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Is It Possible To Forget Your Mother Tongue? An Introduction To Language Attrition

What is language attrition, and why do I think I may be affected by it? Is it really possible to forget your native language? Let's take a look at this fascinating and little-researched phenomenon.

Language attrition is the progressive loss of a language due to lack of use. It’s a little known but relatively common phenomenon that can happen to people who have little or no contact with their language of origin, such as émigrés who leave their home country at a young age.

And I think it may be happening to me.

It’s on the tip of my tongue…

I became interested in language attrition due to a nagging fear that my own native language was beginning to deteriorate. I’ve lived in a foreign country for almost ten years now, far from the linguistic milieu of France, where I was born and grew up. When I consulted colleagues who had also opted to move abroad and immerse themselves in a foreign environment, they reported a familiar sensation when speaking their native language: they often had a desired word on the tip of their tongue, yet failed to recall it. The word would evaporate and another less fitting, less appropriate, less timely word would appear in its place.

Knowledge of your native language feels different to other sorts of knowledge. It’s a vital, foundational, a priori knowledge that’s intricately wound up with your notion of identity. Intuitively, it feels like it should be solid and stable and that it shouldn’t deteriorate when neglected. Like your favorite childhood teddy bear in the attic, it might collect dust, but it shouldn’t lose its stuffing. It’s discomforting and unusual to feel a loss of control over this knowledge, which we believe to be so deeply ingrained within our brains.

To many people reading this, the notion of losing one’s mother tongue may seem absurd, as if we’re indulging in exaggeration. That same absurdity tugs at us whenever a word skips the mind and eludes the tongue, leading to a nagging embarrassment. So what’s the deal? Is it really possible to forget your mother tongue?

I speak, therefore I am

I’d like to introduce you to Aharon Appelfeld. Appelfeld is one of Israel’s most prominent Hebrew-language authors, despite having only started to learn the language as a teenager. From an early age he was surrounded by a heady mix of languages. He was born in 1932 in a former province of the Kingdom of Romania, which now lies in the Ukraine. His parents were Jewish and spoke Viennese German, even though his grandparents spoke Yiddish, and he grew up with German as his mother tongue. When World War II broke out, he was just seven years old. In 1941 he lost his mother and, one year later, he and his father were deported to a Nazi concentration camp, from which he managed to escape in 1942. He lived as a fugitive, spending some time in hiding, working as a cook in the Soviet army, and finally spending some time in a displaced persons camp in Italy before migrating to Palestine in secret in 1946.

During these years, Aharon didn’t only lose touch with members of his family, but also with his mother tongue; "In 1946, the year in which I arrived in Palestine, my diary was a mosaic composed of words in German, Yiddish, Hebrew and a few other languages." He found himself incapable of communicating comfortably in any one single language and used his diary to record new words that could capture and encapsulate his current mood. He could understand German, Yiddish, Ukrainian, Romanian, Russian, English and Italian to varying degrees when he arrived in Palestine. "I came with a bunch of words, different languages — but still very deeply disoriented."

The case of Aharon Appelfeld is very particular. He existed at a confluence of social, psychological and political pressures. He grew up in Czernowitz in a multilingual environment, where "cultures came together." He was subject to deep psychological trauma and conflated the German language with the Nazis who committed heinous acts against him and his family. And he arrived in Palestine shortly before the formation of the State of Israel in 1948, when the government implemented policies to promote the use of Hebrew as the official language. As a consequence, Appelfeld has spoken Hebrew and produced his works in Hebrew for the past seventy years. This represents the disappearance of an element of his identity, and it is this notion which preoccupies me: is it really possible to forget the language which we grew up speaking — the language in which we, as kids, said our first words, externalized our first experiences and constructed our subjective reality? This appears to have happened to Appelfeld under extraordinary conditions, but can it also happen under more normal conditions?

"Language is the soul and the spirit of things." (Haviva Pedaya)

How is it possible to forget a language?

When we learn a foreign language, we do it through our mother tongue (often termed the L1). The L1 is the linguistic system that we acquire during infancy, and it constitutes the intermediary that enables us to tame a foreign, unknown language. We translate unfamiliar words and often insert them into familiar grammatical structures. Little by little, the new language takes root in our minds. We start to become accustomed to the new sounds, and we begin to use the language in a more direct and automatic way, without necessarily having to reference the original language. We start to speak the new language with a degree of fluency.

Multiple linguistic systems can be active simultaneously in the brain of someone who becomes bilingual, or multilingual, later in life. Language attrition can occur due to these languages impacting upon and interfering with one another. Depending on the frequency with which the linguistic systems are activated, one can become dominant while the other sinks into the depths of our memory in such a way that it becomes difficult for our brain to recall it (or aspects of it).

L1 attrition, or first language attrition, is governed by two main factors: the increasing use and dominance of the L2, or learned language, and the reduction of exposure to the L1. This attrition tends to make itself evident in the constriction of the speaker’s vocabulary, while knowledge of grammar (structure) and phonology (sound) remains more stable. A speaker’s attitude and motivation toward his or her new and native languages can also have an effect on language attrition. This can, perhaps, be most starkly illustrated by Appelfeld’s aforementioned conflation of the German language with Nazis, where a migrant’s negative emotional attitude towards the L1, and determination to integrate quickly and fully into a new community, may have accelerated attrition.

During my first few months in Germany, I had very little to do with fellow expatriates and, consequently, spoke very little French: the will to transform myself into a fluent, independent German speaker obliged me to progressively inhibit my mother tongue, allowing it less and less space within my daily life. Words naturally began to come out of my mouth in German, and I found myself code-switching — mixing French and German within the same sentence — because I blanked in one of them. I found myself, for example, translating common German sayings into French when speaking my native language; I’d say "l’espoir meurt en dernier" (lit. "hope dies last") as the literal translation of the idiomatic expression "die Hoffnung sterbt zuletzt", rather than the French expression "l’espoir fair vivre" (lit. "hope makes us live"). Such confusion is indicative of momentary conflict between the two linguistic systems. Sometimes I even struggle to pronounce certain words or lose my normal intonation, suggesting that these momentary conflicts may also occur at the phonological level, and that my second language interferes with my sense for my native language’s musicality.

Don’t leave me…

While there is scant research into how exactly the frequency of language usage correlates to attrition, studies seem to suggest that the quality of contact with the native language carries greater import than the quantity, or frequency, of its use: exposure to other emigrants undergoing L1 attrition and L2 speakers of your native language may actually accelerate your own language attrition, and this constellation is very common among expat communities.

Language is alive, in constant flux and has an emotional force. Its assimilation in the brain not only resides in memory (more specifically, the Broca and Wernicke area), but also in the limbic system (where emotions are "located" — along with all your dirty swear words). Whether we learn a language for love, career or to retrace our roots — as happened to me with German — a second language can achieve dominance in the hierarchy of languages in our brain. If the first language gains negative connotations, its suppression or loss can also be accelerated. This loss represents the disappearance of one of the first things we ever inherit, and a foundational building block of our identity. Aharon Appelfeld has compared this with physical deterioration, saying, "A man who loses his mother tongue is sick for life."

Do you have any experience with language attrition? We’d love to hear from you! If you’re interested in the idiosyncrasies of language, check out our articles on anti-languages, the very special language of twins, or how grammatical gender influences our worldview.

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