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Can I forget a language?

  1. Feb 10, 2012 #1
    I'm proficient in two languages. I'd like to 'forget' my native language. Is this possible?
    Given that I'll immigrate to a country wherein my native language isn't spoken, I'll probably forget some words. But can I achieve complete forgetfulness?

  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 10, 2012 #2


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    Why ever would you want to do that?
    Bad things happened?
    You are sure you will never want to go back?
  4. Feb 10, 2012 #3
    How old are you? I doubt anyone can completely forget a native language after several years old. I know a kid who was adopted from Guatemala. He was 5 when he left. 13 now. He seems to remember very little spanish.
  5. Feb 10, 2012 #4
    I abhor my native culture. And yes, absolutely, I've made up my mind; I'm beyond the point of no return.

    I'm almost 20.

    By the way, the phenomenon I'm talking about is referred to as language attrition academically.
  6. Feb 10, 2012 #5
    I don't think forgetting a language completly is actually possible even less if it's your mother tongue. However, i've seen people that were french, leave for Halifax in which the main language is english and after 5-10 years they would come back to Quebec and still be able to speak french but the vocabulary had decreased dramatically from not speaking it for so long.

    The brain is a muscle and if you don't speek a language for so long you will lose/forget vocabulary but that's on a span of decades for most people.

    PS: Since it's your native language, I really really doubt you can completly forget it. However you will have trouble after a couple years speaking coherent sentences without searching for words.


    PS: I don't know why anybody would want to completly forget a language though. Beats me :P
  7. Feb 10, 2012 #6
    Both my parents spoke only German before they started school. Later, they only spoke German to their parents, to friends who spoke German and to each other when they didn't want me to understand what they were saying. After their parents died they almost completely stopped speaking it, partly out of embarrassment over how much they had forgotten. When my Dad was on his deathbed and slipping into unconsciousness, he lapsed back into speaking German.
  8. Feb 10, 2012 #7


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    Language is a bit of a loose it or loose it skill but it is far easier to forget a secondary rather than primary language. If you focus on using another language to speak, think etc and rarely/never use the former you will most likely forget it. However it will take a long time, depending on how old you are it could be a significant portion of your life.
  9. Feb 10, 2012 #8


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    I currently live in a foreign country with a different language -Spanish- than my native's one -French- since more than 5 years, I'm 24 years old. Unfortunately I can't forget French due to the Internet.
  10. Feb 10, 2012 #9


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    :frown: Merde :tongue2:
  11. Feb 10, 2012 #10


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    Wait, is that French? :rofl:
  12. Feb 10, 2012 #11


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    I don't know I forgot all my French :biggrin:
  13. Feb 10, 2012 #12


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    not without concussive assistance
  14. Feb 10, 2012 #13


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    What language do you think in? Maybe if you could train yourself to not think in your native language, it will atrophy faster.
  15. Feb 10, 2012 #14


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    I have learned to read, write, and speak six languages in addition to my first language, English. In my experience those languages never are totally forgotten, they just fade into the background as I use the language of the society I currently live in. It is as though those languages "get rusty"...but can always be revived by using them again. For example, after three years of intensive study and cultural immersion I was considered "fluent" in Farsi. Then I left Iran and came back one year later and tried to speak...and could't find the words. After a few weeks of usage it all came back!
  16. Feb 17, 2012 #15
    Your native language is stored in a different part of the brain than any other languages you subsequently learn. That is why it is so difficult to speak a foreign language without an accent. It is also why you cannot ever forget your native language.
  17. Feb 17, 2012 #16


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    I'm afraid you're going to have to furnish the scientific study that you got this from.
  18. Feb 17, 2012 #17


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    You will come to regret this decision.

    One thing that is sure about life is that it will do a good enough job on its own of taking things away from you. No need to help it along.

    No one in the later years of their life ever says 'Gee, I wish I had learned less; I was I'd had fewer growth experiences in my life. '
  19. Feb 18, 2012 #18
    Fair enough, but I forgot where I read it. A quick google turned up an article that kind of agrees with what I said.


    It's not what I had in mind when I first posted but I guess that for our purposes it will do. Depending on the reliability of the article itself, of course. I am no neuroscientist so I cannot judge or say anything about the journal it's published in.

    In any case, since first language acquisition happens so early I would wager (completely non scientifically, mind you) that some serious rewiring needs to take place in order to erase the skill. It is not something you "forget", even if one might forget individual words or certain grammatical patterns. I have never heard of any case in which someone forgets basic grammatical features of their native language. I cannot imagine an English speaker forgetting that their language is SVO, that the future and subjunctive tenses are expressed periphrastically, and many other small features that essentially characterize the language.

    The whole last paragraph was just an educated guess. I would love to hear of a case in which someone forgot something as basic as the essential grammatical structure of their native tongue, or walking, without an associated brain injury.

    Edit: with the caveat of course that we are talking about adults proficient in their native language attempting to forget it. Cases of children moving to another country at an early age and forgetting their "native" languages are well known, but hardly relevant here. Unless the OP is 8 years old, which does not seem to be the case.
    Last edited: Feb 18, 2012
  20. Feb 18, 2012 #19


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    Pronghorn, I am surprised by such strong statements: "I abhor my native culture. And yes, absolutely, I've made up my mind; I'm beyond the point of no return."

    Can you elaborate on this, or give the specific languages you are proficient in? Which is L1 and which is L2?

    Here is some information on the subject you have asked about:

    "The term 'First Language Attrition' (FLA) refers to the gradual decline in native language proficiency among migrants. As a speaker uses their L2 frequently and becomes proficient (or even dominant) in it, some aspects of the L1 can become subject to L2 influence or deteriorate.

    L1 attrition is a process which is governed by two factors: the presence and development of the L2 system on the one hand, and the diminished exposure to and use of the L1 on the other that is, it is a process typically witnessed among migrants who use the later-learned environmental language in daily life.

    Like second language acquisition (SLA), FLA is mediated by a number of external factors, such as exposure and use, attitude and motivation, or aptitude. However, the overall impact of these factors is far less strongly pronounced than what has been found in SLA.

    The loss of a native language is often experienced as something profoundly moving, disturbing or shocking, both by those who experience it and by those who witness it in others: “To lose your own language was like forgetting your mother, and as sad, in a way”, because it is “like losing part of one’s soul” is how Alexander McCall Smith puts it (The Full Cupboard of Life, p. 163)."


    Edit: And see the references at the bottom...if you want to explore this in more detail.
  21. Feb 18, 2012 #20
    How high a body temperature is required to cause permanent memory loss?
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