Can you forget your mother tongue?

Normally, when a person learns a foreign language, they do so through their mother tongue, which has also been frequently referred to as L1. The L1 is this linguistic system that people acquire during their childhood and which serves as an intermediary to domesticate an unknown language which will gradually take root in their minds.

Many will wonder if we can forget our mother tongue when we have lived for many years in a foreign country where a different language is spoken and we have stopped using our mother tongue.

In this article we will explain to you if the mother tongue can be forgotten and in such a case how such a complex phenomenon could occur.

    Can you forget your mother tongue?

    When we learn a foreign language, it is normal that we do it from our mother tongue, this being the linguistic system that we have acquired during our stage of development, the intermediary when it comes to master a new language. We begin by translating unfamiliar words into our language, until the new language gradually takes root in our minds.. We will get used to the pronunciation and the sounds, until we start using this new language directly, without needing our mother tongue.

    Once you have managed to speak the new language automatically and directly, without needing to use your mother tongue as a reference to become fluent in the foreign language, you may wonder whether, having long been accustomed to using the new language day by day, you can forget your mother tongue. The short answer is you can, but partly, not completely; however, this is not the most common and needs to be clarified.

    As a rule, the mother tongue is never forgotten, but there are quite exceptional cases where faculties may be lost regarding the correct use of the mother tongue. Therefore, language erosion can occur when some faculties are lost to use with total fluidity the native language produced by the lack of use of the same, but it will not be completely lost, being the first symptom the difficulty when finding the exact words, quite often the phenomenon called “having the word on the tip of the tongue” occurs.

    Research on bilingualism and learning new languages ​​has shown that when a person learns one or more foreign languages ​​in their brain, multiple language systems can activate simultaneously, one for each language learned. . However, in these cases, mother tongue and other languages ​​learned later may interfere with each otherwhich would explain one of the reasons why the mother tongue can be forgotten.

      Subtractive bilingualism

      There is a concept called “subtractive bilingualism” which is related to forgetting or erosion of the mother tongue, it is therefore worth noting in this article, because it explains a case in which the mother tongue can be forgotten, at least in terms of mastery and good use of it; This phenomenon occurs when the person is at the stage of development (childhood) and has only been using their native language for a few years.

      Subtractive bilingualism is a phenomenon that has been widely studied and it is that the mother tongue can be forgotten when a child ends up replacing it with a new language because in the new place where he resides there is an obligation to learn a new language for various reasons, because it is the language of the community and/or when the mother tongue is devalued in the new environment in which it lives.

      Therefore, subtractive bilingualism is a phenomenon that can arise when a child who is at the stage of development and learning, lives in a territory where he must develop two languages ​​independently (for example, on the one hand, you must speak your native language at home with your family and at school, you must use the language of the country to which you emigrated).

        Causes why the mother tongue can be forgotten

        There are several reasons why you may forget your native language in terms of being able to speak it fluently, so below we will explain the ones that occur most often, noting that these are quite exceptional cases, since most people do not want to lose their origins and often use their mother tongue to communicate with family and friends in their country of origin.

        1. Increasing proficiency in a foreign language (L2)

        When a person has lived for many years in a foreign country, it is normal that he has developed an increasing mastery of the language spoken in this country (L2) and that their exposure to their mother tongue has been significantly reduced (L1), so this is one of the main reasons why you may forget your native language in terms of fluency in it, as it is not uncommon to forget it completely.

        However, oversights can start to occur and prevent you from being fluent in your native language. Such forgetfulness can be detected during the construction of the vocabulary of the mother tongue, which is the part of the mother tongue which tends the most to erode; instead, knowledge of structure (grammar) and sound (phonology) is often maintained.

        In this case, the mother tongue (L1) may be forgotten when the foreign language system (L2) is used frequently and for a long time, while living abroad; while the native language, when not used, could be gradually forgotten, until a point where the brain has difficulty remembering it or, at least, would have difficulty remembering certain aspects of the mother tongue.

        This this usually occurs in cases where a person usually does not communicate with people from their home country who also reside in the same foreign country in their native language.neither did he return to his native country, so he hardly practiced his mother tongue.

          2. Contact with the mother tongue

          Another reason why one may forget one’s mother tongue in terms of mastering one’s language is in cases where a person living abroad is mostly related to the natives of that country, so begin to reinforce the use of the language of that country (L2) and gradually forget various aspects of their own language (vocabulary, grammar, etc.) so that you forget your own language.

          On the other hand, in cases where people living abroad interact quite often with other people from the same country who also reside in that foreign country, they will often practice both languages, so it would be quite difficult to forget your mother tongue. .

          The same applies in cases where a person residing in a foreign country often uses their mother tongue to communicate with the members of their family with whom they reside in that country (spouse or partner, children, etc.) or when she either visits or communicates frequently with relatives living in the country of origin, so she tends to use both languages ​​(L1 and L2) on a regular basis, so that you cannot forget your mother tongue.

            3. The attitude towards the mother tongue and towards the new language

            Another of the reasons why the mother tongue can be forgotten, which can be the most radical case and in which there is a greater forgetting of the mother tongue, is the case in people who have been exiled in other country for various reasons. (e.g. political reasons, wars, etc.) so that his country of origin brings back bad memories.

            Therefore, these bad experiences could lead to a negative attitude towards their native language and, therefore, they will have a great motivation to integrate as soon as possible in the new country in which they reside and for this they will try to use only the new language, leaving aside his mother tongue.

            An example of this process is provided by the testimonies of people who emigrated at the end World War II and had to adapt to a new country, adopt their customs and learn their language. In these cases, the mother tongue may be forgotten due to war trauma.


            After seeing some examples that show when you can forget your mother tongue in In terms of fluidity of use, you can know that these cases are quite exceptional, since most people who live in a foreign country, although they can coming to use their mother tongue (L1) less often than the language they learned at home (L2), they often use their mother tongue to communicate with parents who still live in their country of origin.

            They may also frequently use their mother tongue to speak to cohabitants (family or roommates from the same country of origin) or to speak to other compatriots residing in the same foreign country. Therefore, forgetting the native language is an exception, because in most cases the native language can easily coexist with the new language. Even in cases where a person is fluent in more than two languages, it is not uncommon for them to forget their mother tongue, so that they can be fluent in all of them.

            Bibliographic references

            • Aparici, M. & Igualada (2019). Language development and communication in childhood. Barcelona: Editorial UOC.
            • Careers, M. (1997). Language discovery and processing. Madrid: Editorial Trotta.
            • Gaibrois, CN (2016). Forgetting the mother tongue and its consequences in the training of language teachers. Intervention and improvement of the deterioration of the linguistic and pedagogical competence of native teachers. Complutense University of Madrid. Doctoral thesis.
            • Hardach, S. (June 8, 2018). Can you lose your mother tongue? Future of the BBC.
            • Sanchez, MP (1999). Bilingualism. Basics of psychological intervention. Madrid: Editorial summary.
            • Solé, A. (2010). Multilingual from the cradle: Educate children in several languages. Barcelona: Editorial UOC.

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