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Language Forgetting

How it is we forget languages

Post written by François Grosjean.

- "I really should have kept up my Spanish";
- "I wish I could speak Chinese the way I used to as a child";
- "My German is going to pot".

We have all heard statements such as these from people of all ages, be they active or dormant bilinguals. They are often said with regret and sometimes a hint of sadness or even guilt.

One should keep in mind, though, that language forgetting is simply the flip side of language acquisition and that it is just as interesting linguistically. But the attitudes towards it are very different. Whereas language acquisition is seen positively ("Isn't it wonderful that you're learning Russian"!), language forgetting is not talked about in such terms.

The process of language forgetting begins when the domains of use of a language are considerably reduced, if not simply absent. It will extend over many years in adults and is marked by hesitant language production as the speaker searches for appropriate words or expressions. There will also be frequent intermingling of languages as he or she calls on the dominant language for help; pronunciation is marked increasingly by the other language or languages; "odd" syntactic structures or expressions are borrowed from the stronger language, and so on.

Language comprehension is less affected, although the person may not know new words and new colloquialisms in the language that is being forgotten. People who are in an extended process of forgetting a language avoid using it because they no longer feel sure about it and they do not want to make too many mistakes. If they do have to use it, they may cut short a conversation so as not to have to show openly how far the attrition has progressed.

There is increasing work being done on language forgetting in adults but there has been less work done on how bilingual children lose a language. Case studies exist, however, and one that is well known was reported by anthropologist Robbins Burling. His family had moved to the Garo Hills district of Assam in India when their son, Stephen, was sixteen-months-old. There, Stephen quickly acquired Garo since he spent a lot of his time with a local nurse.

When the family left the Garo region a year and a half later, Stephen, was bilingual in Garo and English, maybe with a slight dominance in Garo. He translated and switched from one language to the other as bilingual children do.

The family then traveled across India and Stephen tried to speak Garo with people he met, but he soon realized that they did not speak it. The last time he tried to use the language was in the plane going back to the United States. He thought that the Malayan boy sitting next to him was a Garo and, as Robbins Burling writes, "A torrent of Garo tumbled forth as if all the pent-up speech of those weeks had been suddenly let loose." Within six months of their departure from the Garo Hills, Stephen was having problems with the simplest of Garo words.

At the end of his article, Robbins Burling raises an issue that has not yet been resolved by research: "I hope that some day it will be possible to take him back to the Garo Hills and to discover whether hidden deep in his unconscious he may not still retain a remnant of his former fluency in Garo that might be reawakened if he again came in contact with the language."

I contacted Robbins Burling a few years ago and asked him if Stephen had indeed gone back to the Garo Hills. He replied that he hadn't but that he had acquired Burmese at age six in Burma. He spoke it fluently for a while but then forgot it. Robbins Burling finished his message by stating that in his early childhood Stephen had learned three languages and had forgotten two!

Stephen, now an adult, would probably agree with the following: All those who have a childhood language deep inside their minds have a hidden wish that one day they will be able to reactivate it and use it in their everyday life.


Burling, Robbins (1978). Language development of a Garo and English speaking child. In Evelyn Hatch (ed). Second Language Acquisition. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Grosjean, François. Languages across the lifespan. Chapter 8 of Grosjean, François (2010). Bilingual: Life and Reality. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

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