One of my friends grew up with his family in a Spanish-speaking country (for ~10 or so years), knowing/learning both Spanish and English, but he and his family have since moved to the United States, and started using English almost exclusively. His Spanish has since gotten a little rusty. His parents, on the other hand, learned Spanish as a second language, and have not found their skills deteriorating much despite their lack of use. (As far as I know, and for the sake of the question, both him and his parents had very similar levels of fluency.)

After a considerable period of disuse, do more-or-less native speakers of a language forget that language faster than those who learned it as a second language?

(Note: I am not so much interested in the specific scenario I have detailed above, but rather the answer to the more general question.)

  • This is a very interesting question and I don't even know about any research that has been done in this regard. It would seem that the fundamental linguistic question "Does language shape how we think or does how we think shape language?" would influence this category. The story of Genie might be related to this. – callyalater Apr 7 '16 at 21:36
  • @user3169 They have since returned to speaking Spanish. My illustration is not representative of their current state. – Hatchet Apr 7 '16 at 22:19
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    One factor in this specific scenario could be the kind of vocabulary they learned. If your friend left as a teenager, then he may know child words and not adult words, even if he knows the same number of words as his parents. I don't have a citation but I remember reading about this in memoirs of people who'd emigrated as children or teenagers. – Gilles Apr 9 '16 at 14:11
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    This question uses the term "fluency" (basically smoothness of language use), but isn't it rather about proficiency (the level you have)? – Christophe Strobbe Dec 2 '16 at 14:31
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    @ChristopheStrobbe Either or. Since fluency and proficiency are closely related (in meaning), I'd imagine they both deteriorate in a similar manner, so I don't think the answer to this question as it stands would differ very greatly from the same question, but about proficiency. In my example, my friend lost both ease of use and mastery. – Hatchet Dec 3 '16 at 0:42

In language acquisition a language is always retained. The problem is that it is not always readily accessible. There are many documented examples of people learning a language and not using it for years or decades until they need to use it again due to a change in circumstances.

It is the context that shapes the need to continue the use or disuse of a language. The language will normally come back if it is needed again.

  • This does not answer the question. – Tommi Brander Nov 16 '18 at 12:07

I can't put together a real answer now, but my guess is that the relevant factor here is not so much L1 vs L2 as the age of the learner. It's well known that age affects how people learn languages; even though the most familiar example of this is that learners who start young have a greater likelihood of eventually acquiring "native-like" accents or grammar, older speakers have usually been found to show faster acquisition of a foreign language. (To give an extreme example, an adult will obviously be able to learn how to communicate in a foreign language more quickly than an infant.)

If your friend was only around 10 years old when he stopped speaking Spanish (I'm not sure if I understood that correctly?) then he wouldn't have been very old during any of the time period when he was learning Spanish.

I would guess that if your friend had continued to use and learn Spanish in a Spanish-speaking environment until he reached the age that his parents were when they left, his Spanish skills would not have deteriorated at a faster rate than his parents' did when they stopped using Spanish.

This paper may be relevant: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/324517831_Age_effects_on_language_acquisition_retention_and_loss_Key_hypotheses_and_findings

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