japan and I am surprised – although maybe I shouldn’t be – at how much not being constantly exposed to a language causes it to disappear.  I have had the occasional phone call in Japanese since leaving, but then I never was very good with phones anyway – whatever the language!  I have also received and read on or two e-mails and blogs in Japanese, but again it seems to be taking me just that little bit longer to process meaning.  It’s not just old age either!

The interesting thing for me is that, having returned to Europe and having to rebuild a (new) network, I have been exposed to sites in French and German that I probably wouldn’t otherwise have investigated – and it all came back to me.  I can’t say that I could converse or pontificate on the subject-matter in either of those languages, but I was mildly surprised at how little I had to reach for a dictionary.  I also started work on an opera written in ancient Greek shortly after returning to the UK, mainly to stop me from going completely mental, and remembered quite a bit of that from school too.  As work on the opera progresses, I am noticing that my reading speed is increasing and that I am having to refer less and less to the English translation.  It is weird having to relearn my touch-typing for the Greek input, though!

I am left with a couple of questions:
Is there a critical mass in language learning beyond which the language is never lost? and if the answer is yes…
What is it and how do we best achieve it?

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