"A mind enclosed in language is in prison."--Simone Weil
By the time I was in later elementary school, in junior high school, and in the beginning of high school, I couldn't speak Spanish anymore, which is to say, I didn't want to. I had learned too well. The Spanish got crowded out, got kicked out, and went into a special place that I knew I had to be careful of.
It wasn't until late in high school and the beginning of college that I relearned Spanish. But I didn't relearn it. Spanish hadn't gone anywhere. What I did was relearn my attitude toward it. This is what I think is missing in most theories of language retention, which tell you to open up a book and review the language. There's a reason why I didn't simply do that.
Coming back to Spanish wasn't hard. But the feeling I had learned about Spanish didn't go away--that's what was hard. The feeling. Too often we discuss language intellectually, in terms of the mind, and we stop short there, as if the mind explains everything. As a child, however, these were the years we were learning about the world as much with our bodies as with our minds. The two were not yet distinct, though that's perhaps difficult to remember. But you're learning at that age, for example, how to ride a bike. You can't simply have an explanation given to you--you've also got to just go out and do it. When you're learning to ride a bike what you're really learning is balance, which is the body's version of intuition. Go in the direction you feel is right, even if you can't explain why.
Balance, however, is easy enough to understand. You know that if you lean a little too far this way or a little too far that way you're going to fall down and get hurt. You find by experience and by caution the place that lets you move on.
Remember, though, that we were learning about languages at the same time, and it wasn't so different from learning the bicycle. When you're getting hit for speaking Spanish, it's like leaning too far to one side on your bike--you get hurt. As with Spanish and school, you learned with your body how not to get hurt. You learned which way to move. You found the center place that let you navigate safely forward. If you were lucky.
Because Spanish was tinged with danger, then, grouped with whatever else got you into trouble, English was what came out of our mouths. When I came back to Spanish later in my life, I could take care of the intellectual aspects, but my body hadn't forgotten what it had learned, and I had no real way to address it. The visceral aspects of learning, talking about the body, this is an absent discussion.
Here's the thing: As the saying goes, you never forget how to ride a bike. It's the body that remembers. And it does not simply or only remember how to ride a bike. It remembers all the things that kept it from harm.