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Forgetting one's first language?
Thread poster: Patricia Rosas

Patricia Rosas  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 13:28
Spanish to English
+ ...
Mar 11, 2007

I'm editing a first novel, and the author has a character returning home after being away for two years. The man's father calls out “Who’s there?” in Cherokee twice but the character cannot "adjust to the sound of the language well enough to reply."

Leaving aside that the character only needed say his own name, I think this statement is implausible. We all have lapses and sometimes an injury or illness affects our language abilities, but would a young man be unable to respond in his own tongue after not having spoken it for two years?

I\'m wondering what others think, and I\'m also curious if there is a body of literature on \"mother-tongue loss\"?



Local time: 21:28
From my personal experience Mar 11, 2007

Being Spanish, I've lived in Italy, Germany and the UK and I usually go back to Spain every 4-6 months. I've noticed that during the first couple of days at home I sometimes get blocked with the most basic words/expressions. For example, when I have to say "sorry", "thanks" or "please" in Spanish, the Italian/German/English words (depending on which country I'm living) come to my lips before the Spanish words. The same happens if I'm living in (say) England and visit Germany: if I have to thank somebody, I'll probably say "thank you" instead of "Danke". I guess these and others expressions get automatized and you automatically and nearly unconciously use them in the appropriate context (if you are a polite person of course!).

That said, I think that a situation as you described can be pretty much "automatized", because it can be fairly common. The person would have acquired the habit of answering in English when somebody asked "Who's there" after having lived this situation repeteadly. In any case the confusion should not last more than some seconds.

[Edited at 2007-03-11 19:38]


Local time: 22:28
German to English
Short answer Mar 11, 2007

... but would a young man be unable to respond in his own tongue after not having spoken it for two years?



Vito Smolej
Local time: 22:28
Member (2004)
English to Slovenian
+ ...
my 2c Mar 11, 2007

Leaving aside that the character only needed say his own name

could just as well be, he's trying to say "It's me dad".
but would a young man be unable to respond in his own tongue after not having spoken it for two years?

Why not? In other words, what makes it so unbelievable? To say with Dorothy "We're not in Kansas anymore".
mother-tongue loss
The history of my nation is full of persons who "forgot" Slovenian - to turn into "was besseres - i.e. something better". And I would assume they had their moments of hitting the reality wall, which left them speechless.

But, that does not prove anything...


PS: "a first novel" - translation of ~, draft version of ~, your very own ~?

[Edited at 2007-03-11 20:20]


Patricia Rosas  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 13:28
Spanish to English
+ ...
thanks for the help! Mar 11, 2007

Vito and Emoreda--

Thanks for clarifying this. Emoreda's experience, particularly, made me see that this could happen (for the character, it only lasted a couple of seconds, and then he answers). So, I won't "bug" this author about that!

Sad to think that people leave their native tongue behind, as Vito describes, but my Norwegian grandparents did just that when they got to the United States--they were ashamed of who they were! And now, my older brother has gone back to Norway--likes it better than the States. (And Vito, I edit English-language texts as well as translating from Spanish-into-English--wish it were my first novel!)

Thanks for answering on a Sundayicon_wink.gif


Catherine Brix
Local time: 22:28
Swedish to English
+ ...
Language attrition Mar 11, 2007

There are loads of studies on language attrition - first language attrition, second language attrition. .. Just google, you'll be up all night!


Juliana Brown  Identity Verified
Local time: 16:28
Member (2007)
Spanish to English
+ ...
just ask my mom Mar 11, 2007

Although I have spoken Hebrew and English since childhood, after spending many years living in Israel (and avoiding English speakers), my mother used to tease me that comments I made "were not really English". This being said- I would never claim to have "forgotten" English.
We may become stuck in one language, to the point of also exchanging behaviours associated with them. For example, instead of saying "um", if one forgets a word, as in English, multilingual folks may find themselves saying "em", as in other languages.


Parrot  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:28
Spanish to English
+ ...
There's a message in that episode Mar 12, 2007

It speaks of integration into a bigger "outside" world. It speaks of intensity of experience lived without translation. Although I've lived the same experience as Eva many times, there's something in the position of Cherokee as a language in continental America that checks me from saying this is merely "B-language interference". I have also spoken dialects that would cost me a major effort to recover (I still understand them), and not because I have "was besseres" (or several of those, and by that same metre I can't say "besseres"); it's a statement on the position of a (call it) "patria chica" of the soul.

The son has changed. It's no longer just a distance in time, but a distance in chip...


JaneTranslates  Identity Verified
Puerto Rico
Local time: 16:28
Member (2005)
Spanish to English
+ ...
For what it's worth... Mar 12, 2007

My grandmother always claimed to have forgotten all of the German she had spoken in childhood. However, late in life and following surgery, she had a few days when all she could speak was German (though she could still understand English). What does that mean? I have no idea.


Benno Groeneveld  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 16:28
English to Dutch
+ ...
After 30 years in the US Mar 12, 2007

with a wife who doesn't speak Dutch (I was too lazy to teach her) and a son who only speaks a few words (same, although his Christmas wish was a Rosetta Stone Dutch course, which he received), my English still has a Dutch accent, but I don't have an American accent in my Dutch.

But I've been writing and broadcasting in Dutch regularly during my time in the US, that helped.

That said, I notice that sometimes when speaking English, the Dutch word first jumps onto my tongue. And when I speak Dutch with fellow Dutch persons in the US, we switch to English phrases whenever we talk about 'technical' things. (we talk about subway, not 'ondergrondse' for example).

There are also some fields where I only know the English terms. For example, I've been writing about agriculture for a Dutch paper for the last 10 years or so. I grew up in Amsterdam without much need for agriculture terms, so my ag language is English.


Rafa Lombardino
United States
Local time: 13:28
Member (2005)
English to Portuguese
+ ...
Parrot puts it well... Mar 12, 2007

I was born and raised in Brazil and only left (not for good) five years ago. Obviously, I haven't forgotten my language, but being a translator surely opens some doors to "attrition," as Safot wonderfully put it.

One thing I've noticed after visiting my parents for a couple of weeks (I got back to the US this week) is that I'd misinterpret some expressions if I wasn't paying close attention to my speech. Actually, I'm not an interpreter because I've noticed that my mouth doesn't communicate as well with my brain as my fingers do when typing translations out...

Anyway, one expression that hit me was something like "it's been sitting here for ages," meaning that something was just left aside, collecting dust, completely forgotten or unattended. The problem is that every time the idea would come to mind, the verb "sit" would be automatically out of my mouth in Portuguese, which doesn't make much sense in that context.

I've also noticed that since I've been practicing speaking and thinking in Spanish a lot more during classes (I'm taking an extension course on EN-ES translations), it's getting tough for me to switch back on some words when I'm thinking in Portuguese. Both languages are pretty close and I've been trying so hard to have Spanish stick (that is, to become as fluent in it as I am in English to the point that I do think in that language) that sometimes simple words such as "cidade" or "açúcar" in Portuguese look weird because I've been trying to think "ciudad" and "azúcar" most of the time.

Well, I guess what I'm trying to say is that if you're thinking in one language for a long time, your "auto pilot" may malfunction once in a while. It obviously comes down to just a brain fart, but it's enough to catch you off guard. Then, again, like Parrot said, it's mostly due to the fact that, as we think in a foreign language and live through it for a long period of time, it's almost as like we acquire a new identity and sometimes it's hard to suddenly go back to your old self.

However, I've known some people that don't really go through it because they don't think about the language at all and they're not translating anything in their heads. I'm not only talking about bilingual people who have been raised speaking two languages, but those who effortlessly are able to pick up on it while moving to a foreign country, speaking and comprehending it pretty well enough to communicate with natives, but without getting deep enough to become fluent, usually going back and forth because they've simply replaced some words with the new vocabulary or even created a "new dialect" because they don't bother trying to remember the right word in their native language.

That's my long two centsicon_wink.gif

[Edited at 2007-03-12 03:58]

[Edited at 2007-03-12 03:59]


Yolande Haneder (X)  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:28
German to French
+ ...
I don't think up to that point Mar 12, 2007

Before I started regularly translating into French (and having been abroad for years), I may say that I got "out of use" up to a certain point of having to think twice before really getting in the bath of the "unused language". The language had gone passive. Even though my first answers coming in my head were in English or respectively in German it is not up to a point that I didn't understand anymore.

Now, since I had been translating (and been reading French texts too it had come back), one may (with some good ear) hear that I am putting an Austrian tone into my French for about the first week in France (and I notice from my sister how the language evoluted without me).

The funny thing was, as I came over here, I got called the "piefke" (not a nice word for a German) - because of my German education and now as I later called over to Germany to an old friend, he told me I got the "Austrian German accent".

I think the brain is very much flexible, one never forget, it just take a while for the brain to sort things out.

[Edited at 2007-03-12 07:44]


Local time: 22:28
French to Dutch
+ ...
For what it's worth 2 Mar 12, 2007

JaneTranslates wrote:

My grandmother always claimed to have forgotten all of the German she had spoken in childhood. However, late in life and following surgery, she had a few days when all she could speak was German (though she could still understand English). What does that mean? I have no idea.

Some years ago I read a study about Dutch people who emigrated to New Zealand in the fifties. They had farms, lots of success and ended up retired. The problem was that when they got Alzheimer or other senility problems, all the words, languages and experiences they learned later on (after childhood) went away, and they only remembered what they learned when they were young - their first language and their childhood experiences. It was the same as your grandmother's post-surgery traumatism. The houses for elderly people couldn't help them anymore and were obliged to recruit young assistants in the Netherlands, to insert ads in Dutch newspapers and to have Dutch speaking people come to New Zealand. I don't know how this problem has been solved in the end.
So I think you don't forget your first language - not really. It only becomes unused, until you get back to childhood!

As for us, translators, don't forget that we are a very special group, trained in remembering our first language, even if we are abroad for ten or twenty years.

[Bijgewerkt op 2007-03-12 08:58]


Charlie Bavington (X)  Identity Verified
Local time: 21:28
French to English
I'm not sure what it means anyway Mar 12, 2007

Patricia Rosas wrote:
The man's father calls out “Who’s there?” in Cherokee twice but the character cannot "adjust to the sound of the language well enough to reply."

I realise that you have only quoted a small fragment, but I must say that if I were reading that, my interpretation would be not that the man has necessarily lost the ability to speak Cherokee, but that he has lost the ability to immediately understand it (he doesn't recognise the sounds as being Cherokee words), and that is why he doesn't reply.

And if he hasn't heard a word of Cherokee uttered for 2 years, then I could imagine that it might take his brain a few seconds to realise what it was hearing, altho I have no personal experience of that. I would think that in this day and age, one would have to be marooned on a desert island in order to go 2 years without hearing English somehowicon_smile.gif


Edward Vreeburg  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:28
Member (2008)
English to Dutch
+ ...
cannot understand your native language Mar 12, 2007

Hi Patricia,

Just to confirm (and contradict) some of the earlier replies:
YES one can definately forget your own language!

I've lived in France for 4,5 years and would only go back to my hometown every 3 - 6 months.
When in France I did speak Dutch with customers and some colleages. Despite that, every time I came back to why home town, I could sit and wait in at the bus station and not understand the people talking next to me for at least 10 minutes ( and then realise they where speaking Dutch)

This really happened (and I was about 25 years old)

So it looks like the author of the book is really talking from experience !

I can imagine with a language like Cherokee that he has not spoken for 2 years (and we even leave out the reason why he left his community ...) that this is not surprising at all.

It also happened to me that I would speak French (or another language) to people that could not understand it (like my mother) without realizing it (and she would say ": You do know you are speaking french to me now, aren't you")

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