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  5. Can you lose your native lang…


Can you lose your native language? Yup.

Well, maybe not lose it completely, unless you stopped speaking it after the age of five or something like that.

But your eloquence goes down the drain. And my mother, for one, is not pleased:


If this has happened/is happening to you, please share your experience ;-)


August 11, 2016



Another interesting fact: you could retain your language, but an older version of it, the last you used. I know an old Belgian woman who has been living in my city in Italy for over 30 years now and she says that when she goes to visit her relatives in Belgium, they make fun of her for speaking a 30 years old version of Flemish.


Languages change, and really quite fast. There's lots of new words and expressions that have appeared in German since I left 25 years ago. It's hard to keep up, even when you actively try to!


Oh goodie, that's a swell joint ya got there, sport! Care to do some whoopin'?


THIS. So many people do not understand this. I hadn't spoken my native tongue for like 20 years, and when I visited my home country again, I was "ridiculed" for speaking very posh and proper without any profanity (which was apparently very common now).


This has happened to 3 people I know:

My mom grew up in India, so she learned Hindi. Now, after almost 20 years of living in the US, she has forgotten some vocabulary. I'm trying to learn Hindi, and whenever I ask her a question, there's a 50% chance she doesn't know or remember the answer. She can barely write, too.

The other person is my 6th-grade teacher. It's been a long time since I've seen her, but last time I did, she told me that she grew up in Suriname, the only Dutch-speaking country in South America. After about 30 years of living in the US, she knows about as much Dutch as someone on Duolingo who has completed the Dutch tree. She can't speak or write anymore, but she can understand sentences (not clearly though).

The last person is me. My parents have always spoken Tamil with me, and apparently, when I was like 4-5, I was able to speak the language. I tried to read and write at age 6, but that fell through, and know, I can understand my parents, but I always reply in English since I can't speak the language anymore.


A friend of mine who's originally from the Philippines has a similar issue. She's been living in the UK for almost three decades and is no longer able to speak Tagalog, although she understands it. Even to her family, she speaks in English. However, her English isn't 100%, she makes tons of grammatical mistakes, jumbles up expressions, etc. It's not an impediment to communication at all, and she doesn't seem bothered by it, but for me, this would be horrifying state of affairs... which is rather my problem, not hers, I realise ;-)

Thanks for sharing!


Your English is impeccable, I always learn a couple of new words reading your posts. Needless to say that forgetting a couple of german words was a small trade-off compared to how much you've learnt about other languages by living abroad all those years. :)


Thanks for the compliments, I take what I can get ;-)

801-day-streak?! Holy moly....! I got to threehundredandsomething once and that felt like a superhuman feat already...


I like reading your blog, this one and the one with the cakes too... You might not remember a few German words, but your English vocabulary is great, I always find fancy words I didn't know before. For example, "to mellow maternal consternation."


Aw, thank you :) I made that up, LOL

The other blog will continue. In fact, I just read something incredible in the paper this morning that will make for a (I hope) hilarious post. Not about languages, but about culture. Stay tuned :)


Same, is happening to me a lot with Spanish, I know I won't forget completely my native language, that's for sure, but sometimes I find myself struggling to remember some vocabulary words that before I never had problems remembering but because now i'm surrounded by people that speak English all the time I've noticed that I've been forgetting some of my Spanish vocabulary..


Although I did not mention this in my post, I find that the problem is particularly acute in the fields of work and study, which are rife with specialist vocabulary and jargon. I mean, if you've never studied a subject in your native language, or worked in that particular field, how on earth are you going to know the requisite terminology? Do you find that this an issue for you...?


Exactly! There are many things that I've been learning in English but I never learned them in Spanish simply because I was too young, for example the names of many countries, the other day I mentioned my mom something about Latvia and she told me she never heard about that country before until I realized is because in Spanish the country's name is Letonia and not Latvia but because I learnt all that information in English I never realized the country's name was different in Spanish...


It is completely normal. Some people start to forget words and expressions (of their mother language) just after some months (some months speaking another language ALL THE TIME being abroad and NOT speaking your mother language during those months, I mean).

But, if you keep speaking your mother language, at least some minutes every few days, you'll not lose it.


I speak more German now (since moving to Spain) than I did while I lived in the UK. I now actively look for fellow German speakers and opportunities to use my language, which I never did before. Am hoping to at least stem the rate of decay!


Daily practice is the key.

Just two months ago I felt quite comfortable reading, writing and speaking in Italian (to the point I considered it my "best" language after English and Spanish), but during the last few months I've been mostly studying French (I've completed six French trees here on Duolingo and I have read several books in French) and now I think that my Italian has gone down a little bit and I feel now even more comfortable reading and writing in French than in Italian, I think.

So it really depends on what language you use more, which ones you use daily.


Exactly what is happening to me.


Sometimes while speaking English I'll put words in the wrong order in the sentences. I also have this natural habit of, usually if I'm excited about something, I'll speak using little to no consonants. Luckily enough, my mom can still understand me when I do :D I mess up a lot while talking and I kinda have to focus on what I'm going to say, whereas four years ago (before I started learning languages) I didn't have to do this. Sometimes, too, I'll forget the words for things (ie pants= leg shirts). It's very weird. But honestly, learning languages is worth messing up a little :D


Yes, it so is! Thanks for chipping in :)


I've forgotten hundreds of Yiddish words. I started mutilating words too, Eere became zeere (her). LOL I'm sad now


Yiddish is your native tongue?! Hard to believe, in this day and age. But really cool :)


Yeah, I used to be a super religious Jew. We only spoke Yiddish (google Kiryas joel, you'll see what I mean)


Ah, I see! Thanks for clarifying :) When I still lived in London, my friend and I used to go to Stamford Hill for coffee and cake. There's a major Hasidim community there, and since I'm obsessed with good cake... I'm sure I don't have to explain that one. Jewish food, oh my...!


yeah, my mom lost a lot of her native french after moving away from her hometown 20 years ago. she still speaks it but often has to throw in english words where she has forgotten vocabulary.


Happens to me all the time ;-)


Ha! I am actually seeing this with my mom. Although her native language is German, she lived here in America long enough to speak perfect English with barely an accent. Over twenty years she lived here. Now she is back in Germany, she moved back almost two years ago. Already I can hear some mistakes when we talk in Skype. XD


After being away for so long, your mom will have had to learn a whole new rash of vocab, particularly IT terminology. I'm still having to check every time whether words like Blog, E-mail, etc, are masculine, feminine or neuter - it just doesn't stick! These words didn't exist when I was growing up in Germany.


So true! I remember my mom telling me that she did have a bit of culture shock too after returning to Germany. It's crazy to think how that can really happen.


I'm Swedish, but find myself thinking in English most of the time, as well as forgetting Swedish words. Quite frequently, in fact, I have to say a word in English and hope the one I'm talking to knows the Swedish word.


Thank God for smartphones, I say! :)


My father emigrated from Russia to the United States when he was fourteen. He is now forty and says he can't remember it too well


I can so see how this would happen. What a shame, though :(


Yeah but it's all in good favor :) Russia wasn't a great place back then. They were incredibly racist. Plus Russian isn't that useful in America. Except where I live lol (there are a ton of people w/ Russian heritage where I live)


I'm slowly losing my native language, Russian. It was the only language I knew up till around the age of 6, at which point I had a change of course in mine and my parents' life and we moved. Basically, ever since then I've been slowly forgetting alot of the things I considered "second nature" to me and lately I've been trying to combat that, while also learning other languages as well :)


Hi there! I don't know how good your German is, but if you're up to it, there's something you might enjoy: a series of articles written by a young Russian woman who moved to Germany when she was twelve. After finishing university, she decides to travel through her homeland, finding unexpected culture clashes around every corner. Very funny :)



Thanks so much for this! this is going to be an awesome read. I'm not yet at the level that's required to skim through all of these, so I'll take my time with it :) Still, this is really cool, considering I'm planning on doing something similar to what Wlada did... :)


Ha! Maybe you should google her... I know she went to the States a while back, to study, maybe she's still there? Maybe she's even published stuff in English...?

Anyway, what better way to learn a language than reading/engaging with something you're really interested in? In her articles, she uses quite a bit of colloquial German, so that might be fun ;-)


Definetly! I try to combine duolingo with as much culture as possible, whether that's movies, songs, children's books or whatever... I completely agree that by combining language learning with other hobbies, you get twice the fun.

Unfortunately it seems that she hasn't written anything in English, the only thing I found was a Vice article with her name on it. I'll keep working on my German, I'll make it a milestone of mine to be able to read her articles on Russia :)


I am the same ,, Kurdish :(((


And which language do you speak on a day-to-day basis, just for interest?


Yes, totally. My mother - tongue is isiXhosa, an African language, however at school, from the age of 6 both my sister and I were required to speak English. Cool. We still spoke Xhosa at home and in our community until we moved into a totally English - speaking suburb closer to our school. And today, almost 15 years later I'm better in English than my mother tongue.

Reading Xhosa and using the right grammar is hard now.

But at the same time, because English is only a second language, often I make mistakes with it too. I'm better at reading and writing English than speaking it.

So I'm at this weird zone of not really being 100% in any language.


Xhosa! I think it sounds fantastic ;-) That's a tough one. I must admit, one of my biggest personal fears is not being fully competent in any language (and that I might be heading towards that...). On the other hand, I'd never want to go back to being monolingual - it would feel like losing an arm or something! - and if that's the price I've got to pay, so be it.


I was born trilingual. I grew up in the United States to a Thai mother and an Israeli father, so I have three mother tongues - Hebrew, English, and Thai. I moved to Israel as a teenager and slowly my American accent started to fade away and now I have a mix of American and all sorts of other things. In addition. After learning German through duolingo I actually developed a German accent in Hebrew. Also, I'm not in touch with anyone who speaks Thai besides my mother, so my Thai isn't the best though it's a language that I use everyday (only with one person though). Now I actually have a foreign accent in every language that I speak and I easily adapt accents. For example when I speak to Russians in Hebrew I lose my German accent in Hebrew and get a Russian accent. Same with changing between Thai dialects.

In addition my grammar in English is no longer at its prime and I confuse sentence structure a lot.

I guess it's just not truly possible to have three mother tongues


That's an interesting set of circumstances you've got there!

It's certainly possible to be a native speaker of several languages, as you yourself are, but I think what's very difficult to achieve is to have a "full" number of registers in multiple languages. E.g. you probably would't be able to write a business letter in Thai, although it is your native language. Monolingual people often don't appreciate this aspect of multilingualism,i.e. that you're perfectly OK in some areas but not so great in others. I might write a post about this at some point... thank you for commenting!


That actually is true. I've never had to write a business letter in Thai so I don't know how to do this. Since most people who are multilingual from birth don't end up using all aspects of all of their mother tongues, they often times don't have reading, writing, or business communication skills in one or more of their mother tongues. It's really all a matter of using these skills or not. Also sometimes this changes over time.


Here is one Russian woman's experience returning "home" and not being quite as fluent in Russian as she had hoped. Very entertaining.



Great article, thanks very much for the link :)


I suppose it's possible but you can always relearn it. Additionally, it is well documented in the scientific literature that one can relearn a topic at double the rate compared to the first time they learned it. It's all about strengthening the synaptic pathways that have become defunct from lack of use. In English it's called "synaptic pruning." I don't think you necessarily "lose" your mother tongue.

Resource: https://www.cs.princeton.edu/sites/default/files/uploads/deborah_sandoval.pdf


Thanks for the link!


im lowkey scared of forgetting english even though i say a sentence and think "i dont know this in any other language" also i dont think im good enough at german or spanish to actually start forgetting english, but i can have meaningful conversations in german. i think the thing im scared of is the middle ground where in kinda okay at german and kinda okay at english, so ill just be bad at both. im just a bit paranoid really


Definitely you can forget a lot of words and things like that if you are living somewhere where you don't speak the language often. It's nothing to worry about though! You won't really ever stop being fluent in your native language; even if it seems like it for a time, as soon as you get back to hearing it often it'll come right back to you :)


My native language is portuguese. I noticed after a while studying english I started thinking in english and just recently noticed that while I enjoy reading in english I find it very hard to focus when reading in portuguese. I wouldn't say I'm losing my words on my native language or forgeting it, but I'm definitely not expanding it as I think I should with every language I aspire to learn.


Same here. I'm from Spain, been in the US for 13 years. My family gets really judgmental whenever I miss a word, say it wrong, or use a different one. I speak Spanish semi-frequently in my regular life, but it's always with Latinxs who speak completely different dialects from my own. My Spanish is still understandable and "proper," but my dialect is a weird mix of US dialects and it's gotten so bad that when I meet Spaniards they AWAYS think I'm 2nd generation and that Spanish is my 2nd language. =(


Ay, ¡que frustrante! It's hard for people to understand that your language adapts when you move between areas where your native language is spoken differently. If I moved, to Switzerland or Austria for a few years, I would start to use their vocab and even pronunciation to some extent. It's only natural.


I can 100% relate to this. English is my native language, but I've gone so far into French and Mandarin that my grammar sucks, and vocabulary is half of what it used to be. The funny thing is, I still live in an English speaking country!


I grew up in Mauritius from ages 0-6 and I used to speak creole. Now I do not know much of it. I remember only a few words but I am wondering if it is going to be easier for me if I try and recall those words. Plus, I went to a school where everyone spoke creole so I am quite familiar with the phonetics still. I can still guess how words are pronounced but vocabulary? I might have to work on that.


This happened when i left Russia, and after that i learned English, and then i learned Spanish and now i can barley speak Russian and i feel bad because my relatives visit me in California but i can hardly speak my native language.

and i feel mostly i forget to speak it with my parents and i have to deal with other things like school and i also recently trying to learn Chinese


È vero si può perdere la lingua madre , nel momento in cui pensi in un’altra lingua, mi è successo con la lingua tedesca durante la mia infanzia. Ho dovuto reimparare l’italiano tutto dall’inizio


It depends on the languages involved, I am finding that using German and the process of learning German is improving my native English. I'm constantly looking up meanings of German words which presents me with a list of possible English words of which, 99% I already know, but many I wouldn't otherwise use or be thinking about. If there is no relation between languages then I can see how spending all your time with one will diminish the other.

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