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Regressing to first language

My mother-in-law (pre-diagnosis for probable dementia) now quite regularly starts sentences in her first language of Italian, despite living in England for 45 years. When I ask her to say it in English, she finds it very difficult to translate and just repeats in Italian. This is mainly when she is tired or anxious. She has no problem understanding English when it is spoken to her. Has anyone got any experience of this, or anything which might help? I know this is only going to get worse, and although she understands English perfectly well, I'm worried about a time when she can only answer or start conversations in Italian and I won't know what she's trying to tell me. Taking Italian lessons or moving to Italy are the only solutions I can think of at the moment!

4 Replies

Hi again, Just a thought when posting, that it may help to add to your existing post, rather than start a new conversation, as this is still about your mum's situation, and will help provide some continuity for us to follow. :-)

I do encourage you to follow up in contacting the Alzeihmer's Society as I previously suggested, as they are the experts, and best placed to advise. I'm sure this situation over reverting to first language won't be a surprise to them. Do record all of these issues, in order to raise them with not only her GP but the psychiatrist and OH and other relevant professional parties. Remember that this is an anonymous online forum and the opinions expressed on here, though helpful and similar in experience, are personal opinions, and no substitute for professional healthcare support.

I do empathise with your increasingly frustrating situation, I really don't know how to advise regarding whether to learn Italian. What a tricky situation to be in! Does your mum have any close family or friends who can speak Italian, and possibly interpret for you. Possibly explaining in her first language, you may be able to allay some of her fears and explain why you think she needs extra support.

Take care,

Best Wishes.

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Thanks MAS_Nurse :) As we are just starting with the diagnosis I just wanted to hear from others about their experiences, as I'm expecting diagnosis will take some time, but the issues are here now! I will certainly raise all the issues with the professionals and contact the Alzeihmer's society. She doesn't seem interested in keeping in contact with friends at the moment, probably depression or dementia related. There is some extended family who are Italian speakers in the area but not close, but might be a good idea to try more complex conversations in Italian with their help. Thanks! :)


Sarah_S Based on my own experience with a foreign language, it seems that people do not have complete control over their use of language. I say this based on my own experience. I am an American who native language is American English. However, when writing English, when I'm not sure of the correct grammatical construction of a sentence, my mind automatically translates it into correct French and back into correct English. I find this strange because the last time I spoke French was in high school in 1948. Perhaps you can try repeating simple English nouns like "table" to your mother. Maybe she will repeat them. I wish you the best in your efforts.

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Thanks for your reply jaykay, what odd things our brains do! Just shows what a complex organ it is and how many different ways it can go wrong. I think when she is by herself for long periods with no interaction, she defaults to thinking in Italian. My feeling is that just more verbal interaction in general would help. I'm exploring ways to get her out of the house during the day or to have more visitors.


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