Do You Ever Forget the Language Your Parents Spoke?

Sanskrit scripture on the stone near holy ancient stupa in Kathmandu, Swayambhunath (Nepal).

Source Anton Jankovoy

Why you should care

Relearning a language may be easier than you think.

As a child, I blended both my parents’ mother tongues with ease. Cảm ơn, mom. Ndewo, dad. But the moment I flung on a backpack and wandered wearily into kindergarten, they stopped speaking to me in their native Vietnamese and Igbo — and shut my lips if I tried talking in them. “Only tiếng Anh” — only in English.

Your mother tongue shapes your brain, even if you forget it.

It’s etched permanently into your brain, even if you don’t use it anymore or forget it entirely. That’s according to a Nature Communications study out of McGill University. In fact, a “lost” language can even influence the way you pick up subsequent languages today — or perhaps, in my case, provide an upper hand in grasping English later on. So, even if you don’t speak a lick of German, Hindi or Spanish anymore, those sounds that you gleaned early on — although fleeting — left a lasting impression on your brain. “Early experiences matter,” says Lara Pierce, the study’s author and doctoral psychology student at McGill University.

Those faint echoes of a once familiar, and now foreign, language shape how you process new ones. To prove her point, Pierce gathered three groups of 43 children aged 10 to 17: monolingual children who speak fluent French, bilingual children who speak both French and Chinese and, lastly, internationally adopted children who spoke Chinese until the age of 3 at most but now only speak French. The verdict? According to MRI scans of the brain, the latter group processed pseudo-French words like vapagne and chansette in the same way bilingual kids did in both the left and right hemispheres, suggesting that early exposure to a language hardwires our brains indelibly, however briefly.

About half of the world’s people — estimates range from 60 to 70 percent — are bilingual and a vast body of research shows that their minds are more agile, their long-term memory is more robust and their brains are less likely to succumb to dementia than monolinguals. The phenomenon is striking in postcolonial countries, like in the Philippines, where kids learn English alongside Tagalog, or in Angola, where both Bantu and Portuguese are widely spoken. Yet Pierce’s study teases apart “the role of early experience versus the role of speaking another language for a long time,” in particular.

But before you start signing up your toddler for Mandarin lessons, understand that the long-term effects of early language learning are still mostly unknown, and many factors (like type of language and amount of practice) might sway fluency, says Jeffrey Bowers, a language and memory expert at the University of Bristol. The evidence is limited and experts have yet to pin down how much a “forgotten” language can help or hinder learning other languages.

As for me, my Vietnamese may still be spotty, but I’ll definitely never forget my mother’s curse words.


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