Native language loss

Even a mother tongue, unused, can slip away

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway


Photo: Public domain
Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini’s painting, “The return of Jephtha,” depicts the biblical figure known for using “shibboleth” as a test word to determine people’s origins.

Native language has long been considered an indelible part of a person’s identity. Hence one of the oldest beliefs about identity is that if we listen to someone talk, we can guess where they are from. In the Old Testament Book of Judges, chieftain Jephtha uses shibboleth (Hebrew for “ear of corn”) as a test-word to distinguish the fleeing Ephraimites (who were unable to pronounce the sh) from his own men, the Gileadites (Judges 12:5-6). In modern usage, a shibboleth is a word or term that reveals a speaker’s true origin. It reflects the entrenched belief that a person born and raised in a particular linguistic community will be identifiable as a member of it throughout life.

That belief has led to linguistics being used in verifying identity whenever people lack official papers, such as passports or birth certificates. Accordingly, many countries, including Norway (further reading), have developed guidelines to using language in identification, and there’s now a professional journal dedicated to the relevant legal aspects, The International Journal of Speech, Language and the Law.

Despite longtime belief and now legal anchoring, the permanence of native language has been questioned. Native language loss, also known as language attrition, is recognized and is studied; the University of Essex, United Kingdom, has a dedicated website page on it at:

In recent fiction and real life incidents, native language loss is an everyday reality. Two examples:

The Full Cupboard of Life, the fifth novel in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series by Scottish novelist Alexander McCall Smith, is set in Gaborone, Botswana. The protagonist of the story, Mma Ramotswe, is astounded upon coming upon a man who after 30 years abroad, has forgotten Setswana, his native tongue. She thinks that losing your own language is like forgetting your mother: “We must not lose Setswana, even if we speak a great deal of English these days, because that would be like losing part of one’s soul.”

• Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier serving in Afghanistan was captured and held prisoner by the Taliban for some five years. Upon his release in May 2014, he was reported to have difficulty speaking English

Recent linguistic research (further reading) indicates that native languages are less stable than previously assumed. In short, shibboleths are treacherous. Even speakers who have grown up in linguistic environments until age 17 cannot reliably be distinguished from second language learners after a period abroad. The research suggests that many circumstances can trigger native language attrition. Speakers who leave their country of origin after puberty cannot be reliably identified as natives after a period abroad. Children who leave the company of their parents often suffer marked loss of their native languages. Children who emigrate alone frequently suffer complete native language loss. As linguistics Professor Monika Schmid has pointed out (further reading), in the context of language and asylum, those people who are most genuinely in need of protection may often be the ones least able to prove their origin by means of their language. As she remarks, “never trust a Shibboleth!”

Further reading:

• “Guidelines on the use of language analysis in connection with applications for protection,” Oslo, Norwegian Directorate of Immigration circular, August 2015:

• Einar Haugen Lecture 2014: “When your language becomes your only passport,” Center for Multilingualism in Society across the Lifespan, Faculty of Humanities, University of Oslo:

• “Treacherous Sibboleths: Language as an indicator of origin” by Monika S. Schmid, lecture June 7, 2011:

• “Losing a first language to a second language,” by Eve Higby and Loraine Obler, Chapter 29 of The Cambridge Handbook of Bilingual Processing, 2015:

• “Language testing of asylum claimants: a flawed approach,” by Aisha Maniar, Institute of Race Relations, 2014:

M. Michael Brady was educated as a scientist and, with time, turned to writing and translating.

This article originally appeared in the September 20, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

Avatar photo

M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.