Can children forget their native language?

Can children forget their native language?

Can children forget their native language? Yes, in fact, it is so common that we have a term for it. Language attrition is the progressive loss of a language due to lack of use. And it is the perfect embodiment of the idiom ‘if you don’t use it you lose it.’. When we start learning another language, the two systems start to compete with each other.

It is 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 immigrants who leave their home country at a young age. Bilingualism is an experience that shapes our brain for a lifetime, literally.

The language Switch

“The fundamental difference between a monolingual and bilingual brain is that when you become bilingual, you have to add some kind of control module that allows you to switch,”

Monika S. Schmid
Professor of Linguistics, University of York.

Schmid is a leading researcher of language attrition, a growing field of research that looks at what makes us lose our mother tongue. In children, the phenomenon is somewhat easier to explain since their brains are generally more flexible and adaptable. Until the age of about 12, a person’s language skills are relatively vulnerable to change. 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.

Native fluency is strongly linked to how we manage the different languages in our brain. Go check out what learning a new language does to your brain here.

Can adults forget their native language?

In adults, the first language is unlikely to disappear entirely except in extreme circumstances. For example, the German of elderly German-Jewish wartime refugees in the UK and the US. The most traumatized refugees had suppressed it. As one of the refugees who partook in Schmid’s study said: “I feel that Germany betrayed me. America is my country, and English is my language.”

Laura Dominguez, a linguist at the University of Southampton, found a similar effect when she compared two groups of long-term migrants: Spaniards in the UK and Cubans in the US. The Spaniards lived in different parts of the UK and mostly spoke English. The Cubans all lived in Miami, a city with a large Latin American community, and spoke Spanish all the time.

Innate talent has a lot to do with how well that first language is maintained. People who are linguistically inclined tend to be better at preserving their mother tongue, regardless of how long they have been away.

The Language Switch: When I look at the object in front of me, my mind can choose between two words, the English ‘desk’ and the Portuguese word ‘mesa’ (I am Brazilian). In an English context, my brain suppresses ‘mesa’ and selects ‘desk’, and vice versa. This ability to suppress a language is a cognitive edge bilingualism offers.

If this control mechanism is weak, the speaker may struggle to find the right word or keep slipping into their second language.

Mingling with other bilingual speakers can make things worse. Since there is little incentive to stick to one language if you know that both will be understood. The result is often a linguistic hybrid.

Hybrid Dialects
Hybrid Dialects Meme

Humorous memes like these aren’t bad, but if this type of hybrid language is all your child has access to, they’ll have difficulty talking to relatives back home.

Related: English through the ages

From a linguist’s point of view, there is no such thing as being terrible at your own language. And native language attrition is reversible, at least in adults: a trip home usually helps. Still, for many of us, our mother tongue is bound up with our deeper identity, our memories and sense of self. Many psychologists believe that a strong bond between a child and his or her parents (especially the mother) is established through exhibition of love, compassion, body language and verbal communication; language.

Our language is actually our identity. The mother language plays a crucial role in shaping an individual’s personality as well as his or her psychological development, thoughts and emotions.

Language is intrinsic to the expression of culture. As a means of communicating values, beliefs and customs, it has an important social function and fosters feelings of group identity and solidarity. It is the means by which culture and its traditions and shared values may be conveyed and preserved. Which is why many immigrant families are looking at e-learning as a bridge to connect tutors from their native country to their children.

That, of course, is no easy feat. Children are not naturally inclined to sit in front of a computer to study. However, millennial parents are getting creative with it. This growing cohort of parents is digitally native, ethnically diverse, late-marrying and less bound by traditional educational methods than any generation before it.

Non-traditional methods of learning languages

Why don’t you have your child play chess with a native tutor? This brilliant idea takes the edge off the language. It becomes natural and fun. Of course, chess is not the only option. Any interaction with a monolingual will improve your child’s linguist skills.

International Language Schools like us, now offer a variety of online services to help your child immerse themselves in their native language and culture. Here are the Brazilian Portuguese Classes we offer

  • Singing lessons
  • Music theory
  • Chess for beginners
  • Brazilian Psychologist
  • Brazilian Nutritionist
  • Brazilian History, Folklore and Myths

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