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Losing Your Language

Today in the grocery store I ran into Madame L., a French woman who married an American GI and moved to our town decades ago. When I was a child, I would see her in a five-and-dime store, where she managed a department. Her accent was as thick as curd, her demeanor unusually precise and calm. Today was the first time I had seen her in many years. I greeted her in French, and began speaking French to her.

She answered me in English, and seemed to struggle to understand what I was saying. I switched to English, and when I was sure that she knew who I was, I returned to French. She insisted on English.

“I have been in this country for more than 40 years,” she said, sweetly. And then I realized that she was having trouble understanding what I was saying to her in French. The language in which she was raised. Her first language. The language that, aside from rare occasions, she hasn’t heard spoken around her in over four decades.

How do you lose your native language? I know it happens, but … wow. I can’t imagine not being able to speak English easily. Can you imagine losing your native language? If I forgot how to speak English, it would be like forgetting myself.

40 Comments (Open | Close)

40 Comments To "Losing Your Language"

#1 Comment By Robert On December 1, 2012 @ 9:21 pm

Somewhere or other I read the odd allegation that Albert Schweitzer, perfectly bilingual in both French and German, would unconsciously start talking German if discussing a period when his native Alsace was under German rule, and would instinctively switch to French if discussing a period when his native Alsace was under French rule.

There are apparently cases where a sufferer from a stroke, or from a head injury, will lose the ability to speak one language even as his or her ability to speak a second language remains flawless.

#2 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On December 1, 2012 @ 9:32 pm

Once upon a time, Louisiana would have been one place in the USA where she could have kept her French. One infers she no longer has close family living in France to correspond with or visit.

#3 Comment By bjk On December 1, 2012 @ 10:14 pm

I met a Belgian who didn’t speak great French or English, and assumed she was native in Flemish. Not the case. She wasn’t native in any language.

#4 Comment By Sherry On December 1, 2012 @ 10:17 pm

My friend, who was a German exchange student, had trouble speaking to a fellow German after a couple years of being here. I guess it’s true how if you don’t use it, you lose it. Sad. It would make me feel lost, too.

#5 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On December 1, 2012 @ 10:19 pm

German is my mother’s native language which she spoke until five years of age. She couldn’t speak English when she went to the public schools in NYC, but became fluent in English via school and her friends. She and her mother continued to speak it at home and she remained fluent until her 20’s. However, after she married my Dad she stopped speaking it at home and it slowly atrophied.

Her family was separated during WW II and her brother and father remained in Germany (a convoluted and sad tale). Her dad was likely killed in the war and her brother contracted tuberculosis during it. He was cured, but TB made him unable to emigrate to the US, so he remained in Germany and had a family.

Post WW II international phone calls were uncommon, so they corresponded via letters in German as my uncle spoke no English. But her spoken German kept slipping as time went by. In the 90’s international phone calls became cheap enough that they spoke on the phone, but she was no longer a native speaker and it was an effort. He died in the naughts and she hasn’t spoken German since then.

So I have cousins I’ve never met and couldn’t converse with even if I did. It’s quite strange actually.

#6 Comment By AnotherBeliever On December 1, 2012 @ 10:30 pm

I can see how that could happen, definitely. It’s not as if you really forget it entirely – I’m sure that a few months in France would restore Madame L’s language skills nearly to their original level, though she would likely remain flummoxed by any new slang that’s developed in the past few decades. During my study abroad year, a few of noticed that our English did get a little rusty. When we’d call home it was sometimes hard to remember a particular word and longer thoughts would not come together as smoothly as we wanted. And that was from just six or seven months of living, eating, thinking, dreaming and breathing in German. Of course unfortunately, our German was also barely passable, so we more or less just became bad at talking. 🙂 Learning to speak a foreign language fluently is step one. Step two is learning to switch fluidly from one to the other, which is is something you have to work at. It also requires that you use both languages fairly regularly. Otherwise, you will find that speaking the less-used one can be a bit of a struggle.

#7 Comment By James C. On December 1, 2012 @ 11:46 pm

I know a Madame A. (née Mademoiselle L.) who also married a G.I. and moved to my hometown well over 50 years ago. But she still speaks English with a thick accent, and her French is absolutely exquisite. She dresses and carries herself with amazing elegance. I’ve never seen her with trousers on and she admits to having never worn a pair of jeans in her life.

Ah, but she was the person who taught me French. And this septuagenarian legend in my tiny rural New York hometown is still teaching today at my school, as she has since the 1960s. No magnificent Madame A., no French for me or anyone in that farming community. I still have the crêpe maker she gave me. God bless her.

#8 Comment By Cassia On December 2, 2012 @ 12:01 am

I lived in Japan and studied Japanese for a fairly long time. There was one point where I had a Japanese boyfriend, only hung out with Japanese people and spoke Japanese all the time. Then I had to return to the UK, and suddenly had to start speak English again. I would get the weirdest blanks in my vocabulary when speaking to people. Like, I would forget the word “ticket”. I would stand there going, “I want to buy a… uh, a… what was it… um… uh…” きっぷ would be right there in the forefront of my brain, but dredging up “ticket” would take forever. Also, there are some concepts and expressions that only exist in Japanese that are really useful (like genki, yehari, sasuga, ganbatte, otsukare), so when speaking to English people I would sometimes feel like I couldn’t fully express my meaning.

#9 Comment By Andrea On December 2, 2012 @ 12:43 am

My paternal grandfather spoke only Finnish until he started school and I doubt he was fluent as an adult. I watched my great grandmother struggle to speak French with her elderly relatives even though it was probably her first language. I’ve interviewed international adoptees who spoke only English after a couple of years. It’s pretty normal to lose a language you don’t use regularly.

#10 Comment By The Sicilian Woman On December 2, 2012 @ 2:03 am

After you’ve been immersed in and speaking a language other than your native language for so long, you begin to think in that language. A friend of mine told me that, not speaking her native language with her family on a regular basis since she moved away from them, and having no one with whom to speak her native language regularly, she has started to forget some less common (but not uncommon) words. As you acquaintance has been thinking and speaking in English for so long and without having anyone with whom she could speak French, I can understand how she has forgotten to speak French, which is a shame.

#11 Comment By DavidT On December 2, 2012 @ 2:33 am

Actually, there have been lots of studies on this. The phenomenon is known as “first language attrition.”

“The term ‘First Language Attrition’ (FLA) refers to the gradual decline in native language proficiency among migrants. As a speaker uses their L2 frequently and becomes proficient (or even dominant) in it, some aspects of the L1 can become subject to L2 influence or deteriorate.

L1 attrition is a process which is governed by two factors: the presence and development of the L2 system on the one hand, and the diminished exposure to and use of the L1 on the other (Schmid & Köpke, 2007); that is, it is a process typically witnessed among migrants who use the later-learned environmental language in daily life. The current consensus is that attrition manifests itself first and most noticeably in lexical access and the mental lexicon (e.g. Ammerlaan, 1996 ; Schmid & Köpke, 2008) while grammatical and phonological representations appear more stable among speakers for whom emigration took place after puberty (Schmid, 2009) .”


#12 Comment By em On December 2, 2012 @ 7:22 am

I don’t know this lady if aging is possible or contributes? My experience with multiple languages – to me there is not this identity of person with just any one language, even the first. The self is something else, and languages used are just flavors of its expression. For what language is dominant in thought or preferred in speaking, this can change with location, or season of life, and it means little more than mood. They are like crayon or paint colors, or which hand to use for the ambidextrous. But also English is so beautiful and fun, I cannot blame her. And Rod Dreher I think you have said your French accent is very good, so it could not have been that? But I saw my parents and grandparents mostly lose their first languages…while others hold somehow their childhood language intact for life even if unspoken many years.

I have also seen where sometimes Americans are ridiculed for after having been abroad, that they return with accents or trouble speaking English, as if they are trying to fake being foreign now…but I think our briains must just be very different. I have such an affliction with sympathetic accent copying (where I will start talking like the other person) and when I have listened to speech completely unfamiliar or nearly incomprehensible to me (such as Cajun videos on this blog) my own mouth tangles up and I struggle how to even respond to what I hear, since I’m unable to match it linguistically. Speech and communication is so complex and fascinating.

#13 Comment By NickT On December 2, 2012 @ 7:52 am

Perhaps she was confused by your American version of French? That possibility seems strangely absent from your vision of the incident.

#14 Comment By David J. White On December 2, 2012 @ 8:27 am

My grandfather was born in Ohio but spoke German at home (his parents were immigrants from Austria) and continued to speak it in certain circumstances until he was a young man. He belonged to a German parish, so even though the Mass was in Latin, the catechism and preaching were in German, and he went to Confession in German. Then at one point he suddenly stopped speaking German, and never spoke it for the rest of his life. When I came along and acquired an interest in it, I tried to engage him and see if he could remember any. He remembered some, but not a lot; mostly just a few words and phrases, and couldn’t really converse except on a very basic level.

Why did my grandfather suddenly stop speaking the German he had grown up speaking at home? World War I. When the U.S. entered World War I, and even before, a person did *not* want to be known as German or heard speaking German. (A nun I knew in grade school was a schoolgirl in Berlin, Ohio during World War I, and she told me that one day the Ohio National Guard came to her school and burned all their German books.) I think it’s easy for us to underestimate the social pressure and expectations on people, mid-century, to assimilate and not appear “foreign”.

A friend of mine is married to an Arab woman. He is American but speaks Arabic. They live in this country. She tried raising their kids to speak Arabic at home, so they would know it; but she got too many dirty looks when they were out and about and she was speaking Arabic to the kids (since 9/11 did for Arabs in this country what WWI did for Germans); and, of course, the kids watch TV and speaking English to each other. I don’t know whether she knows any other native Arabic speakers in the area with whom she can speak — though today, with things like Skype, it’s presumably easier to stay in touch with family and friends in the old country than it used to me.

#15 Comment By T.S.Gay On December 2, 2012 @ 8:51 am

My oldest son and I spent a couple months camping in northern Quebec. To the north nobody, to the east and west….miles and miles…nobody. We had little to no contact with anybody. At some of our campsites at night the snowshoe hares would hop to the light. These are wild animals mind you. Too far north for snakes.It’s possible to walk up to a grouse. The music on a radio is country and western in French. We would often sleep in the boat at night on a lake where you would have to cover with a sleeping bag until nightfall(11:30PM, daybreak at 3:30AM) because of mosquitoes. We were at an outfitters lodge and camps for gas, when this guy walks up and says in English, “I see by your licence your from Pennsylvania”. It could have been Swahili for the way my brain processed.

#16 Comment By John E_o On December 2, 2012 @ 9:38 am

Similarly to T.S. Gay above – I spent two years living outside the States in an African nation where British English was commonly spoken. Returning to Texas English took conscious effort for perhaps as long as a year.

#17 Comment By KMT On December 2, 2012 @ 9:53 am

I knew someone from South America who married a man from the U.S.. He did not speak her language, and she spoke rudimentary English. They both knew Italian, and spoke it at home. She had a lot of trouble speaking Spanish, and said she had forgotten most of it.

#18 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 2, 2012 @ 10:21 am

My parents spoke nglish with no dialect at all. And I nebver understood why because Their fist maguage was spanish. Why they never passed this skill on to me or my younger sibligs I will never know. But their abilty top transitio from one to the other appeared rather seemless. My mother did not graduate HS until well into her late forties, I think. But she was an avid reader of of the Bible in Latin, Spanish and english. I will never know why she and my father encouraged french. My father insisted it was THE international language.

Invited to a former student wedding in France, I was excited to give my French a whirl — in every case they listened very politely and then proceeded to speak to me in English.

#19 Comment By Rosie Land On December 2, 2012 @ 11:01 am

After 30 years here, my aunt would go back to the old country and have trouble understanding people. After a couple of weeks her native language would begin to come back to her–just about when it was time to return to the U.S.

#20 Comment By Floridan On December 2, 2012 @ 11:25 am

A similar situation to that described by David J. White above took place within my maternal grandmother’s family. She related to me that many in her family spoke German up until the time of World War I, but she never remembered any of her older relatives speaking it thereafter.

In fact, there was so much animousity toward Germans, the family suddenly described themselves as of Dutch ancestry, rather than German.

#21 Comment By Jim On December 2, 2012 @ 11:32 am

Rod – when I was in Canada, I heard of a story once where an Anglophone and a Francophone had fallen in love in their youth – speaking, I believe, in French. They were eventually separated, and lived out their lives far apart from each other in other provinces: the Anglophone no longer spoke or really understood French; and whatever English was gained in youth was eventually lost by the Francophone.
They met again in old age but they couldn’t understand what the other one was saying.

#22 Comment By geronimo On December 2, 2012 @ 11:33 am

In my work with software engeneering I think in english (or something that looks like english but it’s really english with portuguese verbal regency and brazillian accent), because all texts, documents and books (that matters) I read about my profession are in english. I’m simply uncapable of discussing sw without in portuguese without using english as a crutch.

Language: use it or lose it. I lost all french and latin i learned in high school because I did not pay attention, was busy being a bad student and later, did not practice it.

#23 Comment By Sharon Astyk On December 2, 2012 @ 12:03 pm

Like many German Jews that survived (barely) the Holocaust, my husband’s grandmother and great-grandmother both went to considerable effort to forget their German, and largely succeeded. Eric’s grandmother was young (12) when she escaped Germany, but her mother was not, and both claimed by the time they had been in American for 10-15 years that they had forgotten everything. I think some of this was will, of course.

#24 Comment By David J. White On December 2, 2012 @ 12:05 pm

My parents spoke nglish with no dialect at all. And I nebver understood why because Their fist maguage was spanish. Why they never passed this skill on to me or my younger sibligs I will never know.

My first girlfriend’s mother was Hungarian, but also spoke German. Her father was born here but grew up in a German-speaking family. Her parents used to speak German to one another, but never taught their kids. My girlfriend told me that her parents used to use their German as a code they could speak in front of the kids so that the kids wouldn’t understand, and she suspects that that may have been the reason why they made no effort to teach their kids any German.

The father of a good friend of mine was Italian, and he told me that when he was a young physician in New York, he was summoned to the bedside of an old man from Little Italy who didn’t speak any English, and the physicians needed to talk to him to find out what was wrong with him. It turned out that the old man didn’t really speak Italian, either, at least not standard Italian; he spoke the dialect of the village in Italy where he was born, and since so many people from the old country settled near one another in this country, it was also spoken in the neighborhood of Little Italy where he had spent his whole life. He had never learned either English or standard Italian.

I suspect that for many immigrants (including my great-grandparents) and children of immigrants something similar is true: they actually speak a local dialect from the region they or their parents came from, rather than the standard form of the language. This may make it harder for them to to keep up their language outside the narrow social and family circle in which they lived.

#25 Comment By Seki On December 2, 2012 @ 12:21 pm

@ bjk “She wasn’t native in any language.”

I had just recently had a adult student like that. Now in her mid to late 20’s, she is an Hispanic whose parents moved back and forth across the border every three to five years.

Obviously intellegent, she struggles in both languages as she speaks a mixture of both languages at the same time. Her Hispanic classmates were as puzzled as her Anglo teacher. I suspect the “EngSpan” mix was the home language and the family understood each other perfectly.

#26 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On December 2, 2012 @ 12:32 pm

My mom, I think, grew up more or less bilingual in Tamil and English. That was not uncommon among the children of educated professionals in those days- her dad was a civil engineer. Maybe Tamil was her real ‘mother tongue’ but she was certainly fluent in English as well. At this point, having lived in America for 35 years, her English is *much* better than her Tamil, and she can barely write or read Tamil anymore (it’s not written in Roman script).

So yea, it certainly happens.

#27 Comment By Aaron Gross On December 2, 2012 @ 12:46 pm

Not a problem for me because I speak English a lot, but here’s some advice, related to David White’s comment above, to anyone raising kids in bilingual homes overseas: Make them speak only English to you when they’re growing up. I didn’t know to do that, and I deeply regret it to this day. Their mother and I always spoke English together, but she spoke Hebrew (her native language) with the kids. I always spoke English to them, but I allowed them to answer me in Hebrew. Big mistake! They grew up understanding English but unable to speak it, except what they learned in school (and with a heavy accent). So when your kids are learning to speak, pretend that you only understand English.

#28 Comment By Sam M On December 2, 2012 @ 1:12 pm

My mom and her siblings grew up in the US, but spoke only Italian until they went to school. Their parents bnever got fully fluent, especially the mom, who did not work outside the home.

Then the kids lost the Italian, of course. None have a discenible accent.

Or did they lose it? A fw years back. when they were all in their 50s or 60s, went to visit their relatives in Italy. Within a few days, the oldest brother was basically fluent again. My mother was one of the younger ones, and therefore grew up with more English inthe house. But withing a week or so she could get along in Italy.

Brains are weird.

#29 Comment By Mr. Patrick On December 2, 2012 @ 3:09 pm

Although English is my native language, I received my primary education in Spanish until age 12, to the point of complete fluency, then left it cold. Now I can’t put a sentence together beyond 5 words in anything but the present tense. The really strange thing is, I’m mute in Spanish, not deaf. I can understand 90-100% of everything I read or hear, I just can’t reply by other than action.

#30 Comment By elsa On December 2, 2012 @ 3:45 pm

In Cuba I grew up speaking Spanish, but languages had always fascinated me. I came to the US at the age of 13, totally illiterate in English. By the time I had been here 2 years, I learned English fluently. I also took classes in French and became quite proficient.

Now I see my parents and my aunt on a regular basis, and speak to them in Spanish. If my husband is around I switch to English. (He understands Spanish but is not fluent.) I use Spanish with people from other countries, my Spanish is relatively unaccented. Interestingly enough, the more time I spend with my family, the more Cuban my Spanish becomes. I also have trouble coming up with the occasional specific word, but I have a similar problem in English. Since I don’t use it, my French has become rusty. I think a couple of weeks of total immersion would bring it back.

#31 Comment By Carol On December 2, 2012 @ 4:15 pm

My mother’s parents came from Italy and spoke to my mother only in Italian. They lived in an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn where everyone spoke Italian. My grandparents learned English and spoke it fairly well for work. My mom learned English when she started public school. I asked her if that was difficult (because there were no bi-lingual programs then) and she said it was actually very easy for her to learn English. My mother and her parents never spoke to each other in English, only Italian, unless there was someone present who did not understand Italian. My mother was in her late 50s when her parents died. After several years she said she was forgetting how to speak Italian. I could never understand that. How could she forget to speak her first language, the language in which she and her parents spoke for 50+ years? But I guess it happens.

#32 Comment By AnotherBeliever On December 2, 2012 @ 6:12 pm

I’ve truly enjoyed all these different stories. Thanks, guys. 🙂

#33 Comment By Mike On December 2, 2012 @ 7:37 pm

All these anecdotes are really interesting, but it does shed light on the anti- immigrant rant that all those Latinos refuse to learn English and assimilate.

#34 Comment By El Mono Liso On December 2, 2012 @ 8:58 pm

I spent two years in Argentina, and I have to say that the few days back I felt a bit like I was in a fog. It took about a good three days before my speaking wasn’t awkward or just weird. Also, my family is from Mexico, so I had a Mexican-accented Spanish before I left. I spoke like an Argentine in Spanish for months (most Spanish speakers say that the way Argentines speak is pretty infectious). To this day, I have to be vigilant against the “lunfardo” (the dialect of Buenos Aires) in my Spanish.

#35 Comment By El Mono Liso On December 2, 2012 @ 9:03 pm


My experience is that people who come under a certain age will learn English, and their children certainly will learn English. A co-worker of mine learned English by watching cartoons. Another co-worker whose family had moved from Mexico from the inner city spoke impeccable rural Spanish but sounded black when he spoke English. It was pretty surreal. And once you marry someone who doesn’t speak that language, especially if you are not the mother, your language is pretty much toast. I am in an uphill battle teaching my daughter Spanish, and I don’t know how it will go, but I am not optimistic. The only reason I speak as good of Spanish as I do is because I worked at it, taking classes, living in Latin America, and so on.

#36 Comment By Glaivester On December 2, 2012 @ 10:20 pm

Somewhere or other I read the odd allegation that Albert Schweitzer, perfectly bilingual in both French and German, would unconsciously start talking German if discussing a period when his native Alsace was under German rule, and would instinctively switch to French if discussing a period when his native Alsace was under French rule.

You know, I found that I have a hard time thinking of temperatures in Fahrenheit when I do scientific work, and a hard time thinking in terms of Celsius when talking about the weather.

#37 Comment By David J. White On December 3, 2012 @ 12:52 am

One more story. I have a good friend who has lived in France since the mid-80s, after he graduated from college. (I think I’ve mentioned him before on this blog.) When he first moved to France, it was several years before he came home to visit, and of course translatlantic calls in the 80s were expensive, so he didn’t talk to his family often. When he first came home, he claimed he could hear shifts in many people’s general speech pattern since he’d been away (he mentioned in particular the spread of the rising intonation at the end of a sentence, which used to be stereotypical Valley-Girl speak). On subsequent visits, I noticed that for the first day or two he would sometimes search for words in English, and he would occasionally come out with a sentence with English words but French syntax. (After a couple of days, colloquial English all came back to him.) Now he teaches classes in English (he’s actually teaching economics, not English), and with Skype and so on, he’s constantly using both languages, so I don’t notice these problems of “switching” on his part so much anymore.

One thing of particular note, though: there are some things he’s learned to do since he’s been in France — e.g., motorcycle mechanics — where his first vocabulary is French. Moreover, he and his friends ride British motorcycles, and the manuals were written in Britain; mechanics is one area where British and American English differ notably (e.g., spanner vs. wrench), so the American English for these things is actually his third language for them.

I can’t imagine not being able to speak English easily. Can you imagine losing your native language? If I forgot how to speak English, it would be like forgetting myself.

It occurs to me, Rod, that it’s natural that you would feel this way because, after all, you’re a writer. Language is your bread and butter. In addition, in your writing you are particularly concerned with issues of identity, so it’s natural that you would think deeply about these things and regard your native language as an integral part of your self-identity. You’re also sentimental, which I understand because I am, too.

I don’t think everyone necessarily feels that way, however. My grandfather never seemed to regard his loss of his boyhood German as somehow a loss of identity; or if it was, it was loss of an identity (foreigner, child of immigrants) that he was happy to shed. I think the same was true for many immigrants of earlier generations. Whatever else language is, it is certainly a tool. You don’t use a hammer for a job that requires a saw. If English was the tool that got them an education and a job and allowed them to feed, clothe, and house their families, and to fit into society, then they embraced it, and willingly discarded other tools that didn’t. Some people are sentimental about things that evoke their past, such as their childhood home and family heirlooms; others regard them as bunch of old junk that can be discarded when they are no longer useful.

#38 Comment By Amelia On December 3, 2012 @ 7:56 am

Here in America, our native English language is being transformed at an accelerating rate — in some cases even taken from us by force. How many words and ways of speaking and writing, that were part of the language that we first learned to speak have been altered or contorted to mean something entirely different, abbreviated, expired out of irrelevance, etc. or virtually banned? And with these disappearances, our ability to form complete and nuanced thoughts to which this language was connected, has also been diminished or destroyed. Is there some correlation between this phenomenon and our diminished ability to communicate and connect with our fellow countrymen? And might not the impact of this phenomenon be experienced in other countries?

#39 Comment By Fran Macadam On December 3, 2012 @ 1:17 pm

” Can you imagine losing your native language? If I forgot how to speak English, it would be like forgetting myself.”

This is why American Indians were forced to use only names given them by the European occupiers and their children punished severely if they spoke their own languages.

#40 Comment By Andrea On December 3, 2012 @ 1:31 pm

David, that was exactly my grandparents’ attitude towards language. My grandfather learned English as quickly as he could and refused to speak Finnish to his children. It was important to him that they become only American. He was a second generation American-born citizen, but his mother and grandparents apparently spoke only Finnish at home and lived in a Finnish community. I imagine the language losses happened when kids were sent to public schools and had English-speaking teachers and classmates. That wasn’t as common until the 20s and 30s in emigrant communities. My maternal grandmother grew up speaking Swedish with her parents, who both came to the U.S. as small children, but she didn’t remember Swedish by the time she was an adult either and didn’t consider the language all that important. I was the one who was interested in the family history and the culture and language that shaped them; most of the rest of the family has very little interest and just considers themselves “American.”

I think histories like this are among the reasons a lot of Americans are skeptical of bilingual education and of immigrants who fail to learn English. In a lot of ways too much retention of the native culture is a threat to society as a whole.