Can You Lose Your Native Language?

Linguists are re-examining the idea that people are shaped by a single, ‘native’ language.

For a long time, a central question in linguistics was how people learn language. But in the past few decades, a new field of study called “language attrition” has emerged. It concerns not learning but forgetting: What causes language to be lost?

People who move to new countries often find themselves forgetting words in their first language, using odd turns of phrase or speaking with a newly foreign accent. This impermanence has led linguists to reconsider much of what was once assumed about language learning. Rather than seeing the process of becoming multilingual as cumulative, with each language complementing the next, some linguists see languages as siblings vying for attention. Add a new one to the mix, and competition emerges. “There is no age at which a language, even a native tongue, is so firmly cemented into the brain that it can’t be dislodged or altered by a new one,” notes linguist Julie Sedivy.

A change in language use, whether deliberate or unconscious, often affects our sense of self. Language is inextricably tied up with our emotions; it’s how we express ourselves — our pain, our love, our fear. And that means, as Monika S. Schmid, the language-attrition expert at the University of York, has pointed out, that the loss of a language can be tied up with emotion too. In her dissertation, Schmid looked at German-speaking Jews who emigrated to England and the United States shortly before World War II and their relationship with their first language. She sent questionnaires asking them how difficult it was for them to speak German now and how they used the language — “in writing in a diary, for example, or while dreaming.”

“I was physically unable to speak German,” a Jewish woman who emigrated before the Second World War told Schmid, who found that émigrés who had experienced more of the Nazi regime had a weaker relationship to their native German.

Full report on The New York Times site