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Losing your English: ‘Reverting’ to your mother tongue as dementia progresses

Dementia can affect how well a bilingual person can communicate in their second language. Read our advice for a reader whose father is losing his English language.

Read this story in Welsh

‘My father’s dementia means he’s been losing his English language, which he learned as an adult, and only speaking or understanding his mother tongue.’

Dementia may have unexpected effects for people who speak more than one language, and an increasing number of people in the UK learned English or Welsh as a second or later language.

On the whole, speaking more than one language can delay many symptoms of dementia. Being bilingual means that your father could have built up more ‘cognitive reserve’ than those of us who speak only one language, making his brain more resilient to changes as his dementia initially developed.

However, people do experience changes in language as dementia progresses, and this includes multilingual people.

Lasting familiarity

Even someone who has spoken a second language for years might start to drop in words from their mother tongue, perhaps unknowingly. Over time, the language that’s less familiar and not so deeply embedded tends to be lost first. This is often the language that's been learned later on.

As with your father, this could mean that a person eventually finds it difficult to communicate in one language while still being able to do so in another. The impact of losing the ability to communicate in the language that most people around you speak can be severe.

As long as you have some people around who understand your mother tongue, you can still tell them about practicalities such as what you’d like to eat or do. Importantly, you can also share your thoughts and feelings.

Language is a fundamental part of our human experience. If no one around you understands your remaining language, you may begin to feel isolated, lonely, confused, frustrated or depressed.

Tips: communicating with someone with dementia

Includes advice on communication that doesn’t rely on words.

Find out more

Strategies to help

The most obvious way to keep communication going is to ensure there are people around your father who can speak his first language, though how easy this is depends on where he is.

There may be times when an interpreter, in person or over the phone, could help your father to communicate. It’s worth asking for this from services, especially for appointments and conversations that affect his care. If your father reads in his first language, there might be translated materials to help him understand a situation and make informed decisions. Some people find technological solutions useful, such as translation apps on mobile devices.

Maximising communication that doesn’t rely on words, such as facial expressions, hand and body gestures, pictures and symbols, can also help. Any communication that allows the person to express themselves is precious and can have a big effect on their wellbeing.

Dementia together magazine: June/July 19

Dementia together magazine is for everyone in the dementia movement and anyone affected by the condition.
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Dementia together magazine is for everyone in the dementia movement and anyone affected by the condition.
Subscribe now