How and why learning a new language messes with your old one

Many people report forgetting words or phrases from their native language when they learn a second language. The Local explored this linguistic phenomenon, known as first-language attrition.

How and why learning a new language messes with your old one
Photo: Oleksii.Didok/Depositphotos

If you’ve learned a new language as a ‘grown up’, you may have experienced a troubling side effect. All of a sudden, you struggle to remember words or phrases you’ve known your entire life.

Even in the early stages of second-language learning, your native language can begin to feel somewhat rusty. This phenomenon, known as first-language attrition, leaves you scraping around to find words that you have known for decades and often used.

American lawyer Dan McNamee has firsthand experience of first-language attrition. Although he doesn’t yet describe himself as fluent in French, Dan says he still feels as though he’s “lost” some of his English.

“I’m certainly not so fluent in French that I’ve learned words I didn’t know in English. It just seems to be a thing where my brain has been taken up with French and I have a smaller English vocab!”

Dan isn’t alone in his experience. Research has shown that language attrition is common and reported by many expats when they leave their native-language environment.

Photo: Dan McNamee

If you're learning a language while living abroad, using a magazine reader app like Readly to read magazines and newspapers from ‘back home’ is one way to stay up to speed with your mother tongue. Another way is simply to speak to someone in your native language, suggests Francisco De Lacerda, Head of Linguistics at Stockholm University.

Sign up to Readly to read your favourite newspapers and magazines in your native language (and any others you speak!)

Language attrition is so common, he says, that he has experienced it himself. But what causes it? Is the new language really pushing the old one out of your head?

De Lacerda explains that languages are learned contextually. Your native language, which you pick up as an infant, is acquired in a multi-sensory context. It’s a theory known as distinctiveness and means that words are absorbed in a rich situation, such as learning the word ‘lunch’ at a certain time of day while sitting down at the table. These words and expressions become so ingrained that we use them instinctively. So it's less a case of thinking before you speak and rather thinking as you speak.

“You associate words and expressions with things that are around you and that you want to describe. When you learn a second language or a language in adulthood, what you are doing is essentially trying to find equivalent expressions that you can initiate in a spontaneous way. And that takes the place of the thing you have learned before.”

You could say that the second language is attempting to usurp your mother tongue in an act of self-preservation. The languages are battling it out in your head to find the right word for that particular social context.

The good news, says De Lacerda, is that you never really lose your native language. It’s so integrated that it should flood back as soon as you are in the corresponding context.

More than a language barrier

Language attrition isn’t necessarily reserved for your native language.

Dan has been learning to parler français for several years now but this isn’t his first foray into language learning. He studied German at university and was comfortably conversational — until he began to learn French.

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“I joke that I’ve only got room in my brain for 1.75 languages,” he tells The Local. “I very quickly lost any German I had. It’s like every French word I learned kicked a German word out of my head! My German is embarrassing now, I can’t remember any of it at all.”

Fiona Dale Acosta, of British-Mexican parentage, grew up in a Spanish-English bilingual household. She later threw French into the mix, studying it alongside Spanish at university.

Photo: Fiona Dale Acosta

Fiona, who is currently working as a wedding planner in Mexico, says that while she was studying she would often struggle to recall words in all three languages. So much so that it became a running joke between her and her friends.

“I couldn’t get sentences out properly!” she laughs.

She says that her mum, who is Mexican but has lived in England for the past 20 years, has also experienced language attrition. When the two speak in Spanish, Fiona’s mum often asks her what certain words mean as she doesn’t know them or has forgotten them.

Living in Mexico for the last seven months, Fiona notes feeling just as removed from her native culture as she does from her native language.

“It’s about content as much as the language,” she tells The Local. “Being abroad, you can feel quite out of touch with what’s going on in the country, never mind the language.”

This is common among expats and is something that can be helped by reading current magazines and newspapers from your home country, says De Lacerda.

Sign up to Readly and get unlimited access to newspapers and magazines for one small fixed price a month

“Reading helps when you have been away from your native environment for a long time — when you don’t have daily contact with newspapers and magazines. Languages are changing all the time and you tend to fall behind on new ways of using words.”

It also helps you to keep up with current events so you’re not too out of touch if you do decide to repatriate. Otherwise, he says, you run the risk of sounding like you’ve just woken up after spending years in a cryogenic freezing chamber.

“It’s very frustrating because if you make a joke, people from your generation might understand you, but no-one else will!”

Readly is the ultimate magazine subscription with the best magazines from around the world all in one app. A subscription to Readly gives you unlimited access to more than 4,000 titles for a small monthly fee with no additional cost (and you can cancel anytime). You can download magazines for offline reading without an internet connection (for example, when travelling) and share with family on up to five devices.

This article was produced by The Local Creative Studio and sponsored by Readly.



‘It’s a grieving process’: The difficulties of moving home from Europe

The pandemic and travel restrictions have caused many people to question their residency abroad. But the decision whether to stay or go, as well as the process of returning home is not an easy one, as Emma Firth explains.

'It's a grieving process': The difficulties of moving home from Europe
Departures sign at Roissy Charles-de-Gaulle airport. KENZO TRIBOUILLARD / AFP

It’s a grey day in the middle of British winter and I’m standing in a playground overlooking rows of Victorian terraced houses. I hear middle-class English accents all around me, as parents eagerly tend to their children who are dressed in anything from a school t-shirt and leggings to waterproof suits.

I imagine the scene, on this day, at this time across the North Sea in Copenhagen. What would it look like, what would it sound like, why do I feel so different standing here?

Nyhavn, Copenhagen. Photo: AFP

It’s been six months since my young family and I moved back to Sheffield, England after three and a half years in Copenhagen. It has been a strange and difficult process, not helped by the restrictions of a pandemic and various lockdowns but also because I never expected moving “home” to be hard.

When we relocated to Denmark in 2017, there were many hurdles to overcome as we learnt about a new country, culture and language through mistakes and perseverance. But behind it all was the thrill of uncovering each layer of our new home and the reward of a constant learning process in even the most mundane of tasks. 

Discovering how to use the communal washing machines when you didn’t know what setting to use; trying to make yourself understood at the supermarket when looking for the unpronounceable ‘grød’, (porridge) later realising it’s sold as 'havregryn' (oats); waiting to be served at the chemist without realising you need a ticket.

And then you are home. None of these hurdles exist because you know it all. Plain sailing, you would think. But jarring against that sense of familiarity is the realisation that you’ve changed. Everything feels the same, except you.

“This is not talked about enough,” says Dr. Melissa Parks, a coach for expats and global nomads. “Moving home can be more challenging than the move abroad because you think it’s a comfy process and like home.

“You need to think of it as a new place. Be prepared to feel discomfort, to feel out of place.”

Almost two years ago Melissa returned to her hometown of Seattle after ten years living in Spain and the Netherlands.

“When we left Amsterdam I remember crying out of nowhere. Even if you have all the tools in the world you can’t make it pain free. For me it was helpful knowing the emotional rollercoaster was normal and being my own cheerleader through it all, but it was still really hard.”

Dr. Parks refers to it as a grieving process and says it can take around 18 months before feeling at home again. I gulp as she says this.

She adds, “a natural reaction can be, ’what can I do to fix this? What can I do to get rid of this feeling?’ But you have to give yourself time to go through the grieving process.”

It turns out that making direct comparisons and questioning the decision, as I have done on many occasions, is really quite unhelpful.

“It’s easy to fall into a trap of comparing,” says Katherine, who writes the blog ‘Bad Days Abroad’ and helps internationals contemplating a move.

“Some of the struggles I hear come from people’s false expectations. But not expecting it to be as you remember it – even feeling the same way – will help.

“And don’t get upset when your home friends and family can’t relate to your struggles. It’s important to connect with other internationals who can understand what you’re going through.”

Making the decision

For Danielle, who has lived in Copenhagen for the last ten years, the dilemma about whether to move home to England was an agonising one.

Eighteen months ago, she and her now ex husband set up the logistics to move back to be close to family. They got places at the local school for their children and paid £8000 to secure a rental property, with the aim of later buying.

“We’d invested everything into the move and we were ready to go, but it suddenly just felt so wrong in our stomachs.”

While visiting the area to sort out furniture, they decided to pull the plug, one month before moving day. It meant losing the £8000.

“It just didn’t feel like we could belong there again. Even though there was that huge pull of being close to family, we ended up making a big U-turn and chose Denmark for its quality of life, well being, opportunities for the kids, and mindset of the people.”

Gråbrødretorv, Copenhagen, April 2020. Thibault Savary / AFP

Luckily, Danielle hadn’t formally left her job or sold the Copenhagen apartment, so the reverse decision was possible and it helped the family commit to Denmark longer-term.

But it hasn't left her completely free of the dilemma, especially while visiting home is off the agenda with current travel restrictions.

“I’ve been struggling with the fact that my choice to stay maybe creates more distance and erodes the closeness I have with my family over time, although we have maintained good contact so far. But this year has been incredibly cruel with the tragic death of my cousin and then my Nan and not being able to attend their funerals or be there with my family. 

“The distance is made ten times worse with the pandemic. I would otherwise be travelling back every six weeks because I’m a teacher and can do that.”

Living between two cultures

The idea of being able to live between two countries is helpful for many internationals, whether they decide to stay or go home and it’s something that is temporarily on pause due to the pandemic.

When author Jayne Tuttle returned home to Australia in 2014, after ten years living in France, she was back in Paris six months later. With the exception of last year, she has kept up the pattern of returning for long stints ever since.

“Somehow along the way I made peace with the fact that our life as a family would exist between two countries. That stopped the agony of feeling ripped away from the place I love most. After all, it’s just a place.

“I read in French, listen to French, dream in French. Just as in Paris in the later years I accepted my Australianness and stopped trying to act French, in Australia I keep my little French person close to me.

“I don’t care any more that I don’t quite fit into either culture, which used to plague me. Just as I love the abstract world between the two languages, I love the strange world between the two cultures.”

People wonder through the narrow streets of the Montmartre district of Paris on October 6, 2017. Photo: AFP

That acceptance, of being between different cultures, seems to be the crux to finding peace with where you’re at, either abroad or having returned home. Danielle refers to it as an “agony” she has learnt to live with. Dr. Parks calls it “being a triangle”.

“You’re not a square like the people in the country you’ve come from, you’re not a circle like those in your home country; you’re a triangle. So find your other triangles.”

There is an online community called ‘I am a Triangle’ for this very reason.

The ‘Danes in Sheffield’ group are my triangles it seems. Meeting with them, albeit at a distance, has helped connect the language and culture I’ve just left, to the new yet familiar one I now face.

Leaving a country is a difficult and sad process but this is completely normal and also, completely fine, because with it, comes so much more.

You now inhabit a new culture, a new network, perhaps a new language that will enrich your life for years to come – especially once we can all travel again.