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  • Laura Vuillemin

Can We Forget Our Native Language?

Recently, I traveled to a foreign country where I only spoke the local language. I was on my own and met people who only spoke their language. For this reason, there was no possibility for me to speak French.


Nothing better, though, to immerse myself completely in the culture! And I was delighted to be able to practice.


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One evening, I thought about what it would be like to no longer be able to speak French. I ended up asking me this: is it even possible to forget your native language, if you don’t use it anymore?


I did some research and here’s what I found.


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The fact of completely forgetting your native language is called 𝗹𝗮𝗻𝗴𝘂𝗮𝗴𝗲 𝗮𝘁𝘁𝗿𝗶𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻. A term exists, so forgetting your native language is technically possible. However, in which contexts?


CHILDREN


Young children can forget their native language, notably because their brain is still “flexible” and developing.


Adopted children, for example, often forget the language they spoke in the country they were born in. A friend of mine was adopted in South Korea by French parents when he was around 9. Today, he doesn’t speak or understand Korean.


This can also happen to children of emigrants. Having left their birth country for another one with their parents, they may end up “prioritizing” the language they now need to use at school and in their everyday life. In this case, we talk about 𝗹𝗮𝘁𝗲 𝗯𝗶𝗹𝗶𝗻𝗴𝘂𝗮𝗹𝘀.


ADULTS


Among adults, 𝗹𝗮𝗻𝗴𝘂𝗮𝗴𝗲 𝗮𝘁𝘁𝗿𝗶𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻 is rarer. True, when you have been living in a foreign country for a long, long time, you are more inclined to mix up your native and second language, and even make grammar mistakes. Forgetting your native tongue, though, is still unlikely.


Nevertheless, there have been cases where adults have forgotten their native language. Most of the time, this is triggered by 𝘁𝗿𝗮𝘂𝗺𝗮. In 2018, an article from BBC News Online explained that some German Jews who escaped Nazi Germany, fleeing to Great Britain or the United States, had been unable to speak German ever since. They experienced such traumatic events that they only spoke English and erased German from their memory.


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I can’t help but think about funny Xavier, L’Auberge espagnole’s main French character. Having been injected some sedative, he starts dreaming and sees himself only being able to speak Spanish. His “No entiendo el francés. He olvidado mi lengua materna.” is legendary.


As scary as it seems, let’s rest assured: normally, we shouldn’t be forgetting our native language any time soon!

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