Can You Lose Your Native Tongue? (2024)

Magazine|Can You Lose Your Native Tongue?

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Can You Lose Your Native Tongue? (1)

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After moving abroad, I found my English slowly eroding. It turns out our first languages aren’t as embedded as we think.

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By Madeleine Schwartz

Madeleine Schwartz is a writer and editor who grew up speaking English and French. She has been living in Paris since 2020.

It happened the first time over dinner. I was saying something to my husband, who grew up in Paris where we live, and suddenly couldn’t get the word out. The culprit was the “r.” For the previous few months, I had been trying to perfect the French “r.” My failure to do so was the last marker of my Americanness, and I could only do it if I concentrated, moving the sound backward in my mouth and exhaling at the same time. Now I was saying something in English — “reheat” or “rehash” — and the “r” was refusing to come forward. The word felt like a piece of dough stuck in my throat.

Other changes began to push into my speech. I realized that when my husband spoke to me in English, I would answer him in French. My mother called, and I heard myself speaking with a French accent. Drafts of my articles were returned with an unusual number of comments from editors. Then I told a friend about a spill at the grocery store, which — the words “conveyor belt” vanishing midsentence — took place on a “supermarket treadmill.” Even back home in New York, I found my mouth puckered into the fish lips that allow for the particularly French sounds of “u,” rather than broadened into the long “ay” sounds that punctuate English.

My mother is American, and my father is French; they split up when I was about 3 months old. I grew up speaking one language exclusively with one half of my family in New York and the other language with the other in France. It’s a standard of academic literature on bilingual people that different languages bring out different aspects of the self. But these were not two different personalities but two separate lives. In one version, I was living with my mom on the Upper West Side and walking up Columbus Avenue to get to school. In the other, I was foraging for mushrooms in Alsatian forests or writing plays with my cousins and later three half-siblings, who at the time didn’t understand a word of English. The experience of either language was entirely distinct, as if I had been given two scripts with mirroring supportive casts. In each a parent, grandparents, aunts and uncles; in each, a language, a home, a Madeleine.

I moved to Paris in October 2020, on the heels of my 30th birthday. This was both a rational decision and something of a Covid-spurred dare. I had been working as a journalist and editor for several years, specializing in European politics, and had reported across Germany and Spain in those languages. I had never professionally used French, in which I was technically fluent. It seemed like a good idea to try.

When I arrived in France, however, I realized my fluency had its limitations: I hadn’t spoken French with adults who didn’t share my DNA. The cultural historian Thomas Laqueur, who grew up speaking German at home in West Virginia, had a similar experience, as the linguist Julie Sedivy notes in “Memory Speaks,” her book about language loss and relearning her childhood Czech. Sedivy cites an essay of Laqueur’s in which he describes the first time he learned that German was not, in fact, a secret family language. He and his brother had been arguing over a Popsicle in front of the grocery store near his house:

A lady came up to us and said, in German, that she would give us a nickel so that we could each have a treat of our own. I don’t remember buying a second Popsicle, but I do remember being very excited at finding someone else of our linguistic species. I rushed home with the big news.

My own introduction to speaking French as an adult was less joyous. After reaching out to sources for a different article for this magazine with little success, I showed the unanswered emails to a friend. She gently informed me that I had been yelling at everyone I hoped to interview.

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Can You Lose Your Native Tongue? (2024)


Can You Lose Your Native Tongue? ›

Researchers have stressed that a first language used through later years can be remarkably resilient and often comes back when speakers return home. But even adults who move to a new country can find themselves losing fluency in their first language.

Is it possible to lose your native language? ›

The struggle to retain my first language feels isolating but isn't unique; it's a shared pain common among first- and second-generation immigrants. This phenomenon is known as first-language attrition, the process of forgetting a first or native language.

Is it possible to lose the ability to speak a language? ›

Studies on international adoptees have found that even nine-year-olds can almost completely forget their first language when they are removed from their country of birth. But in adults, the first language is unlikely to disappear entirely except in extreme circ*mstances.

Can you forget your second language? ›

How long does it take to start forgetting your second language? Language attrition begins to take hold when the student stops their language classes and leaves their immersive environment. Generally, this is at its worst within the first three years after finishing studies, but it can actually happen before!

Can you have more than one native tongue? ›

One can have two or more native languages, thus being a native bilingual or indeed multilingual. The order in which these languages are learned is not necessarily the order of proficiency.

Why am I forgetting my language? ›

Most people forget their target language because they're no longer using or studying it. One of the simplest ways to prevent this is by considering learning a language a lifelong process rather than a limited term course of study.

How long does it take to lose your native accent? ›

While modifying or reducing an accent is possible with the help of a speech and language pathologist, most scientists agree that completely eliminating an accent is extremely difficult, and in most cases, accents are forever.

Why do I randomly lose the ability to speak? ›

Aphasia usually happens suddenly after a stroke or a head injury. But it can also come on gradually from a slow-growing brain tumor or a disease that causes progressive, permanent damage (degenerative). The severity of aphasia depends on a number of things, including the cause and the extent of the brain damage.

Do you forget a language once you learn it? ›

The stronger your existing language knowledge, the more resilient it is against being forgotten. This is also true with a language you're learning: the higher your proficiency level, the more likely you are to retain it over time!

What causes a language to disappear? ›

It happens when fewer and fewer people speak it, and especially when children stop learning it as their dominant language. These children are then less likely to speak it at home and teach it to their children.

At what age can you forget a language? ›

There was this study that cited 13 as the ``cut-off'' age. Whatever languages you keep using around that age will likely remain, even if only passively. If you stop using them before you're 13 or so, it is possible to fully forget them.

Can your mother tongue be your second language? ›

And if a language we acquired or learnt later in life becomes our most dominant language, i.e. the one we speak most, write in and read, our “first language” or “mother tongue” can become a secondary language and sometimes even be lost…

Do bilingual people forget words? ›

While tip-of-the-tongue generally occurs with words that bilinguals may experience more retrieval failures than monolinguals, but when it comes to proper names, bilinguals tend to report fewer tip-of-the-tongue experiences than those who only speak one language.

Is it OK to say native tongue? ›

Yes, the term ``native tongue'' is correct and is often used interchangeably with ``native language.'' Both phrases refer to the first language that a person learns and speaks from childhood, typically the language spoken in the region where they were born and raised.

What counts as a native speaker? ›

So, technically, anyone with English as a first language from birth is a 'native English speaker'. But, in practice, with TEFL jobs, you will often find that employers use this phrase to refer to people that are citizens of one of the following countries: USA.

Can a child have 2 mother tongues? ›

A child who has not yet learned to speak has more than one mother tongue only if these languages are spoken to them equally often so that the child learns these languages at the same time.

Do immigrants lose their native language? ›

A lot of immigrant communities completely transition from their home country's language to English at some point, but others maintain their home language for centuries.

What is the loss of native language? ›

Native languages have been in decline for decades; currently Ethnologue lists 245 indigenous languages in the United States, with 65 already extinct and 75 near extinction with only a few elder speakers left. This is why the Native American Languages Act and the Esther Martinez Act are so important.

Did Native Americans lose their language? ›

The historical trauma and genocide that were perpetuated against indigenous peoples led to widespread language loss.

What happens when you lose your language? ›

That is, you are losing all those things that essentially are the way of life, the way of thought, the way of valuing, and the human reality that you are talking about. There is another deep relationship between language and culture, the sym- bolic relationship. That is, the language stands for that whole culture.


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