The desire and the need to learn a foreign language is a humongous priority if you emigrate to another country where a different language is used.

It’s unquestionable that when you learn a foreign language in these circumstances, your quality of life will be enriched immeasurably.

But, there’s just one catch…

It’s amazing that you can learn a foreign language. Yet, you can also unlearn your native tongue!

It’s strange though, that there isn’t always rhyme and reason to explain why this happens.

Thankfully, the University of Essex’s Monika Schmid, a leading language attrition expert, was on hand to offer some insights to BBC Future.

What Factors Influence How We Unlearn and Learn a Foreign Language?

“The minute you start learning another language, the two systems start to compete with each other,” Monika explained.

But, it’s not a clearcut case of using it or losing it with languages. It’s a more complex and individual phenomenon that can incorporate factors such as:-

  • Age – The brains of children of up to age of 12-ish are generally more elastic than teenagers and adults. So, they’re more likely to retain at least some of their native language. But, that’s just a rule of thumb. It’s not unknown for younger children to completely lose their native tongues if they’re moved to another country.
  • Natural Aptitude for languages – It’s a chore for some people to learn a foreign language, while, for others, it’s a party. Just like any other skill, some people seem to have it in their blood. It’s no different with languages and retention levels.
  • Trauma – Distress and trauma are momentous causes for people of all ages losing their native languages. This theory has been observed in practice in refugee children who are removed from their homelands. In addition, there’s an explicit disparity between German Jews who left Germany pre or post Kristallnacht. The earlier people got out, the more German language they retained. But, the longer they stayed, the more of the language they left behind.

At La Academia, we’re experts in helping students of all ages and backgrounds to learn a foreign language – or several. But we’ll be just as delighted to help with any re-learning of your native language that you’ve unlearned over time.


Can You Lose Your Native Language? Sophie Hardach, BBC Future