War happens when words no longer work. Yet war is declared at the very point when words are at their most powerful. It’s an odd kind of paradox. In a time of war, the familiar words of your own language can become even more significant, as language is linked to the idea of home. For those caught in the conflict, far from home, severing that link can be confronting. The bleak experience of solitary prisoners of war, left forgotten for years, can show how captivity, isolation and exile can cause profound and poignant language loss.

The language I have learn’d these forty years,
My native English, now I must forego:
[…]
I am too old to fawn upon a nurse,
Too far in years to be a pupil now:
What is thy sentence then but speechless death,
Which robs my tongue from breathing native breath?

Thus speaks Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, in Shakespeare’s Richard II. His very first fear upon learning of his banishment and exile? Never being able to speak his native language again. The fear is a real one.

What if you could no longer use your own language? If you were alone, imprisoned, and had no support from fellow refugees who spoke your language? Linguistic isolation as a punishment has a lasting psychological impact.

We’re social creatures, and as a kind of “solitary linguistic confinement“, having no one to talk to can be as mentally devastating and lonely as physical isolation from human contact. Consider the story reported by Peter Jay Honigsberg, of an innocent 16 year old boy taken from Afghanistan, who spent 8 years in Guantanamo Bay even after being quickly cleared of all wrongdoing, because no country would accept him. While all the other prisoners around him spoke English or Arabic, he only spoke Uzbek. He had no materials or support to learn other languages, nor an ongoing translator. For most of his time there, he could speak to no one meaningfully, and every morning he would wake up crying from severe loneliness.

Honigsberg argues that linguistic isolation in these conditions is akin to physical solitary confinement. There’s a reason solitary confinement is seen as the worst kind of punishment – it is inhuman. Even short periods of extreme isolation can have a profound effect on a prisoner’s mental health. Prevented from speaking your mother tongue under unbearable conditions such as this, in order to adapt and survive, what happens to your language? Do you lose it, if you can no longer use it? Can it really be possible to forget your native language?

As human beings, we need social contact with people, expressing ourselves through a language that we share, in a community we belong to. Our native language is so tightly bound to our concepts of national and personal identity. Even under the extreme trauma of war and imprisonment we might suppose that it would be impossible to lose your mother tongue. The very idea is unthinkable. How can you forget something that is so ingrained in the very definition of who you are?

For exiles, retaining their language can be the single most important connection to a homeland. To lose this linguistic link means not only losing a core part of your identity, but worse – you risk further ostracization from your own people in that place you call home.

Bowe Bergdahl, the recently released American prisoner of war held captive in Afghanistan, was reported to have had “trouble speaking English” when he returned home. At the time many responded incredulously to this news: could he really have forgotten his native language in just five years of captivity, after having spoken it for twenty-three years? What’s interesting is the implied shame that was read into his loss of language and its replacement with Pashto, the language of his captors. Though his English has since recovered, some critics took an extreme view that Bergdahl’s initial problems using his native language was tantamount to disloyalty and a sign of his anti-Americanism. Other American prisoners of war, it was argued, did not return home lacking the ability to speak their own mother tongue.

So how is it that some, such as John McCain who was also imprisoned for years, could remain resilient against first language loss, while for other prisoners, adapting to a hostile environment meant that their first language was adversely affected? Trauma doesn’t affect everyone equally. There are different ways of coping, and adopting the language of the people that surround you, in order to survive, is one. Learning this new language can have an unexpected effect on your native language.

It turns out that language attrition (the term for language decay), can start occurring even in ordinary second language learning. Language classes and immersion environments aren’t particularly traumatic (although nervous learners might think otherwise). Yet it’s well-documented that first language attrition can arise the more a learner is immersed in a second language. Benjamin J. Levy et al., showed that word retrieval for a first language gradually becomes more inhibited as the second language is practiced more frequently. It has to do with how we store and retrieve words. In essence, the second language starts pushing out the first in this huge cognitive task of memory retrieval. Adept bilingual speakers can cognitively compartmentalize or code-switch to keep both languages active but for many learners, taking on a new language can often be at the expense of the native fluency of another. This is more likely to happen if learners are unaware of this possibility, so the unexpected attrition can often be a source of shame and confusion. It can provoke negative reactions, as many assume your fluency reflects your connection to your national identity. In effect, forgetting your first language is a betrayal of who you are.

It’s important to realize that language attrition can happen on many levels. It’s one thing to struggle to remember certain words. It’s quite another to forget how to use your first language so completely that you need a translator. Most people might assume language attrition means no longer being natively fluent in your own language. Can this be possible?

 

Yes, there are in fact plenty of documented cases of people losing their first language completely by switching over to a new language. But this happens mostly to speakers who learn a second language as children, before puberty. The younger they acquire it, the closer those speakers will be to native speakers — as if they’d had no exposure to their first language at all.

By contrast, a first language tends to be pretty resilient if it’s used through adulthood. It’s much rarer for adults to undergo extreme first language attrition — but it does happen. In cases of forced linguistic isolation, such as for prisoners of war or refugees, it’s hard to measure how much trauma can play a part in hastening language attrition. Studies have shown that a negative view of a language from personal tragedy or persecution can play a strong part in more extreme language loss. For example, some German Jewish immigrants reportedly developed an aversion to German after the second world war, which may have an impact on language loss. But first language attrition can still occur despite a deep connection to a language, place and people.

When Toshimasa Meguro finally returned home to Japan after 53 years as an exiled prisoner of war in Siberia, he spoke in Russian, having forgotten most of his Japanese. Though his wife and children were Russian, he never lost his attachment to Japan, which makes it all the more surprising that he should have lost his native language. In a similarly horrific, Kafkaesque nightmare, the last Japanese POW in Kazakhstan, Tetsuro Ahiko, had spent 60 years away from home due to an unfortunate transliteration error in his name, shunted from place to place, long after many of his comrades had been repatriated. Despite a strong longing for his homeland, he’d so completely forgotten his Japanese that he needed a translator. There are a handful of such cases, where exiles, far from home, may have retained the ghostly memory of a few words in their first language but are otherwise unable to function as native speakers in it. Are these cases of ‘use it or lost it’?

If a speaker can regain fluency in their first language faster than a novice of the language, even after unbearable linguistic isolation, it suggests the first language is not really lost, merely dormant. There are certainly anecdotal cases of immigrant speakers who have not spoken their first language for many years — yet still remain fluent.

Then there’s the extraordinarily tragic case of András Toma. A forgotten prisoner of war, he was left to languish in a Russian psychiatric hospital from 1947, where he could not talk to anyone. Russian officials had decided he must be mentally ill for speaking an unknown, invented gibberish. This ‘gibberish’ language was finally discovered to be Hungarian, when a Hungarian speaking doctor came across him by chance in 1997, after an astonishing 55 years of captivity. (Hungarian, of course, is in the separate Finno-Ugric language family and to many speakers of Indo-European languages, it might seem like an unfamiliar alien language). The long years of imprisonment in a mental facility had impaired Toma’s social understanding until he was nearly autistic. Though silent at first, he eventually began speaking Hungarian, even if it was often out of context. He had not lost his first language even after years of disuse, perhaps because there was nothing to replace it.

 

So a first language can be impaired by immersion in a second language, but can it truly be lost? It’s hard to say. Vestiges of a native language may always persist in memory despite long disuse. But for many of those experiencing the horrors of linguistic isolation and exile, perhaps the key to survival is to forget the language of a land they may never return to.

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