Forgetting your native language

Have you, dear Reader, ever forgotten any words or grammar in your native language? True, this may appear like some crazy thought. But it does occur.

When very young kids are adopted into the U.S., they usually lose their native language to English. Or when immigrant children grow up as heritage speakers, they are raised in an English-filled environment with insufficient input from their family's language and thus end up with more proficiency in English than in their native language.

Even adults can lose a grip on their native language. Imagine you move to Poland and learn Polish there. You may find that you won't be able to recall the English equivalents to certain Polish words. At some point, you may also be more comfortable using Polish than English.

Such experiences, however, are natural phenomena in bilingual people and don't mean that you are forgetting your native language.

Brain damage, in contrast, can certainly result in some severe language loss. And so can trauma. Refugees can experience traumas that make them stop using their native language.

For instance, some WWII German Jewish immigrants developed such an aversion against their native language of German that they lost it.

And war prisoners in linguistic isolation (i.e., they don't have a single soul to talk to) might return home without their native language.

While it is unclear whether people really lose their native language or if it just becomes deactivated, this phenomenon can be both a boon and a bane. For traumatized people, it may serve as a protection mechanism.

For heritage speakers, in contrast, it can be a curse. Not only are they expected to be fluent in their native language. But they are also missing the richly filled backpack of culture and identity that comes with their native language.

Dr. Daniela Ribitsch originally comes from Graz, Austria. She has lived in the United States since 2009 and teaches German at Lycoming College in Williamsport. She can be reached at ribitsch@lycoming.edu.