BLOG by Edwin Borg-Manché | Bilingual migrants return to their first language as they grow older, which means anything from 60 years upwards, but especially 75 years and over. This linguistic phenomenon is known as language reversion.
Essentially, what this means for Maltese migrants in Australia is that the older they get, the more likely they will revert to speaking Maltese, their first language, in preference to English. The precise reasons for this change have not been finally determined and form the subject of ongoing research studies.
One of the more serious implications of this phenomenon is that it can lead to social isolation and even depression, if one does not live in an environment in which one can speak to others in their first language and experience the culture that goes with it.
Just over two years ago while visiting Australia, Professor Keijzer was interviewed about her studies as a special guest on the discontinued Lingua Franca program on ABC Radio National. Her studies build on those by Kees de Bot, professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands and Australian linguist, the late Professor Michael Clyne of Monash University. In a longitudinal study these two professors tested German and Dutch immigrants in Australia and observed to their surprise that, instead of becoming worse with time in their first language (Dutch and German), at a certain point the first language proficiency of these people improved again, something that the researchers had not expected.
Professor Keijzer explains that bilingual migrants return to their first language as they grow older (from 60 years upwards, but especially 75 years and over). At the same time, they would also see the second language, English in this case, getting worse at the same time, even though they might have not used their first language for decades and actually used their second language, English, throughout their adult lives.
Through her research, Professor Keijzer has been able to apply important insights gained in how the brain works via cognitive science in order to confirm that language reversion does actually occur. She has been focusing on why language reversion occurs in older people, which she describes as “the biggest question of all”. She says that there could be all sorts of reasons for it and they could relate to each other, and that makes the task that much harder.
Language suppression mechanism
In bilingual people, rather than switching between one language and the other, both languages are actually activated in the brain all the time and, when one language is being used, the other is actively being suppressed or inhibited.
Professor Keijzer explains the implications of this phenomenon on ageing people. She says that what goes on is brain training, unconsciously, that bilingual people have done throughout their lives. One of the things that occurs in order to switch between two languages or to use one language and try to suppress the other is the use of effective inhibition mechanisms. These mechanisms are stored in the prefrontal lobes of the brain, which in early bilingual people, that is, people who grew up with two languages from birth or from a very early age onwards, tend to be very well developed.
Unfortunately one’s control over what one concentrates on and the ability to inhibit one’s response to certain things, diminishes as one gets older due to the natural biological ageing process.
Professor Keijzer explains: “White matter decreases as you get a little bit older, so your frontal lobe is actually one of the brain regions that truly deteriorates or tends to deteriorate as people age. So for bilinguals it would also mean that inhibition mechanisms suffer. That also means that they tend to find it more difficult to separate the two language systems. So whereas, in the past, they were very good at trying to suppress one language as they were using the other, when they get a little bit old they might find that more and more problematic. And it might not even be a conscious process. For instance, anecdotally, [their] children … might say [to them], ‘Oh, you’re speaking in this language again, your first language!’ and they hadn’t even noticed. So it does tend to just happen without people consciously being aware of it.”
Not necessarily a language issue
At face value, language reversion appears to be language issue: as one language becomes stronger, the other one becomes weaker. However, Prof Kreijzer believes that it could well be that it is not so much a language issue but simply a matter finding it more difficult to separate one’s dual language systems. The first language would still be the stronger or dominant language because it seems to be more ingrained in the brain. The language
that was first learnt seems to be most resilient to loss. So, in her view, it might well be that, if you find it more difficult to separate your two language systems, the fallback option would be to use one’s first and still stronger language.
Prof Kreijzer agrees that the characteristics of this language reversion phenomenon hold true for whatever languages are being used. The effect might be stronger or less strong for some other languages, but she thinks it is a universal thing.
Language reversion and social isolation
In her interview Professor Keijzer referred to research studies that came to the conclusion that, when migrants reach a certain age, they tend to become a little bit isolated because their greater wish is to return to, not just their mother language, but also the culture that comes with it. If these language and culture needs are not provided for in their adopted country, it could actually lead to depression. But where these needs are catered for, in the sense that these ageing migrants live in an environment where they can speak their first language again and come into contact with people who speak that first language as well, they age more happily than people who do not.
Professor Keijzer clarifies that most of these studies relate to psychology and also pathological cases, that is, people suffering from dementia or people suffering from any degenerative disease, like Alzheimer’s, who reach a certain age because sometimes one sees a lot of aggression in these people, but,
if they have their own culture to hang onto it seems that these problems are not felt so much.
[Reproduced from MCCV News, No 124 – March-April 2014]