WTF Fun Fact 13566 – Can You Forget a Language?

Can you forget a language? Can your brain really unlearn it?

If you took a high school Spanish or French class in which you spent the period reciting verbs and learning to ask for directions to the nearest beach, you may have no problem believing that it’s possible to forget an entire language.

But when it comes to our mother tongue, can it truly fade from our minds?

Can You Really “Forget” Your Native Language?

“Language attrition” is the phenomenon in which language proficiency slowly erodes from our brains over time. Professor Monika S. Schmid, a linguistic expert from the University of York, studies this, noting that an individual may experience bouts of hesitation, mix up expressions, or entirely forget specific terms sometimes.

While aging adults may find that certain words or phrases become elusive, they’re unlikely to completely lose grip on a language they once mastered. On the contrary, youngsters might experience a profound shift.

Kids can learn languages more rapidly than adults. But they can also lose it entirely if they aren’t continuously exposed to the language. For instance, a young Russian girl adopted by an American family demonstrated a rapid decline in her Russian vocabulary as she embraced English words.

The Brain’s Role in Language Retention

A lot revolves around the brain’s architecture. Interestingly, birds and their songs, especially those from the biological order Passeriformes, offer us a clue about retaining language.

These creatures are equipped with a dual-circuit system in their brains, first learning their song and then reproducing it later. A similar framework seems to exist in humans, particularly during early developmental stages.

In essence, by early adolescence, our first language gets imprinted in our brains. While we may overlook certain terms or expressions, the core structure remains intact. This also underscores why many struggle to shed their native accent, even after mastering multiple languages.

But most importantly, it suggests that we can’t entirely unlearn a language.

Avoiding Language Attrition

Contrary to what many might believe, staying connected with speakers of one’s native language isn’t always the antidote to attrition. An intriguing observation among Cuban immigrants in Miami highlighted this. Even while in a predominantly Spanish-speaking environment, they experienced a dilution in their native linguistic structures, largely due to their interaction with diverse Spanish dialects.

But that’s not a loss of language – it’s an evolution. And it’s pivotal to recognize that language change isn’t necessarily negative.

So, Can You Forget a Language?

Witnessing one’s primary language slip away can stir deep emotions, especially when one’s linguistic roots are linked to personal history and identity.

But here’s the silver lining: research continually reinforces the notion that our foundational language remains with us. While accents, dialects, and specific terms may evolve, the foundational structure remains.

So, while languages might fade, shift, or transform, they’re never truly forgotten.

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Source: “Can You Unlearn A Language?” — IFL Science


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