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Languages can be forgotten

Pennellate su foglia secca, 3 anni

"We’re sometimes filled with dread at the perspective of a quasi-autistic communal old age. At first our acquired language will desert us bit by bit and our sentence will be studded with blanks: “Could you get me the…? You know, the thing that’s hanging from the… in the….??!!” …Eventually, with French totally erased from our memories, we shall sit in our rocking-chairs from dawn to dusk, nattering incomprehensibly in our respective mother tongues."

 

 (From Francois Grosjean, Bilingual: Life and Reality, 2010, page 93 et seq.)

 

This is the end imagined by the protagonist of a couple who communicates in French, being neither of them native French. The picture is very striking for the melancholic sweetness with which she describes such a cruel situation. However, is it true that this will be what is expecting them and all couples whose communication is based on a third language? Robert Schrauf, Pennsylvania State University, ensures that this does not happen, at least not necessarily. It has been shown, in fact, that with the age it is true that the language may undergo changes, loss of fluency, difficulty in remembering/recalling words, but it seems that this process is similar in monolinguals and bilinguals. There are no studies showing an acceleration of the process or a more advanced degree of the latter in bilinguals. However, the argument is much more complex than it seems and much depends on the individual linguistic history and on the specific circumstances.

The loss of a language is seen as the antipode of the acquisition of the same, where the acquisition is the process through which the knowledge of the idiom increases, while its loss is diametrically opposed to the latter and, in this case, we witness a progressive forgetting of the language due to the lack of contact with it (Monika S. Schmid and Kees de Bot). The phenomenon of forgetting one’s mother tongue L1 has often been put under the spotlight of research, in cases of immigrants who have lived for many years in a host country in the almost total absence or very limited contact with their mother tongue. In short, languages ​​can be forgotten, perhaps with the same ease with which they can be learned, but not enough attention has been given to this aspect, yet (Grosjean). The beginning of the process of losing your own mother tongue can be detected in certain advanced stages of bilingualism and second language advanced acquisition stage (Seliger and Vago , First language attrition 1991).

This study identified three phases that determine the relationship between mother tongue and second language, L1- L2. If the first phase of a second language acquisition goes through the linguistic structures of the first one (L1), in the third phase one reaches a level of knowledge which reverses the situation. The structures of the second language have a strong impact on those of the first and cases of code-switching are more and more frequent. We have already seen that this is a very common phenomenon in bilinguals, but if, on one side, this can remain at the level of a communication strategy, it can also represent, on the other side, a precursor signal to the loss of language 1 (Seliger, Vago 1991).

Grosjean, in his latest book, describes in detail his own linguistic history, showing that, depending on the situation, the dominance of his languages ​​has changed: to a more intense use always corresponded a shift in balance in his linguistic situation. It is therefore a question of oscillations, one cannot talk about real loss, unless it is based on previously existing deficiencies. However, the contact with the language is the only way to keep it alive.

 

Comments  

 
+1 #1 Jen 2011-09-30 11:52
Very interesting! I have been wondering if eventually I will lose my Japanese and then be sitting in a Japanese old folk's home, unable to communicate with anyone. Good to know it doesn't really work that way.
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