Perhaps you know how it feels… After a considerable time living and breathing a language different from your mother tongue, you feel unsure. You can’t remember words, your pronunciation has a dash of a foreign accent, and you make sentences that sound strange to the people you speak to. You’re afraid to ask what an unknown word means because you’re too proud to let people know you’ve forgotten it. However, you know that, eventually, you’ll get it. It’s slightly painful to realize that your native language skills aren’t the same anymore, and now you feel like your speaking is rusty. Can you forget your mother tongue? What is going on?

What you’re going through has a name and many solutions! The feeling of losing command of your language is called language attrition or linguistic deskilling. The example we gave is about when your mother tongue slips, but it can also happen with a language you have learned. Other times, if you speak two languages, you may experience it with both.

Can you completely forget your mother tongue?

Although traces of your mother tongue may stay in your brain forever, it is entirely possible to “lose” it. After having fully acquired your first language, and without having any brain damage, you may lose the ability to communicate in it.

Language attrition occurs, for example, to people who are raised in a multilingual home and eventually stop using the languages they were raised with as they grew up. Likewise, it occurs to people who move abroad and lose command of their mother tongue. Also, if you are a language enthusiast, you may feel like the more you gain fluency in the language you’re learning the least you remember some things in your native language.

Either way, most researchers agree that language attrition generates from the lack of use of your first language (L1) and interference of a second language (L2). This affects the correct production and comprehension of the first one.

Do we really lose our native language?

It depends on how you define language forgetting. According to researchers, we don’t lose the actual memory, but our ability to access and retrieve it. As a matter of fact, adopted children from abroad have already been exposed to the sounds of a foreign language even before they learn to speak. Consequently, when they relearn it, they do it faster. Therefore, one could argue that you never really lose a language, you forget it.

If you don’t use your mother tongue regularly, will you lose it?

Your language attrition pretty much depends on your language patterns. The frequency and recency in which you use the language play an important role in predicting forgetting. Simply put, people don’t just forget their mother tongue from one day to the next, but rather gradually, as one of the languages they speak becomes more dominant. Therefore, learning a new language at home has a different effect on you than moving to a country where you hardly use your mother tongue. As we explained before, you won’t lose your mother tongue, but you’ll find it harder to remember it and express yourself with complex words and structures.

Forgetting your native language while working abroad

Take, for example, Isabella. Isabella grew up in Venezuela with Italian parents but decided to move to the Netherlands to land a modeling job. Since she didn’t know how to speak Dutch and her friends didn’t know Spanish, she started to communicate in English. As she actively absorbs Dutch from her daily interactions, communicates in English, and only speaks Spanish with her parents, she finds it hard to express some things in her native language. At home, it was easy to mix Italian with Spanish, due to the proximity of the languages and the familiar environment. However, being alone abroad, she’s forgetting the languages with which she grew up as Dutch and English dominate her every day and her mother tongues go to the background.

Motivation and identity play an important role. Isabella may want to keep her first and second languages, but if she doesn’t have a big why she won’t be consistent with her goal. Other people feel like the greater the fondness they have for a country and its culture, the less they identify as from their country of origin. This is the case, for example, of Latinos that feel “more gringos than gringos themselves”. Of course, we don’t judge, this may be the result of an effort to blend in or an identity crisis, which is normal when living abroad.

How about speaking your mother tongue with non-native speakers?

What if you practice with non-natives? Would that be the wrong thing to do? Yes and no. You are free to engage in any kind of conversation with your friends and acquaintances. Nevertheless, frequent communication with non-natives speakers or with a limited number of native speakers in your L1 can represent an additional source of attrition. People tend to copy others, some more than others, thanks to the chameleon effect.

As a result, when speaking to others, you may change your language variety (example: Austrian German to Swiss German) or even adopt a foreign one (German with a French accent). Moreover, communicating in your L1 with speakers of other variants of your native language leads you to adapt to their speech in order to increase comprehension. Have you ever adapt temporarily a Southern accent and idioms to speak to a friend in Alabama? In the same way, a French person may have to use mutually common words and French Canadian idioms when speaking to a Canadian to have a clear and empathetic conversation.

Language change may affect you negatively though since you can feel like you are losing your identity and becoming a foreigner in your own language. However, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Language interference is something natural that just reminds you – positively or negatively – that you know more than one language. Adaptation, for its part, indicates that you simply accommodate yourself to the understanding of your conversation partner. It is true that learning a language does make you a better person. Therefore, if you don’t want to forget your mother tongue, make sure to keep using it! Below we tell you how.

Three Tips to Help you Remember your Native Language

If you have lost touch with a language (any) and would like to refresh your memory, try these steps.

1. Maintain Ties with the Language you Want to Preserve

Consume content in the language you forgot and get exposed to it as much as you can. This doesn’t necessarily mean traveling or reaching out to your relatives (if you don’t want to). You can change the language settings of your devices and social media, listen to music, watch a movie, read the news, or play video games. Any option that you truly enjoy is good for you, as it can help dig up some suppressed knowledge. Watching stand-up comedy shows on YouTube also helps, since comedy is strongly attached to a country’s culture, and guessing the double entendre of jokes might be a fun challenge.

2. Seek Effective Learning Experiences

After refreshing your memory a bit with exposure to your forgotten language, try to do some formal studying. You can complement self-study with the guidance of a language tutor. Dedicate 15-30 minutes a day to self-study. Work on your reading comprehension and try to get the meaning of words by context, then check a learner’s dictionary. Next, find someone to practice with, like your language tutor or a community that speaks your target language. Exercising your speaking skills will allow you to identify different grammatical subtleties and pronunciations. Moreover, having enlightening conversations with people may provide you with soul-nourishing experiences.

3. Align Language Learning Resources with your Interests

Make a simple inventory of what you’re interested in, choose your favorite item on that list, and decide which activity you’re going to do periodically in order to gain your fluency back. Some people join a language-speaking club in their city or start reading a book with a club, for example. The important is that you keep exposure to the language high. Now, why does this exposure matter? Because when you delve into a topic or activity in a different language, you get mind-opening perspectives. If you fail to keep up with your native language and let attrition have its way you risk missing out on more than just the joys of communication. You risk losing the myriad of worlds each language contains.

The solution? Sharpening your memory, of course! Start remembering and honing your mother tongue now with our special lessons to combat language attrition.