Can you ever forget your native language?

(I think some of these people are probably exaggerating - but it’s interesting all the same.)

My mother was basically a native speaker of Dutch, having grown up in Amsterdam until she was 7. Having had no real contact with the language for almost 50 years she has forgotten it entirely since then.

Suddenly want to eat cheese after viewing the third photo in the article.


I guess if you leave a language as a child you will forget it. I remember hearing somewhere that, if you are immersed in language x or y until about age 12 or above, then you’ll never really be able to forget it (although I can see that one might get very rusty.)

I had an amusing experience in an Italian restaurant the other day: I was having lunch there with my sister and our father, and my sister jauntily dumped me right in it by telling the waitress that I could speak “fluent Italian”. Eeek! :-0

Well, so, the waitress started speaking to me in Italian! (BTW this is a language that I never spoke above B2 level, and which I literally haven’t spoken heard or used for more than 10 years!) To my amazement my brain started spewing out Italian. We ended up speaking for a couple of minutes - and at the end the waitress switched back to English and told the entire restaurant “He’s really good!”

Well, she was being too kind.

Still, I was amazed at how fast my brain was able to switch to a dormant language when suddenly put on the spot.


I met a woman in Florida some years ago. She was a native speaker of German, but she has lived there for about 30 years. I guess she left Germany in her early twenties. Her German was no longer fluent. She mixed a lot of English words into her speech and her pronunciation did sound American. She is a living example that you can have problems with your mother tongue if you have no chance to speak it.

An example are the expisodes with “Britta & Carla” in the GermanLingQ podcast (German library). One of them lives for years now in the US and her German doesn’t sound native any longer, and she makes mistakes when she speaks German. She uses English words as well if she miss the German word.

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I just watched a video of Schwarzenegger speaking German. I think it is clear that having lived so long in California, he has forgotten most of the language. He can barely speak the language at all. It sounds terrible.

…wait, this interview is from before he went to America!


Seriously though. I have met a lot of astronomers who say that since they live away from their home countries and work all the time in English, they often have trouble speaking their native languages again when they go home or speak with their parents on Skype.

“…having lived so long in California…”

Arnie may have spent many years away from Austria, but he’ll be back!

This BBC article is very interesting.
Forgetting one’s native language is in some circumstances as probable as astronauts in the space losing their muscle power. Generally speaking, languages other than English are at a disadvantage. However, maintaining one’ s native language is not impossible. Reading newspapers and books and writing a diary should suffice.

I was at a conference a couple of weeks ago and spent most of the time hanging out with Ukrainians and Russians. By the end of the conference, I was occasionally dropping articles when I spoke. This was after just a few days!

(…though maybe this was more down to the wine that I was drinking)

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There’s no way I’ve forgotten English, my native tongue, as I use it every day here. However, after more than ten years outside my country, I do feel that my English is poorer. I just don’t use and encounter its richness any more, and that’s sad. I converse with people at a day-to-day level and read (admittedly) a lot of popular fiction and some fluffy websites like Yahoo news. There’s no way I get the beautiful language of, say, Virginia Woolf as input any more. I’d have to work harder for that, and I guess I’m lazy.

What might changing seasons of life have to do with this topic? In other words, if you learn a language as a child, but are not exposed to it much as an adult, your language doesn’t mature with you. You are not exposed to the topics that adults speak of nor to adult ways of expressing themselves.

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I have never played golf and have no interest in it. Sometimes I see someone is watching a golf match on TV. As I cannot understand the TV announcer, if I were asked to say something about the progress of the match, I could not say anything even in my native language.

if I were always surrounded by golf fans, I might feel disorientated; people around me would think that I forget my native language.

I have to work hard to keep up with developments in German (although at times I think it’s more a rapid descent on a slippery slope rather than an uphill struggle; German, like any other language, is not definitely not increasing in difficulty over time…)

I have found Yoko Ono (widow of ex-Beatle John Lennon) to have a strange sort of mumbling or slurring quality to her Japanese. I still understand most of it and it is no criticism, it just sounds different from what I am used to.

To me it could be because she is speaking a style from the 50’s which has not evolved since she emigrated. On the other hand it sometimes sounds like a typical male tone, although she uses female vocabulary, so it may be a sort of conscious choice as somewhat of a counterculture figure. Or it could just be dental work. … who knows?


Forget possibly. My cousing lives in France and tries to find english speakers to keep the language going. I’ve found when I was most active in lingq that I started to mix words with English when speaking English! For a few months I was really bothered by the the thought of messing up my native English by learning Spanish.

I have heard even that there is a scientific term about that.
It is called ‘‘language attrition’’.

Here´s the Wikipedia entry : Language attrition - Wikipedia

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I think it’s pretty common for people who emigrate as children to have their native language be “stuck” at whatever level they were at the time. Similarly, someone who attends a university where their second language is spoken simply won’t know their first language’s words for topics in their field.

I think that , we cannot forget our native language, of course I’m not talking about a baby but someone that really can speak your native language. but I’m sure that , if you don’t have the chance to practice, well you’ll have problems to communicate!