Can You Lose Your Native Tongue?

When you speak one language, you think and feel differently than when you speak a different language.

Lian Greenfeld wrote in her 2016 Advanced Introduction to Nationalism: “Language, above everything else, is the medium of thinking, thinking representing the explicitly symbolic component of our consciousness, the explicitly symbolic mental process… To capture symbolic experiences (experiences produced by the specifically human, cultural environment) language is necessary; only it can incorporate them into reality. A stable sphere of new experiences presupposes the annexation to human existence of a new sphere of meaning which only language can create, the emergence of a new semantic space. Therefore, while one can imagine a social current without the participation of language, institutionalization without language is impossible. Any social order starts with the creation of a new vocabulary, and this is demonstrated by every case of nationalism…”

As you add languages, you don’t only add to your identity, you simultaneously replace, reduce and erase other identities.

Our languages master us as much as we master them.

Madeleine Schwartz writes in the New York Times:

Compared with English, French is slower, more formal, less direct. The language requires a kind of politeness that, translated literally, sounds subservient, even passive-aggressive. I started collecting the stock phrases that I needed to indicate polite interaction. “I would entreat you, dear Madam …” “Please accept, dear sir, the assurances of my highest esteem.” It had always seemed that French made my face more drawn and serious, as if all my energy were concentrated into the precision of certain vowels. English forced my lips to widen into a smile.

…Back in New York on a trip, I thanked the cashier at Duane Reade by calling him “dear sir.” My thoughts themselves seemed twisted in a series of interlocking clauses, as though I was afraid that being direct might make me seem rude. It wasn’t just that my French was getting better: My English was getting worse.

…Rather than seeing the process of becoming multilingual as cumulative, with each language complementing the next, some linguists see languages as siblings vying for attention. Add a new one to the mix, and competition emerges. “There is no age at which a language, even a native tongue, is so firmly cemented into the brain that it can’t be dislodged or altered by a new one,” Sedivy writes. “Like a household that welcomes a new child, a single mind can’t admit a new language without some impact on other languages already residing there.”

…Even languages that seem firmly rooted in the mind can be subject to attrition. “When you have two languages that live in your brain,” says Monika S. Schmid, a leader in the field of language attrition at the University of York, “every time you say something, every time you take a word, every time you put together a sentence, you have to make a choice. Sometimes one language wins out. And sometimes the other wins.”

…A change in language use, whether deliberate or unconscious, often affects our sense of self. Language is inextricably tied up with our emotions; it’s how we express ourselves — our pain, our love, our fear.

… “It appears that what is at the heart of language attrition is not so much the opportunity to use the language, nor the age at the time of emigration. What matters is the speaker’s identity and self-perception. … Someone who wants to belong to a speech community and wants to be recognized as a member is capable of behaving accordingly over an extremely long stretch of time. On the other hand, someone who rejects that language community — or has been rejected and persecuted by it — may adapt his or her linguistic behavior so as not to appear to be a member any longer.”

…Regarding a first language as having special value is itself the product of a worldview that places national belonging at the heart of individual life.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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