Forgetting Language


Language is a form of human communication which is learned over years. The ability to use language is more than just understanding and using words. Language is structured, which means that people learn how to arrange words into phrases and sentences using grammatical rules. Once learned, using language seems effortless. But can such a complex system as language also be forgotten?

Language forgetting, or language attrition, is a complex topic to study because it can take on many forms. The speakers can forget different aspects of language, such as the words, grammar, or the correct pronunciation. These different types of attrition can result in many distinct errors, such as mixing words from different languages (Please pass me the “soľ ” [salt in Slovak]), using grammatical structures from another language, such as Slovak (What have you on the plate?), or just using a funny newly acquired accent. Each speaker probably acquires a distinct pattern of errors that accompany their language attrition process. So which speakers usually experience language attrition?

Language Attrition in Children
Living in a multilingual-expat household, learning languages goes hand-in-hand with forgetting them. However, language attrition seems to happen differently for me, my husband, and my three-year-old daughter. My daughter is currently learning English, Slovak, and Dutch. She now has periods when she strongly prefers one language over the others. In one of these periods, she and I stopped regularly speaking Slovak for a couple of weeks. I was quite shocked that during our next visit to Slovakia, she struggled with very simple vocabulary, such as colors, even though she was able to communicate in full sentences just a couple of weeks ago. Thankfully, I did not observe the same attrition of my Slovak. So why is it that children are more prone to language attrition than adults? Can children take a pause from practicing a language, without seeing immediate deterioration? And if they see such deterioration, how quickly can they recover the lost language skills?

Researchers seem to agree that children are more prone to language attrition in their pre-adolescent years. One study examined eight adults who were adopted before the age of eight and moved from Korea to France. The adopted participants were no better at recognizing Korean sentences than participants with no Korean exposure, and they also did not show any different brain activation when listening to Korean sentences. In other words, the adopted participants could not remember Korean. However, this kind of early exposure can be beneficial for relearning the language later in life. Another group of Korean adoptees participated in Korean language classes, after losing touch with Korean. Their language skills were compared with advanced Korean second language speakers. The second language learners were better at grammar judgements. However, some of the adoptees were better at distinguishing Korean phonemes, which are famously difficult to acquire. Thus, even though it seems that language is easily forgotten in childhood, certain aspects can be reactivated later in life. All in all, this means that it will be many years before I can allow my daughter to take a break from practicing Slovak, although she might never be able to forget certain aspects.

A possible explanation for why children easily forget language knowledge is because they are still in what is called a ‘sensitive period’. This is a period in early childhood when language acquisition is easier. Children become better at distinguishing specific sounds from their native language, and language comprehension becomes less driven by the actual sensory input from the environment. This means that adult language learners might rely less on what they hear, and more on what they know. This can complicate language acquisition because the adult brain might try to combine the sounds from the new language with the knowledge of the previously known language. Nonetheless, child and adult language learners also differ on other aspects affecting language acquisition and attrition, such as their enthusiasm and willingness to make errors. So while it is true that children forget aspects of their language more easily and more often, the exact reason is not fully understood.

Language Attrition in Adults
Language attrition is not exclusive to childhood and it stays relevant throughout our lifespan, especially in speakers who use more than one language. This is because when we talk about language attrition, we do not refer to a complete loss of language, but rather language replacement. This means that if one language is forgotten, it is usually replaced by another (newly learned) language. Before my husband moved to the Netherlands, he was learning Spanish, but he switched his focus to learning Dutch after he moved. Sadly, when we met a Spanish-speaking friend, he was not able to practice his Spanish. He explained to us that after saying “hola” [hello in Spanish], only Dutch words kept popping up in his head. Does this mean that we have only limited capacity for learning new languages before we start forgetting them? One study showed that learning a second and third language simultaneously as opposed to learning a second language alone does not decrease the proficiency of the second language. These results indicate that actively practicing the second language while acquiring the third protects against language attrition.

So, can we forget language? Yes. Practicing a language is essential to maintaining good proficiency, and this practice is even more crucial for pre-adolescent speakers and speakers who have not fully mastered the language yet.

Writer: Cecilia Hustá
Editor: Ruth Corps
Dutch translation: Annelies van Wijngaarden
German translation: Barbara Molz
Final editing: Sophie Slaats