Losing or never learning a family language – how does it feel?

by | Apr 16, 2014 | Challenges, Language, Language and bilingualism | 5 comments


When I tell people what I do and what my book “Bringing up a Bilingual Child” is about, I regularly get to hear comments such as “That’s great!” followed by “Oh, I wish I could speak my parent’s language.” It would be so beneficial for parents who are hesitating whether or not to pass on their heritage language to their children to hear what these adults have to say and how they feel about the fact that they didn’t learn the language of their parent(s).

Losing or never learning a family language – how does it feel?

The initial feeling they describe is one of loss; a loss of a more intimate connection with their grandparents and other relatives and the family’s place of origin; the loss of a truly genuine understanding of the culture, traditions and, to some extent, art associated with the language. They have also told me about a feeling of loss of part of their identity. They might look like they should know a language, but they don’t. Questions like “Who really am I?” and “Where do I belong?” have popped into their minds. There are of course many other aspects than language which contribute to your sense of self-image and identity, but language does play a big role.

If you never learnt to speak your parent’s language, but heard it when you were small you might still have a level of receptive knowledge of it (also known as ‘passive language skill’). This can with a bit of time and effort still be turned into an active speaking skill – and your pronunciation will be miles better than anyone else’s who has started to learn the language from scratch as an adult.

The other scenario is that you learnt and lost a language, to an extent that you can no longer understand the language you might have been speaking as a small child. This can happen if you for example were adopted or moved to a different language environment and your parents spoke the majority language with you. The good news is that a “lost” language doesn’t mean that it is a “destroyed” language. What has been lost can be found again. The language may be inaccessible as you have been immersed in a different language, but it doesn’t mean it is forever gone. To prove this there are cases where people under hypnosis have spoken a language they spoke as a child and which they claimed no longer to be able to speak. Like with a receptive language skill, you will also most likely still have the ability to correctly pronounce sounds specific to the language.

If you are interested in reading more about language loss in bilinguals and generally about how a bilingual brain works, I warmly recommend “The Bilingual Brain” by Prof. Arturo E. Hernandez, a great summary of the research into bilingualism with many enlightening case studies.

Have you experienced the loss of a language – what are your thoughts?

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  1. expatsincebirth

    Thank you so much for writing about this topic, Rita! Being bilingual myself and having to choose one language to talk to my kids, I always feel like if they don’t get the “real” me because this lack of knowledge of my “other” language. The same happens to my husband. When we decided to have only one family language (for many reasons I can’t explain here but I link to the post I wrote about this http://expatsincebirth.com/2012/08/19/which-language-to-choose/) he gave up his one (Swissgerman) which took him several weeks to get used to…
    We still talk those other languages with extended family and friends, but they’re not part of our daily life, our daily interactions with our children. To be honest, I use holidays to re-introduce them. We sometimes play with those other languages (i.e. Italian and Swissgerman) and try to have a conversation in them. I told my children how I feel about this and that I would so much love talking Italian to them – and my husband Swissgerman – but that this would mean to have a very clear language plan, juggling with 4-5 languages (!) and that’s not easy with 3 children. Anyways, I completely can relate to the topic of this post and am looking forward to read about the experience other parents made.

  2. Rita Rosenback

    Thank you for your comment, Ute! You are so right – I had to “deselect” my Finland-Swedish dialect (which is very different from “standard Swedish”) with my girls – the dialect is very close to my heart. I knew it wouldn’t make sense to pass it on to them, as it is only spoken in a small part of Finland. They have however learnt to understand it during our stays in Finland.

  3. Angela Grant

    TY for sharing. I never considered the problem since I only speak broken English; however, I found this fascinating.

    • Rita Rosenback

      Thank you, Angela. Glad you liked my post.


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