Mother Tongue: lost and found

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The idea of a "Mother Tongue" has long preoccupied me, and I once wrote a lengthy paper about the relationship between Taiwanese and Mandarin entitled "How to Forget Your Mother Tongue and Remember Your National Language".

The topic has now come back to me from a different angle, one that I might title "How to Remember your Mother Tongue and (Temporarily) Forget Your Global Language".

The occasion for these reflections was a letter that I received from a Mexican scholar named Soledad Jimenez Tovar who spent the last five years in Germany at a Max Planck Institute and in Kazakhstan doing fieldwork.  In Germany she spoke German and lots of English, and in Kazakhstan she spoke mostly Russian and some Mandarin which she used when trying to converse with the Dungans there.

"Dungan: a Sinitic language written with the Cyrillic alphabet"  (4/20/13)
"'Jesus' in Dungan"  (7/16/14)

When she returned to Mexico, Soledad experienced a sense of linguistic deracination.  Her description of that feeling of alienation is worth pondering:

I spent the whole of November in Mexico. It was kind of weird. For almost five years I hadn't come back. Sometimes it was funny. For example, when I spoke, I had a funny accent, Gradually, I recovered my Mexico City Spanish. However, I have the feeling that there is something in my brain that changed. I keep thinking in a mixed language and can not always find the terms in Spanish. That happened almost everywhere  with the exception of my conversations with my mother. Indeed, while talking to her I had the same accent as during my childhood: her accent. That made me think a lot of the meaning of the term "mother tongue". I suppose it's too complex or maybe I'm just being too melodramatic.

This reminds me of some other cases I know of where individuals have (to one degree or another) lost their Mother Tongue, or — in extreme cases — never had one.

The first case is a female Japanese graduate student who told me that, after five years in America, when she went back to Japan she felt very awkward because using keigo (honorific speech) was very unnatural for her.  She also didn't like the idea that she had to calculate her body language according to the status of the person to whom she was talking.

The second case is a male Japanese graduate student who, after about seven years in America, offended two American professors who were deeply acculturated to Japanese ways.  They told me that, during his doctoral defense, the graduate student "didn't sit right; his posture was too aggressive".  The student was absolutely brilliant, and I had to argue with the two Japanized Americans to convince them that the way he sat had nothing to do with the quality of his dissertation, and that we should award this Americanized Japanese distinction despite his apparently (to them) arrogant mannerisms, tone of voice, and so on.

The third case has to do with several Korean undergraduate students who grew up mostly in America, but whose parents — wanting them to retain their Koreanness — sent them back to the homeland as often as possible (summers, semester breaks, and so on).  These students spoke English pretty much like native Americans, but I could sometimes detect certain features of their speech (intonation, pronunciation, grammar) that betrayed Korean influence.  More significantly, they told me that, when they went back to Korea, they felt that — although they could speak Korean fairly well — their speech was just not fully idiomatic and au courant.  Their awkwardness in conversation made them feel uncomfortable, even among their own relatives.  (I've also heard the same sorts of reports from Chinese students who shuttle between America and China, Taiwan, or Hong Kong, although overall they tend to spend less time in China / Taiwan / Hong Kong than the Koreans whom I've described above, so the gap between them and their folks and friends in China is often so great that speaking Mandarin / Taiwanese / Cantonese at all fluently is a strain.)

The most amazing case is a male scholar from Hong Kong who essentially had no Mother Tongue.  Here's how it happened.  The school he went to in Hong Kong was an English language school, but not one of the better ones, so the quality of the English instruction and practice he received left much to be desired.  He also learned some Mandarin while in Hong Kong, but it was even far worse than his English.  After graduating from high school, he went to Japan for college and muddled along there without ever becoming fluent in Japanese because instruction at his college was bilingual — a mix of Japanese and English.  After graduating from college, he went to graduate school in America, where I met him and where he confessed to me that he really didn't feel at home in any language.  I used to read his papers for him and it was quite a challenge to help him put them into coherent English.

The last case is myself.  After graduation from college, I joined the Peace Corps and learned Nepali very quickly (two or three months were enough for me to get along on my own in Nepal) through total immersion, which I have described in a couple of comments to other posts (see here and here).  I was posted by myself in a remote place where I never heard or spoke any English for months on end.  After a year, I was thinking in Nepali; after two years I was dreaming in Nepali.  When I went back to America, I felt that speaking English was artificial and I definitely was uncomfortable watching American films, not just because of the language that was being spoken, but also because of the actions and behavior that were portrayed.

On the basis of the above five cases, I would conclude that it is fairly easy for one to lose one's Mother Tongue, although it is not always very easy to gain a second Mother Tongue later in life.  Indeed, I would say that is virtually impossible to acquire a second Mother Tongue after losing the first one, simply because the conditions of learning one's Mother Tongue are unique and not to be replicated after one grows up.  Instead, if one loses one's Mother Tongue, what one ends up with is greater or lesser competence in one or more languages that replace it, unless….  It all depends upon the age when you begin to learn the language that replaces your original Mother Tongue.  And here we enter the realm of Mair's Law of Second Language Acquisition, but I dare not broach that on Language Log for fear of being laughed out of court.


  1. mae said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 9:38 am

    The early part of the 20th century in America offers millions of cases of immigrants who came at all ages, alone and with their families, and who were encouraged to replace their mother-tongues with English. Many wrote about their experiences or became writers, so there is a lot of material on this subject.

  2. Wentao said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 9:39 am

    This is fascinating; I think I'm an example of this loss of Mother Tongue myself. Before the age of 3, I lived with my grandparents in my ancestral hometown in mountainous Hubei Province, where I first learned to speak in a variety of Southwestern Mandarin that sounds very similar to Henanese. Then I moved to live with my parents, who both speak imperfect Standard Mandarin. After spending 9 years in school in Beijing, and mingling with other "new Beijingers" who mostly speak Putonghua, I completely forgot the dialect of my hometown and speak Putonghua with a Beijing accent. So it has become my second Mother Tongue. Funny that I didn't realize this until seeing this post today!

    I also wonder what language the HK scholar spoke at home when he was little? Was it Cantonese? Do his parents know other languages too?

  3. Keith said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 9:46 am

    I know an Italian who moved to the UK when he was about 22 years old. He's now about 74, and would go back to his native Naples every two or three years for only a week or two each time.

    In the UK, he has lived in an almost entirely anglophone community.

    Although he still has a very strong Italian accent, he used perfectly well-formed English idiomatic expressions and talks about Italian being his mother tongue and English his father tongue.

  4. Coby Lubliner said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 10:12 am

    I have always had my doubts about the appropriateness of the term "mother tongue."

    I once had a friend whose parents were Romanian, and while his father spoke English, his mother never learned to speak it (though she understood it), while my friend never learned to speak Romanian (though he understood it). His communication with his mother, for as long as he remembered, had been bilingual.

    In my case, the first language I learned did happen to be the one spoken by my mother (Polish), but it long ago ceased to be my primary language, and for most of my life she and I have spoken English with each other.

  5. Coby Lubliner said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 10:17 am

    I should add that I know several cases in Catalonia of families with a Catalan-speaking father and a Spanish-speaking mother, with the kids having Catalan as their primary language.

  6. Vicki said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 10:59 am

    I think my own mother might be an example of this, though she doesn't talk about it much, at least to me. Her family fled Germany after Kristallnacht; she spent some time in France as a "hidden child" before being placed with foster parents in New York City. She speaks fluent English, with a New York accent, though other New Yorkers occasionally ask where she's from. She can sort of get by in French these days, but isn't fluent, and has repressed her native German. When my grandparents came to New York after the war, my mother couldn't speak to them at first, for lack of a common language. Fortunately, my grandparents had a gift for learning languages, and picked up English quickly, to go with German, French, and Yiddish.

    I suspect that there are quite a few similar stories in literature on refugee children.

  7. Tim Williams said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 12:07 pm

    My mother's mother tongue was Dutch, but she has lived in England for over 60 years. She has always used Dutch for paid translation work and to talk with her family or on visits to the Netherlands (one or two weeks a year until the last decade). For some time now (about twenty years) she has denied that Dutch is her mother tongue and native Dutch speakers detect an old fashionedness about her Dutch which is not apparent in her English.

    Curiously, she had a subdural bleed about two years ago which initially resulted in her having word finding difficulties in Englsh but not apparently in Dutch (according to my uncle who spoke to her several times in the first few months after the bleed).

    At the time I was born she was told that it would be better to bring me up monolingual, and because we lived in England, I regard English as my first language, although I do understand a fair bit of Dutch.

    Incidentally she was employed to find new uses of words or new words in printed material by the Oxford English dictionary.

  8. bfwebster said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 12:09 pm

    Victor: you'll find cases similar to yours among many Latter-day Saint missionaries who serve in a country where another language predominates. I had a friend, Wayne Fehlberg, who served in the same mission I did (Central America: Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama) back in the mid-1970s. However, while I only had one native Spanish speaker as a companion during my two years there, Wayne had nothing but native Spanish speakers as companions during his two years. (Companion assignments typically last about 2 months, so the average missionary has roughly 8-12 different companions during her/his mission.) After my mission and back at college (BYU), I met and became friends with Wayne's brother, Rondo. Rondo told me that when Wayne returned home (to Wyoming) from his mission, when he gave the traditional post-mission homecoming talk in his local LDS congregation, Wayne struggled with speaking in English and kept slipping into Spanish. Rondo also said that Wayne's culture shock was compounded by coming back from tropical Central America to the depths of a snowy Wyoming winter. :-)

    Note that this doesn't just refer to English-speaking missionaries serving in another country. LDS missionaries from other countries are often called to serve missions within the US and Canada; I've met missionaries here in the US from Mongolia, Germany, Japan, several African countries, and so on, and I suspect not a few of them have experiences similar to those you've described for foreign students coming to America.

  9. reader_not_academe said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 12:21 pm

    Mair's Law of Second Language Acquisition… That teaser without further explanation is inhumane. If Professor Mair, perhaps in the guise of an anonymous LL commenter, were to expand on his ideas, what would he write? Purely theoretically, of course.

  10. JQ said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 1:11 pm

    Well I expect the HKer's mother tongue was Cantonese, but having not lived in HK for much of his life, he would not be up to date with the latest slang or culture. I suspect his spoken formal Cantonese would be fine, although students who go to international schools are often not very good at writing (unsurprisingly, given that Chinese as a subject in Grade 12 would be equivalent to Form 1 or so in a good local school). They may be good at reading depending on their choice of entertainment.

    Most HK students (Cantonese-speaking) I know return to HK 3 times a year and try to spend as much time there as possible, however they are the sort who rarely socialise outside of HK circles and their English never really progresses beyond the average level seen in HK.

  11. Matthew Robertson said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 1:36 pm

    I have never commented on a Language Log post, though I read it thoroughly.

    Professor Mair, you cannot possibly refer to "Mair's Law of Second Language Acquisition" and not prepare another post dedicated to explicating it.

    To do otherwise would be too cruel.

  12. JS said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 2:22 pm

    As a person can learn languages but never really forget them, in one kind of typical case advancing from speaker of only one to speaker of two or many languages, it is not easy to sort out which things about a speaker's relationship to a language might be due to its being her "first (or 'mother') language" and which might be due to its being, always or at some early life stage, her "only language."

    So I'm not sure the notion of a mother tongue is useful. Instead, we could just think in terms of cognitive differences between mono- and bi- or multilingual folks. As for the typical case noted above, my experience is that new competence in additional languages proportionally compromises, to some degree and in some sense of that word, competence in one's first language — maybe simply because one is aware of, and thus as far as communicative felicity is concerned distracted by, alternative ways in which ideas might be expressed or situations construed.

    As far as those who are multilingual from the first, I think it is obviously possible that their competence in each one of their languages could fail to measure up, by some objective measure, to the competence of a monolingual speaker of that language; I don't see the need for hand-wringing about what, ultimately, such an individual's "mother tongue" really is.

  13. jfruh said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 2:27 pm

    My girlfriend in college's dad was ethnically Chinese but born and raised in the Phillipines, then came to the US right after medical school, had his first practice in a heavily Latino neighborhood in the Bronx, but by the time I knew him had moved his office to Brighton Beach and had a Russian girlfriend. His English was … idiosyncratic, to say the least. My girlfriend told me that the language his parents spoke at home was "Fukinese" (probably Min, I think?) but he grew up bilingual in Tagalog and learned Spanish and English more or less simultaneously upon arriving to the U.S. and later picked up Russian as well, and basically spoke none of them fluently at this point, always mashing them together in bizarre ways.

  14. David Morris said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 2:27 pm

    I had a student in Korea who, because he moved to the USA at one critical time in his language acquisition and back to Korea at another, essentially had two second languages.

  15. David Morris said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 2:28 pm

    (that is – and had no first language)

  16. jfruh said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 2:30 pm

    Also, my wife (different from old girlfriend in last comment) has an aunt who was born and raised in the U.S. but married a Frenchman at 22 and has lived in France ever since, for more than 35 years now. It's always an interesting experience talking to her — she has a definite accent but it doesn't sound like a "French" accent to me, though she does sometimes grab French words when she can't remember the English ones.

  17. AB said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 3:16 pm

    If you'll forgive a cut and paste, this seems rather relevant. A man wrote masterpieces in two languages, but felt that by his later life he lacked a "natural vocabulary" in either of them:


    Do you feel you have any conspicuous or secret flaw as a writer?


    The absence of a natural vocabulary. An odd thing to confess, but true. Of the two instruments in my possession, one—my native tongue—I can no longer use, and this not only because I lack a Russian audience, but also because the excitement of verbal adventure in the Russian medium has faded away gradually after I turned to English in 1940. My English, this second instrument I have always had, is however a stiffish, artificial thing, which may be all right for describing a sunset or an insect, but which cannot conceal poverty of syntax and paucity of domestic diction when I need the shortest road between warehouse and shop. An old Rolls-Royce is not always preferable to a plain jeep.

    (NB: Nabokov "turned to English in 1940" in the sense that his published writing is in English from then on, but he was taught to speak English as a very young child and, at least according to his memoir, was actually able to read and write earlier in English than in Russian).

  18. Victor Mair said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 4:05 pm

    AB's account of Nabokov's relationship to English reminds me of Joseph Conrad and Ha Jin.


    Conrad is regarded as one of the greatest novelists in English, though he did not speak the language fluently until he was in his twenties (and always with a marked accent).

    HA JIN

    Jin grew up in the chaos of early communist China. He was on a scholarship at Brandeis University when the 1989 Tiananmen incident occurred. The Chinese government's forcible put-down hastened his decision to emigrate to the United States, and was the cause of his choice to write in English "to preserve the integrity of his work."

  19. Victor Mair said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 4:10 pm

    @reader_not_academe, @Matthew Robertson

    Since you both asked about "Mair's Law of Second Language Acquisition" in such a nice way, I promise to describe it in a future post. Because of a backlog of other things, it'll be at least a week or two before I get to it.

  20. Victor Mair said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 5:14 pm


    I don't know the exact particulars of the Hong Kong scholar's language situation at home when he was little, but — like many Hong Kongers who can afford to go to English-medium schools, even not very good ones — he probably was watched over by a nanny who didn't speak Cantonese (most likely Filipino). Furthermore, I seem to recall that he told me he had very little interaction with his father.

  21. julie lee said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 5:22 pm

    I love David Morris's description above of a student of his having "two second languages" and "no first language", that is, no "mother tongue".

    Exactly my own case. I well understand what Nabokov means by saying he has no natural vocabulary,

    I first learned Chinese from my parents in China, then moved abroad to a British colony at 7 where I learned English, and stopped learning Chinese. Many years later, when I returned to China to go to college, I couldn't speak Chinese and had to learn it as a foreign language. Meanwhile, it took me many years to become confident in English, as my school-friends in British colonies were mostly Indians or Chinese who had poor English. So English was always a foreign language to me, and my English was mostly book-learning.

    This has made me ask myself, "What exactly is a mother tongue?" It's as ticklish a question as "What exactly is a marriage?" Is it defined by the physical union, the sanctification by the church, the legal bond, the exclusiviity, the co-habitation? Is a broken marriage or dysfunctional marriage still a marriage? Is the tongue you spoke first as a child but had to learn later as a foreign language and still feel stiff in still a mother tongue?

  22. maidhc said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 5:36 pm

    Another interesting writer was Rudyard Kipling. He was raised by Hindi-speaking servants until the age of 6 or so, when he was sent back to England for school. As an adult he claimed to have forgotten all his Hindi. He could still converse in Hindi; he just didn't understand what he was saying.

    In some of his books he has dialog spoken by characters in various roles in Indian society, that is in English but representing Hindi speech. I don't have enough background to judge how well he depicts the characteristics of colloquial Hindi of the late 19th century.

  23. Lee Dembart said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 5:45 pm

    May I comment on a tangential point in Professor Mair’s fascinating report on Mother Tongues and people who lose them? My comment relates to diction, not to Mother Tongues.

    English lacks an indefinite third-person pronoun, equivalent to on in French (On ne dit pas ça = One doesn’t say that), se in Spanish (Aquí se habla español = Spanish (is) spoken here), and man in German (Man soll nicht rauchen = No smoking).

    Not having such a word in English, we fill the gap with various other words – including one, you, people, they, somebody and others – none of them altogether satisfactory. The Brits tend to use one in that role, which sounds a bit stuffy to American ears. Americans tend to use you, which can be ambiguous, as you is more often the definite second-person pronoun, singular and plural. If you say (one says?), “You should exercise every day,” do you mean you, the person you’re talking to, or do you mean you, people in general? Sometimes the context makes it clear, but sometimes it doesn’t.

    Near the end of Professor Mair’s report, he concludes, “[I]f one loses one's Mother Tongue, what one ends up with is greater or lesser competence in one or more languages that replace it.” That’s three impersonal ones in a row within seven words, which sounds particularly odd. In the next sentence, he switches to you. “It all depends upon the age when you begin to learn the language that replaces your original Mother Tongue,” he writes.

    English is a wonderful language – my favorite, in fact. But it has a few failings, and this is one of them. We need a pronoun for the indefinite third person.

  24. Matt said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 5:59 pm

    It seems to me that we get along fine with "one" and "you," but maybe we could start using "ape" for clarity. As in: Ape shall not kill ape! Ape shall not smoke! — and so on.

  25. Robot Therapist said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 7:02 pm

    I now feel quite unusual, after reading the above, as I speak only one language!

  26. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 7:24 pm

    Since Nabokov has been mentioned, he also wrote, "Upon moving to Berlin [at 23] I was beset by a panicky fear of somehow flawing my precious layer of Russian by learning to speak German fluently." Maybe the fear was justified?

  27. Victor Mair said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 8:47 pm

    @Lee Dembart

    Very good analysis of my switching between "one" and "you". I must confess that, whenever I use one or the other for the indefinite third person, I always feel a bit awkward about it. One thing I learned early on in my education, though, is never to mix the two in the same sentence for the same purpose. I suppose, though, one / you should extend that to include sentences in the same passage or text.

  28. Jenny Tsu said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 9:32 pm

    A factor that adds to this sense of deracination can be the timing of new technologies. For example: although I'm American by birth, I lived in Vietnam for a good portion of the 1990s. During that time the internet, and computers in general, were just becoming universal in the workplace. So for many years, I only referred to things like the web, keyboards, monitors, mice, email, networks, hard drives, files, websites, etc. – things that are really everyday terms, now, but were newer, then – in Vietnamese. When I moved to Hong Kong in 2000, I often found myself feeling awkward, or in some cases stumped, if I tried to talk about these ordinary topics in English. A question as simple as, "Wow, my system just crashed as I was trying to upload the file onto the shared drive. Did you happen to save a local copy recently?" became a tongue (and brain) twister for me in English, my "mother" tongue.

  29. Homer M. said,

    December 15, 2014 @ 10:58 pm

    Another curious example of the same effect is that of learning to do some one thing in a second language and then being unable to talk about it in the mother tongue. I learned to ski in French and was completely tongue-tied about it back in the U.S.

  30. amygdala said,

    December 16, 2014 @ 12:57 am

    I once knew through the internet a Japanese young man who's a typical otaku and does almost all his human interaction online. He has a very good command of English and spends more time reading/chatting about things that interest him in English. He told me that sometimes while having social difficulties he feels as if written English has usurp spoken Japanese as his mother tongue.

  31. sarah said,

    December 16, 2014 @ 1:44 am

    I can't remember the source, (maybe Speak, Memory?) but I know Nabakov has some writings about this.

    Apparently when he was a rising star writing English language novels he kept promising himself that later he would go back and write the Russian language novel he really wanted. Russian in his mind was this perfect expressive language where he wouldn't have to deal with the struggle and slog of writing in his adopted English. Eventually he wrote in Russian again, but he was disappointed to find that it was no longer the magic flute he remembered from his childhood.

  32. michael farris said,

    December 16, 2014 @ 2:12 am

    Maria Callas is maybe a good example of someone without a single dominant first language. She was born in New York into a Greek speaking household and presumably completed seven or eight grades of public school in English before her mother took her back to Greece where she completed her education.
    After a brief spell in the US right after WWII she went to Italy and spent the next 16 or so years singing and mostly speaking Italian.

    To me, her English while obviously completely fluent has an odd non-idiomatic, certainly not typically American, sound (partly lexical choices and partly general accent). Comments to a youtube recording of an interview in Greek suggest that while morphologically and syntactically native there's something odd and not quite completely Greek around the edges (maybe something of an Italian or Veneto accent).

    She famously said she counted in English which makes sense since her first exposure to math would have been in the US.

  33. Vanya said,

    December 16, 2014 @ 4:04 am

    I was posted by myself in a remote place where I never heard or spoke any English for months on end.

    That is a great experience to have. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find places where you can avoid English entirely for months on end. I suppose the first step these days would be to resolve not to use the internet.

  34. hwu said,

    December 16, 2014 @ 4:55 am

    Your story was just like mine! I was born in Henan Province, went to Beijing thereafter, and sometimes felt Henanese
    "strange" now. Yes Henanese and Hubeiese are so similar, My Hubei classmates and I can talk using each other's mother tongues without any problem.

  35. Peter said,

    December 16, 2014 @ 5:17 am

    @Lee Dembart: I think many Brits, at least, would say that we do have such an indefinite pronoun: one.

    In AmE, its usage is very strongly marked as formal, and it also behaves in some ways like someone, anyone rather than like he, they; for instance often co-ordinating with he or their in back-reference: If one has problems, he should fix them himself.

    But in in BrE, it is much less marked, if at all, and functions perfectly straightforwardly as a simple pronoun: If one has problems, one should fix them oneself.

    The first example sentence above is, I think, ungrammatical for most BrE speakers (at least, the reading where he, himself refer back to the person denoted by one). I’m not enough of a native AmE speaker to be sure how the second example (with one –> one’s –> oneself) sounds to American ears; I would suspect not quite ungrammatical, but even more formally marked than the first example.

  36. RP said,

    December 16, 2014 @ 5:29 am

    Unlike Peter and Lee, I think that "one" sounds somewhat formal in BrE too (even if not as much so as in AmE – but that's hard for me to judge). The usage note at indicates the same: "In modern English the use of 'one' as a pronoun to mean ‘anyone’ or ‘me and people in general’, as in 'one must try one’s best', is generally restricted to formal contexts, outside which it is likely to be regarded as rather pompous or old-fashioned. In informal and spoken contexts the normal alternative is 'you'."

    (It is also marked as "formal" at .)

    I should say that I sometimes use "one" myself, and not only in writing, nor only in the most formal contexts. But there are some less formal social contexts where I would feel either uncomfortable or very self-conscious using it.

  37. RP said,

    December 16, 2014 @ 5:31 am

    Although impersonal "you" is occasionally ambiguous, French "on" is theoretically ambiguous too, since the French often use it to mean "we". Whether this ever causes confusion in practice, I don't know.

  38. Gerald said,

    December 16, 2014 @ 6:46 am

    Interesting to read about such an experience here and now. Vanya just a little above comments how interesting and nowadays difficult such an experience (of being surrounded by only one language, other than one's first language and/or English) has become – and in fact, it's come to the point where I had hitherto only found comments arguing that people who claimed to have forgotten their first language were only doing so in order to brag about their language immersion experience, but could not possibly have truly had that experience.

    Of course, it was among the various polyglot/hyperpolyglot/fluent-in-3-month types of blogs and sites I had come across that. And yes, nowadays, as long as one goes online, it is a difficult thing.

    I actually had that experience. Went to the USA when I was 15 years old, and that having been pre-internet, my only contact with my native German during that time were some letter and 1 or 2 phone calls back home. When I returned, I could not string together German sentences anymore, at first, and once I had become better at it again, whenever there was an English word, I continued in English rather than German without even noticing. Funniest thing about all that, though, is that I kept a somewhat German/Austrian accent in my English, and I am therefore (to this day) not considered "perfect" / quite at native level in my English, e.g. by students who learn EFL…

  39. Levantine said,

    December 16, 2014 @ 7:47 am

    I (a Londoner) agree with RP: "one" sounds formal to me, and I would use (and expect to hear) "you" in most contexts. This use of "you" has never struck me as an Americanism.

  40. Brett said,

    December 16, 2014 @ 8:32 am

    @RP: It's worth noting that the "me and people in general" meaning also does not exist in American English. This is a subtle distinction, since the formal "one" in American certainly can mean "people in general (which happens to include me)," but the British sense clearly can imply a much stronger "me" dimension. I would not have even noticed the difference, but for a joke on a British sitcom that relied on the strong implication that "one" really meant "me."

  41. GH said,

    December 16, 2014 @ 10:46 am

    I'm surprised to hear that that sense is not available in AmE. How would you (the specific or general "you") interpret something like "One does one's best" in response to praise or thanks?

    As a French learner, I'm also curious to know whether this shade of meaning exists in French. The other day I tried to render a joking "one suspects…" (i.e. "I – and potentially others who think like me – suspect…") as "on soupçonne que…," but I wasn't sure whether it came across the right way.

    To the article's topic, I think some degree of this is common to most multilinguals.

  42. Michael Watts said,

    December 16, 2014 @ 11:54 am

    I (American) would interpret "one does one's best" as referring to the speaker with both "one"s, but that doesn't mean it's part of American English. I wouldn't produce it, and I'd be surprised to hear someone else produce it.

    In my family, it's not uncommon to use "we" to refer only to the speaker, so a close analog to "one does one's best" that I personally might produce would be "we try". I'm not sure how common singular we is outside my family, though.

  43. turanga said,

    December 16, 2014 @ 1:49 pm

    I am an example of someone without a clear-cut mother tongue (probably somewhat like A. K. Ramanujan). Growing up in Bangalore, I do not recall when I learned my family's dialect of Tamil, Kannada, or bits of Sanskrit and English. In our house, these were mixed up in various proportions depending the context and who was speaking to whom, even within the same conversation, sometimes in the same sentence. On the street where I grew up, apart from families like ours, there were families who spoke a dialect of Tamil spoken by Sanketis, christian families from Mangalore who spoke Konkani, recent immigrants to Bangalore from Tamilnadu who spoke different versions of Tamil, families that spoke a dialect of Telugu apart from "pure" Kannada speakers, whose dialects varied depending on their "jaati" (which is different from caste). Hindi was beginning to make inroads into the environment through Bollywood songs and efforts of the central government to "impose" it on the non-Hindi speaking parts of the country. A version of Urdu was spoken less than half a mile where we lived, in a Muslim colony.

    The languages and I have changed at different paces and differently over time. My version of Tamil still borrows substantially from Kannada and Sanskrit when needed, rather than English which seems to be more of the norm these days (perhaps attributable to some innate conservatism, as well as separation from the milieu, attributable to both my move out of the area and the changes in the milieu itself.

  44. RP said,

    December 16, 2014 @ 2:19 pm

    In BrE, the use of "we" to mean "I" is often called the "Royal 'we'", although according to , the Queen doesn't use it. The use of Royal 'one' ("one" to mean "I") is similarly seen as either pompous or jocular.

    In French, by contrast, the use of "on" to mean "we" is very widespread but is used informally rather than formally. "On est allés au ciné hier soir" means "we went to the cinema yesterday evening"; an "s" is even added to the past participle when written to indicate the plural meaning.

    I am not a native speaker (so someone may know better), but it follows from the above that "on soupçonne que…" could be translated either as "it is suspected that" or as "we suspect" – although in my experience, "se douter que" seems to be much the more frequent way of saying "suspect", but I'm not sure if the difference is one of register, shade of meaning, or just simple frequency. It's worth looking out for "se douter", as it's a false friend from the English-speaker's point of view (it is almost the opposite of "douter").

  45. RP said,

    December 16, 2014 @ 2:48 pm

    Also meant to add, even though singular "we" is either high-register or jocular, singular "us" is colloquial usage in many dialects (or possibly throughout Britain?). In many phrases where "us" is used datively, it can mean "me": "give us a biscuit", "give us a kiss", "help us out, will you", "tell us"…

  46. Brett said,

    December 16, 2014 @ 3:43 pm

    @GH: "I try my best," or, more likely, just "I try" is sufficiently modest in American English. The British version with "one" is comprehensible but not really idiomatic.

  47. Dominik Lukes (@techczech) said,

    December 16, 2014 @ 4:31 pm

    Great case studies of language identity and self-reported competence. But perhaps more going on than losing or gaining the elusive 'mother tongue'.

    "I would say that is virtually impossible to acquire a second Mother Tongue after losing the first one, simply because the conditions of learning one's Mother Tongue are unique and not to be replicated after one grows up."

    This seems to me hard to justify without having a richer view of 'mother tongue' – how about multilingual children who grow up with native competence in multiple languages but which competence is very much contextual and determined by the multiple contexts in which it was acquired and the ends to which it is put. Which of these experiences count towards the mother-tongueness? And which of them cannot be substituted by similar experiences? Are they emotional, perceptual, neural? Perhaps a law here would only serve to diminish many experiences in the same way that the experiences described in the case studies here are often diminished.

  48. reader_not_academe said,

    December 16, 2014 @ 5:44 pm

    on a (not so serious) second thought about the language acquisition law. should mair's law of second language acquisition not hold up to linguistic scrutiny, it can always be revised and updated as mair's second law of language acquisition.

  49. Michael Watts said,

    December 17, 2014 @ 1:15 am

    I like to think that if you can understand what someone says to you when you're not paying attention and didn't expect to be addressed, you've basically got native-level fluency. (This test probably won't stand up to adversarial interpretation of what I meant.)

  50. Bart said,

    December 17, 2014 @ 5:42 am

    What about diglossia, where most people in a community such as German Switzerland or West Java grow up speaking two languages equally fluently, using one or the other (two forms of German or Indonesian/Sundanese) according to context?
    Presumably such a speaker has two mother tongues.

  51. GH said,

    December 17, 2014 @ 7:19 am


    Thanks. I guess my meaning was clear but possibly not the joking tone.

  52. Kevin McCready said,

    December 17, 2014 @ 4:52 pm

    I'm interested in what happens within the brain. For some people I think there is a section labelled "foreign language". I grew up in English, studied Italian and a bit of French at school and then in my mid twenties started Mandarin. As I was trying to speak Mandarin, bits of Italian would come out. That doesn't happen now.

    I also knew an English speaking diplomat with professional level language skills in French and Mandarin and possibly other languages. Speaking Mandarin with him soon after he came back from a three year French posting he would slip, totally unconsciously, between French and Mandarin in the same sentence. It took him a second or two before the "checking" function of his brain realised what had happened and he was always incredibly annoyed with himself. So I think his brain function had quite a nice direct link between meaning and finding vocab to convey his meaning. After such an "incident" his language was slow and awkward until he regained fluency a few minutes later, whereupon it would happen again.

    I didn't explore further at the time but it would be interesting to know what "grammar" the vocab was expressed in and whether that switched automatically and unconsciously too, perhaps with a Chomskyian hardwired grammar?

  53. Toghrol said,

    December 17, 2014 @ 6:11 pm

    This has been such an interesting post and string of comments–this is reminded me of two people:

    My Chinese (Hong Kong) friend Henry: he was born in London and yet still sounds like he has only lived here for a few years; he has a really strong Cantonese accent, even though he completed his education up to post-graduate level here. It's something that used to really confuse me back when we were in school, but I later realised it was because most of his social circle had been, and still are, Chinese.

    My uncle: He was of Iranian-Kurdish descent but was born in Iraqi Kurdistan and was fluent in both Kurdish and Arabic. For some strange reason, the truth of which still eludes me to this day, he went to Iran on some strange mission in the early 70s. He was then arrested in central-Iran and was under "town-arrest" for seven years. The whole family thought he was dead until his older brother–a man of some scholarly renown–went to Iran in an effort to track him down. In the end all was well and he went back to Kurdistan-Iraq. There was one issue, however: he could no longer converse in Kurdish (mother-tongue) or Arabic (acquired at school and university). He understood Kurdish but the only words that came out were Persian. It took him around six months to regain fluency in Kurdish. To this day he still speaks Persian. No one really knows what he did for those seven lost years.

  54. Vanya said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 3:11 am

    @Bart – in my experience most Swiss Germans do not speak their native dialect and Hochdeutsch "equally fluently". Many Swiss Germans are not entirely comfortable speaking Hochdeutsch even if they understood it perfectly well.

  55. Bart said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 8:05 am

    @Vanya. You probably know more about it than me. I thought Hochdeutsch was normally used in school, even (I assumed) primary school.

  56. Andrea said,

    December 18, 2014 @ 5:58 pm

    Man, I wish I'd had the chance to ask my grandpa about this. Not that he'd give me a straight answer (not really a thing he cared about), but who knows? He was born and raised in Canada, in a German-speaking community. He first learned English in school.

    Grandma might have had something to say, too, being fluent in Mandarin when her missionary parents got the family out of China in 1941, and losing knowledge of it over the years.

    I've heard there are milder cases with accents, especially people raised somewhere with a strong, distinct accent, and then moving away.

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