Why can't I change my mother tongue?

Can you forget your own mother tongue?

For a long time, linguists assumed that the language a person grew up with was firmly anchored in them. But there has been a controversy in this regard for a long time. The fact is that some people neglect their mother tongue for decades and can still get back into it without any problems. While others have problems speaking the old language after a short time. Can there even be an erosion, i.e. a complete forgetting of the mother tongue?

What is erosion?

An erosion describes the loss of lexical content due to two language systems acting on one another. To put it more simply, forgetting one language by replacing it with another. Linguistic erosion, also known as attrition, can progress to such an extent that one's own mother tongue is completely lost. Some linguists go so far as to regard forgetting one language as a prerequisite for perfecting another. Linguistic erosion usually affects people who migrated at a young age and, as a result, have little contact with their original mother tongue. But older people can also be affected. The consequences are mostly similar. They can be neurological, sociological, or even psychological in nature. British author Alexander McCall Smith calls forgetting a language a great loss. The process is similar to "as if you were forgetting your own mother" and is associated with great sadness. In addition to the words, you also lose an entire home, says McCall Smith.

Languages ​​are not static - they flow

Since the decline of language is just as different as the acquisition of it, it makes sense to take a look at language acquisition itself. A kind of language structure takes place in every person. As a rule, this lasts until a person has reached the age of twelve. This means that if a person migrates at a young age, there is a high probability that their language acquisition phase has not yet been completed. Accordingly, there is a risk of speech erosion. But there are also exceptional cases. Children raised bilingually or translators, for example. They prove that it is possible to master several languages ​​at a similarly high level. In addition, no symptoms of linguistic erosion can be detected in them at first glance - how can this be explained?

If a person decides to learn a new language after they have completed the age of twelve, grammar and vocabulary must be painstakingly crammed for linguistic progress. However, most people can't get rid of the accent. This is because the brain is made up of plastic. The mother tongue is not spared from this either. When we speak English you can hear that we are German, but when we speak German you also hear English. That is exactly where the problem lies. Language is not a separate entity. Language is fluent.

About code switching and language alternation

Code switching, also known as language switching or language alternation, is a common phenomenon that occurs when several languages ​​are used in utterances or conversations. A speaker changes from one language to another. The name itself goes back to Roman Jakobson, who described codes as the speaker's language system, which must be deciphered by the audience. Language alternation can even occur intersentially, that is, within sentences. Triggered by triggers or changed speaking situations, code switching primarily has social functions. These can be changed topics or partners, but also extra-linguistic or extra-linguistic factors.

So how is language specifically forgotten?

Language is alive. We use them in everyday life to communicate with other people and to act in the world. Furthermore, language is at home in memory and in our being. We learn them mainly from emotional motives. These can be so strong that they undermine the dominance of the mother tongue. How can you imagine this process?

Foreign language is learned through our mother tongue. Thanks to this language system, which we are familiar with, the system, which is alien to us, is much more accessible. We observe differences and similarities and thereby approach the new language step by step. However, the mother tongue can interfere in this process. This creates adventurous combinations "Shall we go for a beer" - English grammar used in German is just one example. Public persons are also not safe from this phenomenon. Günther Oettinger, EU Commissioner, attracted attention for his statement "Everything hangs together". The interfering spark of mother tongue cannot be consciously turned off, which is why non-native speakers can usually be recognized by typical, small errors that occur when translating into another language system. Languages ​​are always systems in our heads. In the case of bilingual and multilingual people, more and more systems in the brain are training at the same time. However, one system always dominates. Even with bilingual people or translators. The other, non-dominant system sinks into the depths of the brain and it becomes more and more strenuous to use the old language. The result is that the person concerned concentrates more and more on the language system that dominates him. Forgetting the mother tongue begins.

Emotional reasons ensure complete loss

In order to examine the effect of emotional reasons on the erosion of the mother tongue, Monika Schmid, linguist at the University of Essex, analyzed the German language skills of older, German-Jewish war refugees. Schmid divided the test subjects into two groups. The first group were refugees who left Germany shortly after the Nazi regime came to power in 1933, whereas the second group consisted of people who stayed longer in Germany and only fled after the Reichspogromnacht in 1938. Her studies laid important foundations for further research into language erosion. The first group showed a significantly better conserved language ability than the second. Accordingly, the biggest factor was how big the trauma was and not age or length of absence. A sad milestone in the study of language erosion.

Complete oblivion remains an exception

Further research is needed to fully explore language erosion, the forgetting of language. Many questions are still open. Because science cannot fully explain why, when and how we forget our own mother tongue. The effects also need further exploration. However, the fact is that anyone who learns a second language can be affected. Emotional reasons remain the biggest factor. Language is also memory. These can be positive memories, such as home, family, or childhood, but also negative, stressful, and traumatic ones. Forgetting your mother tongue is possible, but it remains a tragic exception. Aharon Appelfeld, separated from his parents by anti-Semites at the age of 8 and fled Germany, states: "A man who loses his mother tongue is ill for the rest of his life".