Can you lose your native language?

November 5, 2018 11:35 am



Is it possible to forget how to speak your native language? According to recent studies, this may very well be possible. But how and why does this occur? We take a look at some of the main factors that could lead this to happen.

Language attrition

Monika Schmid, a linguist at the University of Essex, is one of the forefront researchers relating to the study of ‘language attrition’ a linguistic development that looks into uncovering the process which leads some bilingual people to end up forgetting their mother tongue over the course of time.

It is thought that many of the characteristics of language attrition (such as more frequent pausing in conversations, as well as less sophisticated use of grammar and vocabulary in one’s mother tongue) shares a resemblance to the changes apparent when someone is in the early stages of developing dementia, as even if the cognitive processes attributing to this condition are different, the affect on linguistic performance is similarly compromised.

The causes of language attrition tend to be the result of a number of different factors, not all of which are readily identifiable. Nevertheless, Here are some of the known causes that have already been established thus far:

Is age a factor?


What factors contribute to someone losing the ability to speak in their native language?

The age of a person can lead to language attrition. For example, the age in which one leaves their country (particularly if this was when they were very young) can lead to the loss of one’s maternal language. Take the study by Christophe Pallier of Korean children who were adopted in France before the age of 8, and then tested some 15 to 20 years later about their level of knowledge of the Korean language. All those tested  showed their language skills severely compromised, or a complete loss of language. Nevertheless, not all experts agree. According to language neuroscientist Loraine K.Obler, it is not necessarily the leading cause of language attrition but rather in relation to the ‘the percentage of languages to which an individual is exposed from the moment he or she emigrates”.


The impact of trauma

However, when it comes to adults who lose their first language, there are other reasons that may be attributing to language attrition, such as trauma. Schmid analysed the German language skills of elderly German-Jewish wartime refugees based in the UK and the US and discovered some interesting results. Schmid found that it was the level of trauma that they had experienced as a result of Nazi persecution that had the biggest impact on their German skills. Those who left in the very early days of the regime (and therefore typically the ones who had been away from their native country for the longest period of time) tended to speak better German, whereas those who left after 1938 spoke the language with much difficulty, or had completely lost the ability to speak it altogether.



  • Buisson, A. 2018. What happens when you lose your native language?.  [online: here], retrieved on 05/11/2018.
  • Schmid, M. 2018. Language attrition. [online: here], retrieved on 05/11/2018.
  • Hardach, S. 2018. Can you lose your native language. [online: here], retrieved on 05/11/2018.

Written by Mairead Finlay – Communication Trainee at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament (Luxembourg). She has studied Translation at the University of Geneva and holds a BA in Politics and French from the University of Bristol.










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