My Forgotten Language

How the brain can lose — and reclaim — an abandoned mother tongue.


I don’t remember my first language anymore, or at least not most of it. When I was 2, I immigrated with my family into the United States from South India, and we all spoke Tamil. I didn’t know any English before I started school, so when my teachers noticed I was behind, my parents decided to stop speaking to me in Tamil. This was a common approach in the 1980s. Now, educators are more aware of the value of bilingualism.

I haven’t completely lost my connection to it. I still hear my parents using it all the time. I can watch and get the gist of a Tamil movie or newscast. I can understand my Tamil-speaking relatives and respond to them in English. Talking, though, remains impossible.

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