How not to forget your mother tongue


Have you ever spent a protracted period of time in a foreign-language situation, and then realised that you’re starting to forget some elements of your own language? This phenomenon, known as native language attrition, is surprisingly common, yet it’s much less widely talked about and researched than its equal and opposite counterpart: foreign-language acquisition. 


One linguist that has been bucking the trend is Professor Monika S. Schmid, who has written and published widely on this topic, collating some of her output on the website languageattrition.org. According to Professor Schmid - herself a native German speaker who has experienced varying levels of native-language attrition while living in the Netherlands and England - language attrition occurs differently and to a different extent depending on physical factors such as age and cognitive function, and psychological factors such as traumatic situations associated with the first language and level of motivation to learn the new language.


The consensus seems to be that by the age of 12, our first language should be well enough rooted in our minds to stop us from truly forgetting it, yet it is very common for adult speakers to note a decline in their level of competence in their native language while living in foreign-language environments, brought about partly from a lack of exposure to fellow native speakers, and partly from the mental exertion of trying to become competent in the foreign language (and the resulting struggles to switch from one language to another). 


Common signs of first-language attrition include struggling to recall everyday vocabulary, using simpler grammar or structures which are more closely associated with the second language, reliance on incorrect collocations (such as ‘to make a holiday’), or hesitating more frequently, all of which can be very unsettling for the speaker. Indeed, many language attriters report feeling shame at forgetting parts of their dominant language, which can range from a sense of abandoning their culture and heritage to a fear of being perceived as less competent in professional situations that require a strong command of their native language. 


In addition to this, a lot of the advice surrounding the avoidance of language attrition tends to be counterintuitive. One of the biggest fallacies seems to be the idea that spending a lot of time around fellow native speakers can help to keep up our language skills, when indeed research has revealed the opposite to be true. One way in which native-language contact can actually hinder our ability to fluently use our native tongue is that it makes us less capable of switching between languages. Since successfully speaking in one of our languages means repressing the other(s), it stands to reason that if we aren’t regularly switching between the languages, the transition becomes harder.


Further to this, spending time around native speakers of our own language that also understand the host country’s language (as can be the case in immigrant or expat communities) means that there’s less incentive for us to choose the correct words as appropriate for each language, since the speakers around us are likely to understand words from either of the two languages. This can lead to some degree of code-switching, or even changing the direction of a language altogether. In research conducted by Laura Dominguez and discussed by BBC Future, for example, it was found that Spanish nationals living in the UK and interacting exclusively in English actually retained more of their language skills than Cubans living in Miami and interacting with Spanish speakers of various other countries of origin, who each picked up some of the other’s speech, creating a new international variety of the language which was different from the way it had originally been spoken in each country.


So if surrounding ourselves with native speakers is not necessarily the best way of helping ourselves, what else can we do? 


One important point to note is that thrusting ourselves into our second language can actually help us to manage the switch between languages better, through better training our mind to filter between one language and another. In this sense, our efforts to improve the new language can help not only our integration in a new country, but also the extent to which we can command or suppress the words from that language, depending on whom we’re speaking to, and all of this can help keep our native language separate in our minds.


But that’s not to say that we should isolate ourselves from our main language entirely. One of the most widely-reported challenges of those living outside of their original language community is the struggle to tell people back home about a completely different environment or set of experiences using a language that we might never previously have used in reference to those scenarios, and this is something which can particularly be the case for those who move abroad to either work or study, especially in a niche field. As the UK-based, Polish-born interpreter Sylvia Hoffman notes, how can you translate location-specific concepts like ‘landlord’ or ‘council tax’?


And the same scenario can of course be true when it comes to missing out on new developments in the way people are speaking in our country of origin. A good way of remedying this is to keep in touch with people from home, not only to maintain our personal connection to them, but to stay on top of colloquialisms and cultural references that we may be missing in our new location. Visiting home can also help in this sense, although that’s not necessarily always practical or even possible.


Given the importance of the cultural aspects of a language such as humour, this means that Netflix, local news from your home country and other online content can all be extremely useful in keeping you up to speed with the more nuanced aspects of a language, such as varying degrees of politeness and formality, and different forms of address for different people. Another good way of keeping in touch by culture is by reading works of literature in your own language - even if this just means twenty-first-century pulp fiction - so if you have a long list of books that you’ve always wanted to read in your language, now could be a good opportunity to finally make the time to get through some of them. 


You could also find creative ways of using your own language, like starting a blog or engaging in other types of writing, since not only is this a good way of processing your experiences in a new environment using the vocabulary of your home language, it’s also a means of maintaining a sense of personal identity while living in a foreign country, and keeping your loved ones and fellow native speakers up to speed with everything you’ve been doing. 


Lastly, it’s important not to be too hard on yourself and to recognise that difficulties in maintaining a good level of confidence in our own language aren’t a sign that we’ve diminished ourselves as people or turned our back on our family or culture. Rather, native language attrition is a reflection of our courageous efforts to operate across cultures, and is to some extent a part of the settling-in experience like any other. 


Have you lived abroad and felt yourself falter in your own language? Do you agree with the tips that we’ve listed, or do you have some alternative suggestions? We’d love to hear your experiences and comments. 



Laura Dominguez (quoted by Sophie Hardach in BBC Future article - Can you lose your native language?)



Sylvia Hoffman - Am I losing… my language?



Professor Monika S. Schmid - Language Attrition



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