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 couldn’t forget your maternal language (because, like in dementia, you would regress to what was first learned), but you can. This phenomenon of losing your first language 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 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. I couldn’t remember the English-coded content for long until I read the book myself when I was much older. But I never forgot the occasion and, more importantly, the book’s pictures.

My father suggested hypnosis to retrieve my English memories. If successful, this might be 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 language attrition can involve emotions and group pressure.

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

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

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