When You Start to Forget your Native Language

It might sound weird, but after spending a year and a half in England, I find it easier to speak English than Dutch. Sometimes, when I’m talking to friends and family back home, I start a sentence in Dutch and end it in English. Because I can’t always remember the word in my own language.

When you grow up, you never really think about all the different rules that come with a language. But speaking languages other than your native language, confuses your brain. Especially if you speak more than one other language. Sometimes, I’m writing something in Dutch and wonder if there should really be a comma between those two words.

There are moments where want to say something, forget a word and just describe it. Sometimes I even switch language and hope that the other person understands. I understand that it can be really annoying for the other person. But it’s also really annoying for me to be able to talk about certain topics better in English than in Dutch, simply because I can’t remember the Dutch words.

How is it possible to forget your native language?

It’s a weird feeling when you start to forget words from your native language. Because it’s the language you’ve been speaking your entire life. And even though you live in a different country, you still talk to your parents and friends.

This phenomenon is called language attrition. It describes the loss of knowledge of the mother tongue due to lack of use. And it’s not the same as throwing words of a different language into a sentence. Language attrition means that you know exactly what you want to say, but you just can’t recall the word. You can sit there and ask “What’s that thing you put coffee in called again?”

Can you prevent language attrition?

Every person is different, and some people can live in a different country for years without noticing any language attrition. It really depends on the individual. Here is some advice on how to prevent the loss of your native language:

  • Start reading a book in your native language every month
  • Start writing in your native language
    Even if it’s just a diary – it’s the small things that you forget first
  • Watch movies with subtitles in your own language
    When you’ve just moved to a different country, I recommend changing the subtitles to that language to learn it faster. But after a few months, you should turn them back to your native language. Even though you don’t really need the subtitles, subconsciously you will be reading them.
  • Talk to people!
    Call friends and family to keep up your vocabulary.
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15 Comments

  1. Amanda Arthur Krill
    19 November 2018 / 5:15 pm

    It never occurred to me that this could happen! How interesting. I love learning other languages.

  2. Bindu Thomas
    19 November 2018 / 8:32 am

    That will be very difficult when we forget our native language. I can’t imagine how that must feel.

  3. 16 November 2018 / 8:39 pm

    I can image it’s easy to forget once you stop using your native language day in and day out. These are great tips!

  4. Rachael Eberhardt
    15 November 2018 / 9:08 am

    This is so interesting and never heard of someone having problem using their native language after learning new language but yes, these are a nice tips to do for your not to forget your native language.

  5. Sondra Barker
    15 November 2018 / 12:08 am

    I wish I spoke more languages, If I that it is a good skill to have. So good job for trying to stay in touch with that!

  6. 14 November 2018 / 7:24 pm

    I have never had to do this, always spoke English, but language is like anything else… involves consistent practice! And when we go a while without speaking a language, we are bound to forget some of it

  7. 14 November 2018 / 7:18 pm

    I think it’s fab that you can speak more than one language. I guess it would come straight back to you should you be back at home for a few months. x

  8. Fatima D Torres
    14 November 2018 / 5:20 pm

    Ha! It happens. I know there have been moments I couldn’t remember things in Spanish.

  9. 14 November 2018 / 5:15 pm

    To speak other language is so impressive especially if you express all your ideas with that language you use

  10. Alexis
    14 November 2018 / 3:09 pm

    Interesting, I’d never heard a multi-lingual person describe their native language this way. Totally makes sense though.

  11. 14 November 2018 / 2:07 pm

    You are one lucky person. I have issues learning how to speak Italian. Can you can do a post where you will share how to learn a language faster.

  12. 14 November 2018 / 4:45 am

    I can’t imagine how that must feel. I think it’s awesome you’ve found ways to stay in touch with the Dutch language.

  13. dalleynedvm
    14 November 2018 / 4:04 am

    I can’t imagine trying to learn a different language and culture for an extended period of time. I wonder if I would lose my accent as well.

  14. Kansas Bonanno
    13 November 2018 / 9:58 pm

    I took 3 years of Spanish during school but I still can’t speak it, I can understand it more but I think its one of those use it or loose it kinda deals.

  15. 13 November 2018 / 3:28 pm

    I wish my parents taught me French when I was a little girl, but I was too stubborn and school didn’t teach me anything either. Ugh, I was way too hard headed. I can understand when people speak it, but I cannot speak it myself. I guess I need to watch more French movies, lol !

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