I know that my English is not perfect even though my maternal language is English (which is by the way not the mother tongue of my Dutch mother) and I used to speak English with an Oxford accent (they say). I lost my English when I went to school in the Netherlands (and I refused to speak English anymore); I was six. It was long held by psychologists including UTP, that you can’t forget your maternal language (because like in dementia you would regress to what was first learned), but you can. This is called First Language Attrition (FLA). Christophe Pallier and his research group collected convincing evidence that young children can lose their maternal language, see Pallier, DeHaene et al (2003), Pallier (2013) and DeHaene (2020). I learned my present English as a foreign language at a Dutch secondary school.

What I find striking is that my memories encoded in English are also lost. I can remember that my aunt Dof, my father’s sister, read to me, an English speaking boy of four or five years old, from Winnie the Pooh. For long I couldn’t remember the English-coded content until I read the book myself when I was much older. But I never forgot the occasion and more important the pictures in the book.

My father suggested hypnosis to retrieve my English memories. If successful this could be seen as evidence for the regression hypothesis. I never considered hypnosis because the time of my change from English to Dutch was the same time my parents were separating which must have been traumatic for me; a time you can better forget or perhaps better lose.

This personal story illustrates that emotions and group pressure can be involved in language attrition.

Read more about language attrition at https://languageattrition.org/

Subject for a future blog post is how language attrition relates to UTP’s (behaviouristic) view on language acquisition.

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