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