Could you unlearn your first language?

Antonio65

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In my life I came across a few people from Italy that moved abroad at different ages of their lives, but all of them had the same outcome, they forgot their native language.
I didn't think it was possible, but they proved me otherwise.
It seems that after living abroad for a long time you are able to almost completely forget your native language, even if you spoke it for two decades.

What do you think? Would you forget your first language if you lived abroad and with no frequent connections with your original community?
 

Tik cat's mum

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I agree you probably could, my ex was Scottish and spoke with a English accent. So I know it's possible to totally lose a accent. My father in law sounded very Scottish to me, but when we went back to Scotland he was told he was so English. But I think it would depend on your age when you moved if you was young then it would happen faster than if you are older, especially if you didn't talk to anyone in your language. You'd remember more if older I'd think.
 

Willowy

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My mom's first language was Spanish (she grew up in Panama, and while her family and community spoke English, her maid/nanny spoke Spanish so that's what she spoke first), and she has never forgotten it, although she feels that her grammar is that of a small child so she doesn't like to speak it to strangers.

So I'd agree that you can get to the point where you don't feel comfortable speaking it, but your brain knows it somewhere in there.

Funny story about accents---I knew a Japanese women who spent her first 3 years or so in England, then went back to Japan and promptly "forgot" her English, as people in Japan weren't exactly happy about England at the time. When she was a teenager, her family moved to the US, and she re-learned English very quickly and easily. . .but spoke it with an English accent :dunno: . And still had that accent even when I knew her, after a good many years of living in Japan again. Brains are weird.
 

neely

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Although I couldn't imagine forgetting my native language, i.e. English, anything's possible. From my teaching experience we've had students who told me they lost their accent if they came to the U.S. before the age of 13. However, they still speak their native language at home and with relatives so did not forget it.
 

Jem

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I was raised completely bilingual in French and English, even going to French school all the way thru, including French College. But I do find that day to day, because I speak English more, my French is not as strong as it used to be. If I stopped speaking and hearing French for a long enough time I do think I could lose the ability to communicate efficiently, but I have a hard time imagining that I could forget it all together. I highly doubt that I could ever forget English...it's everywhere... Even if I found myself in a foreign country and immersed myself in their language...I think my brain would still "think" in English.
 

game misconduct

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its possible the less you speak it(lack of a person to speak it with etc.)the less fluent you become. i grew up speaking cantonese after losing my mom and moving out from my dads house with gf along with being around less people that speak cantonese (jails) my chinese has gotten worse.its like that saying use it or lose it.plus languages are always changing slang words get added/changed the meanings change etc.
 

MoochNNoodles

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My grandparents grew up speaking their parents native languages in the home; but it wasn't encouraged. They were told to speak English because they were American now. (Or likely their parents were afraid of the stigma of being immigrants.) As adults they didn't know much beyond a few words and phrases. One of my grandmothers spent time taking Italian lessons as an adult before they took a trip to Italy in their early retirement years. By her mid 80s she would have to think about it to remember what something meant. And I know they spoke more Italian in her house growing up.

I have 2 friends that spoke primarily Dutch as toddlers and preschoolers because their parents were stationed in Holland. Both had to learn English when they move back to the US. I don't think either remember it now; but they were like 4/5 when they got sent back state side.
 

noani

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I've lived away from Germany for 7 years now, so about a quarter of my life. I don't have much family left in Germany unfortunately, so I still speak a bit with them but not much. I always speak English for work and Italian in my personal life here.

I haven't forgotten ANYTHING as far as receptive skills go - I can understand spoken and written German perfectly. I have yet to come across a word where I'm like "hang on, I forgot what that means".
I do have trouble producing though. It's like the knowledge is there, but it's not easily accessible. Old friends and family tell me I sound very strange when speaking German now. Ive noticed that I use a very narrow range of basic vocabulary and struggle with finding the right word or idiom every other sentence. My pronunciation has changed a little too. It's practice and muscle memory that I'm losing.
But I don't think I could ever forget it. If I went back to Germany, or immersed myself in it through media etc, it would come back, sort of "reactivate" and become accessible to me again productively.
 

Whenallhellbreakslose

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I think in order to forget your original language, you must be away from your homeland and other countrymen, on top of being so immersed in your new language that it has now become your primary language. You think, read, watch TV, and speak only that language.

When I was a 8 years old, I spent nearly a whole summer in Ireland. My siblings and I were not around any other Americans. Sure enough in no time we picked up an Irish brougue. It took me weeks to get rid of it and the kids in school kept asking me why I keep talking like that? It is interesting how easily we can be influenced when we are in another country and not engaging in our primary language or in my case not being around other Americans and ending up acquiring a new accent (brougue). 🙂
 
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MoochNNoodles

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I find myself picking up my inlaws southern accent when I visit them. The area DH is from it seems like half the people have southern accents and the rest don’t. Even in DH’s family. MIL and one SIL have them; FIL, SIL2 and DH don’t. But a friend of mine just happened to move to the same area and after a few years she picked the accent up. Even among my nieces and nephews its more prominent in some than others.
 

Willowy

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Yeah I tend to pick up people's accents when I talk to them. To the point where I'm afraid they'll think I'm making fun of their accent :/. If I moved somewhere with a British-type accent I'd be fully accented by the end of the month, lol. It seems like that's what my mouth is shaped for.

When we first moved here the other kids said we had British accents. But we didn't; we just spoke more precisely than the casual Plains States manner of speaking. Didn't take very long before I caught myself saying "them things" :rolleyes2: . I still don't say "I seen" though.
 

DownTheLane

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I can't imagine forgetting my native language completely, although I'm sure I'd forget a lot of it. I can already struggle with finding the right words after having completely focused on English for a long time. I think speaking would be harder than understanding tho, since finding the right words can be really hard
 

cassiopea

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Well, my dad (Finnish) has been living in Canada for 25-30 years now, and still speaks his native language fluently and still has his heavy accent when he speaks English. Granted he kept it up all this time, talking with relatives back in Finland regularly and reading Finnish books and newspapers daily. He also made sure to teach me growing up. He isn't able to understand current slang or anything, but that is pretty much universal for a lot of people regardless of personal language, especially those in the later generation of 70+ years old.

My mom is bilingual altogether, but being Canada where French and English are very common it was easy for her to keep it all up, especially with the workplace or family.

Even if I haven't witnessed it myself (yet) with other folks who immigrated or came from abroad, I reckon it can happen. My dad and various people I've known were lucky to have regular access and ties, sometimes people don't have that and/or they simply become understandably too busy. Or sometimes it is just about the pure eagerness of wanting to learn the language of their new country and fit in.

My cousin is French-Canadian, but moved to London, England for work a few years ago. Long story short, after learning English fluently she has an English London accent! It's kind of neat and can totally see why she would have one. It wasn't like she was trying to have one, just the nuances she picked up as she was learning and adapting, and wanting to say things correctly as she could. But then again, since I also speak Finnish, when I speak Russian I'm told I have a Finnish accent instead of a Russian one lol At the time I didn't even notice.


Anyway, languages and accents can be intriguing.
 
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Antonio65

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Thanks everybody for your insights and experiences, I loved to read all your comments, it's really weird how mind works.

The few persons I talked about in my first post were three Italians that moved abroad, one to the UK and two to B.C., Canada.

The first man, in his 50's, told me he moved to the UK when he was about 3, along with his parents. I may reckon they would keep speaking Italian at home, at least for a good amount of time if not always, so I wonder how that man was able to forget how his parents used to talk. I agree he might not be able to speak, but I can't figure it out how he couldn't understand even one word.

The other two elderly men, I met them in Ireland during my last holiday (2019), they were in their 80's. They told they were cousins, and moved along with part of their families to B.C., Canada, when they were 15 to 17 years old. Again, I doubt that they started speaking the new language from day one, and I'm sure they kept speaking Italian among them for a very long time, so I wonder how they were able to completely forget their native language. They weren't able to say a word in Italian, apart from "Ciao".

The people who live across the street from me are Indians (from India). They have been living here for the last 40 years at least, but they still speak with a very strong Indian accent. They speak both Italian and Indian between them, and with their children when they come to visit them. So they didn't forget their language.

It seems to me that certain cultures tend to forget their native language, or they tend to cut their native culture out, more easily than others when they move abroad. And I think that Italians are those who forget them more easily than anyone else.
When I visited the US a few years ago, I had a look at the newspapers on sale, and saw a lot of them dedicated to other cultures, like Asians and Latins, but none in Italian.
And look at those famous Italian-American actors and singers. None of them can say a single word in Italian.

I think that I would never forget my language even if I moved to another country and had no more ties with my country. I think I am sure of this. That's why I find some cases strange enough.
 

Willowy

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It seems to me that certain cultures tend to forget their native language, or they tend to cut their native culture out, more easily than others when they move abroad. And I think that Italians are those who forget them more easily than anyone else.
I think it also has something to do with age/generation. When we moved here 25 years ago, there were several local churches that had services in Norwegian, nursing homes that hired Norwegian-speaking nurses, and some Norwegian clubs and newspapers and so on. The last church that had Norwegian services stopped around 5 years ago, plus I haven't met any old farmers who speak Norwegian for several years now, and they used to be pretty common.
 

MoochNNoodles

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I think you are more likely to find Spanish speaking Americans than Italian unless your in a very specific place. It's not even an option to learn in the public schools here. I took Latin. The other options were Spanish, German and French. It was an option in my hometown; but even my cousin chose French. We have a Chinese Immersion Program in one district that I hear is very good.

My stepfamily still speaks to each other in Spanish. Even when they around other family (like me :lol:) that don't speak it. But it's when they are asking a specific question like what did you do with ___ or something like that. Of the grandkids less speak Spanish. The ones who were closer to my step-grandparents speak it well. My late step-grandmother never really spoke good clear English so it makes sense the grandkids would have used it a lot more with her. But I think it's fading with the younger generations. One Aunt is very determined to teach her granddaughters so she speaks mostly that around them. Otherwise the options to practice and become fluent decrease anywhere else.
 
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