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Is it possible to lose your mother tongue?
Thread poster: SO British

SO British
France
French to English
Jun 5, 2014

Hello all,

I have very recently joined this forum and this is my first post so any comments will be greatly appreciated.

I've just finished reading an article on the BBC News website which spoke about the possibility of losing your mother tongue. I have been living in France now for two years, and although I'm a long way from forgetting how to speak English I do find that I have developed a somewhat odd rhythm when I speak.

Has anyone else experienced this? What are your thoughts on the possibility of losing one's mother tongue?

Jonathan


 

TB CommuniCAT  Identity Verified
Canada
Local time: 04:19
Member (2014)
English to French
Not losing it..... Jun 5, 2014

I don't think you will completely "lose" it, but like you said, you develop an odd rhythm. I think once you learn a language, it will always be at the back of your mind. It is just a matter of using/practicing it more often.

I remember one of my professors used to say, language is just like swimming. Once you know how to swim, you will highly likely be drowned.icon_smile.gif


 

Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 09:19
Member (2008)
Italian to English
Yes ! Jun 5, 2014

There was a period of my life when for about 10 years I only spoke, thought, ate, made love, studied at university, took my driving test, read, and thought only in Italian and didn't speak English to anyone, ever.

Then I paid a visit back to London and discovered that the English language had moved on. New expressions were being used that I hadn't heard of before.

Most of all, after those ten years I began to "miss English" and longed to hear it spoken (beautifully, of course).

[Edited at 2014-06-05 18:00 GMT]


 

Triston Goodwin  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 02:19
Spanish to English
+ ...
Not sure Jun 5, 2014

When I was just a few months old, my dad was transferred to an army base in Germany. I actually spoke more German than English and had a tough time correcting my pronunciation and vocabulary when we moved back to the US four years later. I don't speak any German now.

When I first started learning Spanish at 19, I was told that I had a thick German accent, so maybe it's still stashed somewhere in the back of my brain?


 

Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 09:19
Member (2008)
Italian to English
American soldier Jun 5, 2014

I've just been watching a television news item about an American soldier who was a prisoner of the Taliban for 5 years and has completely forgotten how to speak English.

 

Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 09:19
Hebrew to English
I read that same article just now... Jun 5, 2014

Whilst I do think it's entirely possible to lose your mother tongue (given enough time and attrition) I'm quite sceptical about the Bergdahl claim (the 'hook' the BBC uses to kick off the story), since we're only talking about 5 years.

USA Today presents a more critical view of it:
http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/06/04/bowe-bergdahl-english-language/9966809/


 

neilmac  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 10:19
Spanish to English
+ ...
Definitely Jun 5, 2014

Tom in London wrote:

There was a period of my life when for about 10 years I only spoke, thought, ate, made love, studied at university, took my driving test, read, and thought only in Italian and didn't speak English to anyone, ever.

Then I paid a visit back to London and discovered that the English language had moved on. New expressions were being used that I hadn't heard of before.

Most of all, after those ten years I began to "miss English" and longed to hear it spoken (beautifully, of course).

[Edited at 2014-06-05 18:00 GMT]


It's true - I was surprised to find how much spoken English had changed when I went back after a few years away. Thank goodness we now have internet to keep in touch with "popular culture" and language back in the old country. I have the BBC on almost all day now, either in the background when working or actively listening to the radio or watching TV at the end of the day. It's marginally better than a poke in the eye...

For example, the first time I heard my friends from UK talking about a "people carrier" I thought it sounded so odd I was sure they must've made it up!

[Edited at 2014-06-05 18:42 GMT]


 

Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Denmark
Local time: 10:19
Member (2003)
Danish to English
+ ...
Work at it Jun 5, 2014

In these days of satellite TV and the Internet, you should keep your English up to date!

It depends where on the globe you live, but in Europe you should be able to keep up one way or another.

When I first moved to Denmark, the telephone was prohibitively expensive for more than brief calls on special occasions (at least on our budget as newlyweds...), but there were a few English programmes on the one TV channel, and we had books. I had to learn Danish the first year, but my husband travelled a lot, and some weeks, like Tom, I barely spoke English at all after I had got to the stage at language school when the staff pretended they only understood Danish!

Now, with dozens of channels to choose from, I can hear English round the clock, on all subjects, facts, news and fiction.

I have always had my own idiolect, because we moved around a lot while I was growing up - my family is from the south of England, but I grew up in Northumberland and the West Riding when not at boarding school north of London. But you don't lose your native language unless you actually suffer brain damage - it is fairly hot-wired!

Of course you need people to talk to, and I think your own accent and rhythm come back again when you settle down, certainly if you work at it.

Listen to anything suitable online, or watch films and YouTube.
Take advantage of Skype and phone offers, and talk to relatives and friends.
Read real English, and read it aloud to yourself - that helps to keep the rhythm and accent in place.

It is more of a struggle with some other languages, but English is accessible all over the globe!

Go back 'home' whenever you get the chance, and stay as long as possible. That is really the best way to keep in touch.


 

LilianNekipelov  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 04:19
Russian to English
+ ...
Yes, absolutely. A child can lose it completely. Jun 5, 2014

SO British wrote:

Hello all,

I have very recently joined this forum and this is my first post so any comments will be greatly appreciated.

I've just finished reading an article on the BBC News website which spoke about the possibility of losing your mother tongue. I have been living in France now for two years, and although I'm a long way from forgetting how to speak English I do find that I have developed a somewhat odd rhythm when I speak.

Has anyone else experienced this? What are your thoughts on the possibility of losing one's mother tongue?

Jonathan


My mother's first language was German. She might have spoken a variety of Polish --to a some extent as well, not too much though. After the age of six, she stopped speaking German , and she almost completely lost the language. It was worse than mine, even though even my German is not of the highest fluency--especially in terms of grammar.

A person who moved somewhere after the puberty, may lose the L1 to some extent--they may acquire a different accent, forget some words--lose the natural ease of expression and rhythm. Also, if someone has never learned certain things in their L1, they would have to learning them in that language--re-learn them--sort of. I could not speak about many things in Polish, for example, because I never learned them in that language--I would qualify my fluency more as a general high school level. I would have no idea how to talk about linguistics, literary theory or philosophy in Polish, although my accent is still not bad--it doesn't mean anything, though.

To sum up--yes you can absolutely lose your mother tongue--perhaps not completely as an adult, but a child can lose it all.

[Edited at 2014-06-05 19:31 GMT]


 

SO British
France
French to English
TOPIC STARTER
Interesting perspectives. Jun 5, 2014

Many thanks to all who took the time to share their experiences with me. There are a lot of interesting stories here! It's comforting to know that I'm not alone in experiencing 'strange rhythm syndrome'.

It's seems like it could be possible to forget one's mother tongue, although it clearly depends on how immersed you are in the other language, and of course, how long for.

I guess I will have my answer for certain in five to ten years!

Thanks again.

I'm going to read the USA Today article now.


 

Teresa Borges
Portugal
Local time: 09:19
Member (2007)
English to Portuguese
+ ...
Yes Jun 5, 2014

One of my brothers forgot almost completely his native language (Portuguese). He went to England to study some 40 years ago, married an English woman and lived and worked in English speaking countries (Ireland, South Africa, USA) and in Spanish speaking countries (Spain, Mexico). Nowadays he speaks what we call “portunhol” – an unhealthy mix of Spanish and Portuguese - with a strong English accent!

[Edited at 2014-06-05 22:34 GMT]


 

Helena Chavarria  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 10:19
Member (2011)
Spanish to English
+ ...
I've been living in Spain since 1977 Jun 5, 2014

And I haven't been back to the UK since Christmas 2004. However, I speak better English now than I did 20 years ago because I realised that I was starting to speak English like a foreigner and I decided to do something about it:

I write my 'things-to-remember list' in English - things like 'go to the bank', 'pay road tax, get something for lunch', etc.

When I'm on my own I make a conscious effort to think, and even talk to myself, in English, though I admit that when I'm driving I can't stop myself from getting annoyed with other drivers in Spanish.

When I'm translating I usually read what I've written out loud to make sure it sounds natural.

I spend at least 10 minutes day reading online news articles and what my family and friends have posted on Facebook and Twitter. There you go, do you say ON Facebook or IN Facebook?

I admit I still get my prepositions mixed up!


 

Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 16:19
Chinese to English
Not in most cases Jun 6, 2014

Pretty much anything is possible, and Teresa's real life example is very instructive, but I think that it's very rare for an adult to lose their native language.

As Tom shows, you can lose touch with your native language; and children can lose languages before the age of 5; but mostly the deep features of a language will remain with you in some way. You can get rusty, but it's highly unlikely that you'd lose a language completely.

Certainly, as the others have mentioned, it was more likely to happen in the past, when someone might go to a new country and be completely cut off from their old language. These days, with the internet, very few people take that option, and only a little bit of mother tongue contact will be enough to keep it fresh.


 

Lincoln Hui  Identity Verified
Hong Kong
Local time: 16:19
Member
Chinese to English
+ ...
Damn Jun 6, 2014

TB Communicate wrote:

Once you know how to swim, you will highly likely be drowned.icon_smile.gif

I should never have learned to swim.


 

LilianNekipelov  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 04:19
Russian to English
+ ...
The strange rhythm problem or even some other features of your accent Jun 6, 2014

might not necessarily be a sign of loosing the language completely. Even the people just form different regions, all English-speaking, as an example, adjust their pitch or the wave lengths they use when speaking, and consequently their accent, to the other side--the people they are interacting with. Please watch some conversations between., let's say, Texans and British English speakers, or Texans and some people form the Northeast. At least one side will not be speaking with their customary rhythm. Accent, especially the rhythm, is affected by the person you are interacting with, especially in English, for some reason, and in all vocal languages. The accent adjustment happens instantaneously. If you speak to someone with a different accent for five minutes, or even half an hour, it may not affect your accent permanently, but if you are surrounded by another variety of X language, or a different language, for an extended period of time--like years, it may cause permanent changes.

[Edited at 2014-06-06 08:21 GMT]


 
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