Can your first language change as an adult?

The first time I had an argument (and won!) in my second language, I knew I had achieved something great. Before that moment, my first language would pop out of my mouth when I least expected it, surprising both my partner and myself. Flash forward four years later, and my brain and body were so immersed in the language that I would have to think about how to say something in what was supposed to be my first language.

My words, my thoughts, my reactions, my behavior — everything about me reflected that language and culture. Without realizing it, my brain has decided that my second language was more important than my first for survival. After 10 years, my “first” language felt more foreign to me than what was supposed to be my “second” language. Could my second language have replaced my first?

From that moment, I knew it was possible to become bilingual/bicultural as an adult, but a special set of conditions were required. A person needed to have ample cognitive flexibility to take in completely new kinds of information, ample cognitive adaptability to adjust to a completely new environment, and the awareness that their ability to survive and thrive depended on this switch. When these conditions were met, the switch could occur. This understanding of cognition and language changed my life, and it is my hope that more people can be made aware of the brain’s amazing ability to change and adapt to its environment.

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