Is it possible to forget your mother tongue?

Alexandra Hicks
Forgetting your native tongue is not something many people think can happen, yet it is a real possibility. We take a closer look at how this can happen, and how best to prevent it.

While some people can remember their native language after years, even decades of not speaking or hearing it, many others begin to lose fluency after only 3-5 years. It’s not known exactly why this varies so much for each individual, but according to Dr Monika Schmid, a linguistics professor at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom, people should practice all the languages they know regularly if they plan on retaining any sort of articulacy.


Forgetting your native tongue
It’s pretty rare to forget your first language altogether. More often than not, people go through a stage referred to as “language attrition,” which means they have trouble remembering certain words or phrases and they might use awkward grammatical structures. Typical attrition can usually be corrected, but that also depends on the person’s history of speaking said language. If a person has been practising their native language consistently into their adolescent years, it would be pretty simple to reverse these effects.
But for many children who leave their country of origin and don’t often use their native speech, it can be difficult to retain any memory of it when they’re older. A 2004 study published in The Journal of Neurolinguistics monitored a group or French adoptees who left South Korea during childhood, all of them were around 10 years old. Now in their 30s, the group was completely unable to identify Korean when it was spoken to them. As a matter of fact, they did no better on their language test than native French speakers who were never exposed to any Asian dialects.
Aside from disuse being a common culprit in attrition, experts also believe that forgetting the native language can be a natural adaptive technique to help people learn the second language better. Due to limited cognitive resources, the more involved people are in their second language, the more issues they have recalled the first.

Yuqo quotes“After say a decade of immersion in a different culture than what you grew up in, it is possible to begin thinking and dreaming in this new language, although rather rare” — Dr Aneta Pavlenko from Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Additionally, brain injuries and psychological trauma can also contribute to a dramatic loss in language fluency. Researchers who studied Jewish Germans that escaped during the Holocaust noticed that the more trauma they had suffered, the more drastic their language attrition would be.


Why it's important to maintain language skills
Forgetting your native language can be intellectually damaging in many ways. For starters, language and terminology are always evolving. New words are created, others become obsolete, spelling changes, the meanings could change; this could leave you completely out of touch – which in turn would make it more difficult to communicate with others and pick up on the language again. However, it is believed that forgetting information and remembering it later can actually be better, as the knowledge often becomes more ingrained the second time it’s learned. Furthermore, trying to remember words in an unfamiliar language exercises the brain and improves basic function and short-term memory.
Speaking multiple languages will also provide a leg up in the business world. What used to be the universal business language, English, is starting to slip away as markets continue to diversify and rapidly grow in developing countries around the world. To resolve this dilemma, companies are looking towards creating sales and marketing teams full of multilingual employees. Data also shows that customers are more likely to be satisfied if they’re offered support in a language they understand, and naturally, that means regular clientele and good references.


How to remember your native language
If you happen to have lost touch with your native language and would like to find a way to refresh your memory, try some of these simple steps to re-immerse yourself in the language you were born to speak.
First, listen to music, watch a movie, or check out some audiobooks. Just hearing the language can help dig up some suppressed knowledge. After listening to some simple material and refreshing your memory a bit, sit down and do some formal studying. 15 to 30 minutes a day will help tremendously. Next, work on translating the things you read such as newspaper and magazine articles, blog posts, and basic poetry. And finally, find someone to practice with. Communicating with others will help you learn how to identify different grammatical subtleties and pronunciations; this is truly the best way to hone your skills. Not to mention, having enlightening conversations with other people is also the most fun way to practice your new-old language.