Can People Lose Their Native Language?

I read an article and I wanted to share my opinion. You can find the article here:


About 5 years ago, I was hit by a car on my way to my last lesson of the year. It was finals week. I hit my head and blacked out. That’s pretty much all I remember about that day, but I remember a few issues that arose after that.


Not too long after my accident, I couldn’t speak for three months. I couldn’t speak English, Japanese, or Spanish (the languages I knew at the time). After three months of not speaking at all, I was able to speak again with a slight speech impediment. I can’t remember how long that lasted.


When I was able to talk again, I can remember meeting a foreign exchange student from Korea. Her name was Soyeon Shin, or Kate; I hope that she doesn’t mind that I put her name out there. She couldn’t speak English very well at the time and I couldn’t speak Korean. However, I couldn’t speak English as well as I used to, either. So, we were kind of in the same situation.


We tried to communicate with hand motions so that we could at least understand each other 50%, but I remember hearing Korean all the time. Whenever she brought friends over, they all spoke Korean and broken English. After a few months, she left with her friends to go back to Korea and a new group of foreign exchange students arrived.


After that year (and graduation), I came back home and waited for work. I sent many applications and no one would call back. Then, I got an offer to teach in Korea for a year. I thought, “Great! Kate lives there. Maybe I can see her again.”


I went through training and flew to Korea for a week of more training. Then, I went to my destined school. There, I met my co-teacher (and now best friend) Mrs. Yu. She showed me around. I lived in 강화도, the island off of Incheon (인천) near the border. There, the only people who spoke English were Mrs. Yu, Mr. K, Mrs. Grace (my co-teachers) and the few foreigners that lived there.


Three months after living in Korea, I acquired the language, fluently. Then, I lived without constant English for 3 years, aside from the English I taught in class (elementary).


When I came back to America, my mom noted that I spoke in a very Korean way. She didn’t know exactly why, but she sensed something different about the way I spoke. Until now, I never really thought about it.


After reading the article about losing your native language, I’m almost certain that I am undergoing the same process. I don’t want to say that I’m losing English completely, but I am losing a few things very slowly. My memory isn’t as strong as it used to be. I can’t remember anything from before my accident or right after my accident. What’s more is that some events that occurred in Korea are slowly fading away.


But, this blog isn’t about my memory loss; it’s about my native language loss. I told my mom, the other day, that I’ve noticed that when I study a new language, I feel like that language takes over my brain. When I speak Korean, I don’t feel like I’m in America anymore. Everything that I listen to (even if it’s not in Korean) sounds Korean in my brain. I’m studying French right now, and as I type this passage in English, I’m hearing it in French.


Today, someone pointed it out to me: I commented in a discussion about English and my English comment sounded strange to another English speaker. He wrote me about it and I thought, “That’s exactly what I was trying to figure out.” What happens is that, when I try to write something in English with English grammar, I sometimes write English words with the grammar of another language. When I wrote my comment on that discussion, I wrote in English, but with French grammar. This phenomena has occurred since my accident, from what I can remember. However, it has intensified since I’ve returned from Korea.


So, what am I getting at with this post? I firmly believe that, even though rare, it’s possible to lose your native language. I’m slowly losing mine.


<em>What do you think?</em>

Dec 30, 2015 7:28 PM
Comments · 8

Richard is right; you have no reason to worry.

Of course it's possible to lose parts of you native language if you don't use it for a really long time. I can easily believe that emotional or physical trauma can speed up that process, too. It's also absolutely normal that you notice influences of any language you use extensively on the other languages you speak, including your native tongue. However, as Richard pointed out, you are a very long way from <em>losing</em> your English skills.

My family speaks a Dutch dialect. It's not just a different pronunciation of Dutch, but a regional language perhaps closer to German than to Dutch - yet quite different from both. I attended Dutch schools but I lived close to the German border, had many German friends and watched more German than Dutch television. There have been times when I was so immersed in other languages (Russian, English) that I felt I lost some basic skills in these "native" languages from my childhood, just like you are describing now.


Even today, if I meet a German speaker unexpectedly, I find myself searching for the right vocabulary. If I spend a week in Germany however, locals can't tell that I'm not a German anymore. My mind just needs a little time to adjust and dig up the right set of language skills. I imagine the same might be true for your brain when it has to switch back to spoken English.


(If anything is threatening my native language, and plenty of other languages in the world, it's English. That's for another discussion, though ;-) ) Happy New Year!


December 31, 2015

When I knew French (which I don't  know now) I thought in French more than my native English. It's part of learning.

January 1, 2016

Interesting, I never thought of it like that. With regards to the question of losing fluency, I was thinking about how I realized recently (when overhauling my website) that I probably couldn't write as well now as I used to. Until about six years ago, I was a fairly prolific film critic, so everything film-centric pervaded my thoughts and it was easy to write and make even the most abstract connections seem logical with wordsmithing.


I think it's the same with language. When you're wholly immersed in it, it's always in the foreground and supplants everything in your head. So, if your native language may not be "popping up" as immediately as the language you're studying, it's only because your new language is still in the short-term memory portion of your brain, while your native language is already well embedded in long-term memory.


In this respect, I have to say that I respectfully disagree that you can lose your native language when acquiring a new language. I think it just needs some dusting and exercising to get it back in shape because it's being neglected. :)

December 30, 2015
There are many incidents when people cant remember who they are. What to say about language? )
January 1, 2016

Thank you all for your comments! I really appreciate them. I hope that you all have a wonderful year this year! I will continue to practice all of the languages that I know so that my brain doesn't get rusty. :P

January 1, 2016
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