Language focus | 10.02.2010

Have you forgotten the language(s) of your childhood?

In the September-October issue of the ITI bulletin Susan Bassnett explored the forgotten languages of her childhood. In today’s multicultural society it is not uncommon to find people who spent the first 3-4 years of their lives speaking one language, only to be moved to a completely different country and forced to learn a new language from scratch at school age. This raises an interesting question, is the language(s) that we learn during our childhood, our “first” language, ever really forgotten? Is learning a language not just like riding a bike, we may think we have forgotten how to, but with a little encouragement and practice it comes flooding back to us? Various moments, people, places, smells and tastes trigger memories in our mind. When it comes to language the situation is very similar, if you don’t use a language you may think you have forgotten how to speak it, however, spending time surrounded by the language can trigger memories of words or grammatical structures you used to know.

We know of a couple of people who have had interesting experiences with their “forgotten first language”. A young girl who had spoken English up to the age of five was whisked away to Spain by her mother. Some 10 years later having gone through the majority of her educational career speaking Spanish, which she quickly picked up at the age of five, she was forced to return to the UK to complete her GCSEs and A Levels. Although her mother was English too, she had been spoken to only in Spanish and therefore set about relearning her first language on arrival in the UK. Learning a language takes years, however this girl managed to successfully pick English up in six months regaining almost total fluency. There may be exceptional linguists amongst us, who have magnificent memories and are able to pick up a language in six months, but for the majority of people it takes years to become fluent in a foreign language. Perhaps this person in question was one of those exceptional linguists, or perhaps moving back to the UK triggered memories of a language which she was once fluent in and had since forgotten.

Secondly, we know of a 25 year old man whose first language is English and who moved to Japan to work, to learn Japanese and to immerse himself in the culture and language of this very different country. Whilst he has never really ever forgotten how to speak English, having had 25 year’s of the language ingrained on his mind, he now returns to the UK for holidays and to catch up with friends and finds that his English is not as fluent as it once was, he finds some English words difficult to remember and substitutes them with the Japanese equivalent. A number of The Translation People’s Account Managers, having spent a year abroad as part of their degree, have had similar experiences. This last example seems to indicate that the language in which you are immersed is always at the forefront of your mind. Although time allows you to forget a language, example one suggests that in a relatively short period of time you regain fluency in this forgotten language.

This subject matter is fascinating and could be the topic for a 20,000 word research paper, but from our very short discussion it appears that everything we learn from a young age sticks with us throughout our lives; by regularly using all the languages we speak we can ensure that they don’t ever become forgotten.

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