Losing a language – a war of attrition

Linguists describe the languages we’ve learnt from birth, and throughout our teenage years, as our native language, native tongue or mother tongue. You have probably heard these expressions before, however in linguistics – the study of language – a person’s native language is referred to as L1. As we grow older, the languages learnt in school or in adulthood are deemed your second languages, imaginatively called L2. If you’re lucky to grow up in a bilingual household you can even have multiple native languages.

You’re not guaranteed to keep your mother tongue though, it’s possible for you to lose your native language. This phenomenon is called Language Attrition. Although language attrition can be used to describe the loss of an L2, it is often used in the context of native languages (L1). In simple terms, language attrition happens from a lack of continuous use of a language. This often happens to migrants; a result of their new environment requiring the use of their L2 on a daily basis – the TV, radio, newspapers, neighbours, street signs, even just going to the shop.

As you can imagine, language attrition can be quite frustrating for the speaker. For a start, they can begin to use the structural frameworks of their L2 – such as the syntax – consequently imposing them on their L1 grammar. As a result, forming sentences in their native language becomes unnatural and grammatically incorrect. During conversations it is possible to recognise errors allowing the speaker to correct themselves. However it becomes tricky when talking via a messaging app; there’s no way to delete your previous sentences once they’ve been sent.

Problems with word retrieval and sentence structures can potentially be disastrous, especially if you’re a translator or interpreter. Losing the ability to distinguish between grammatically correct and incorrect sentences in your native tongue will make it difficult to trust yourself, and your language ability, when you need it for your job. When interpreting you only have a finite amount of time to remember a word and you’re often unable to correct yourself. Interpreters are required to translate on the spot, leaving very little time between listening in one language before reproducing it in another.

How can this affect you fitting into a new environment? Well, trying to sound like a native speaker can be a tricky! Your mouth and tongue contain muscles which, when learning a new language, require retraining to produce the necessary sounds. Learning a second language can actually physically hinder your ability to speak your own native language. If you think about it, being unable to sound and form sentences like a true native speaker in your L1, while also not being able to fully sound and speak like a native speaker in your L2 must feel quite isolating.

Now, the all-important question: Is language attrition reversible? Well, there is a chance it could be.

Juliet B. Hubble-Weinhold observed her three children as part of a case study on language attrition in the early 2000s. They moved back and forth between the USA (L1 environment) and Switzerland (L2 environment). She noticed that her children had trouble with their English language skills in multiple areas, such as semantics and syntactic, after spending about 33 months in Switzerland. She found that 7 months after returning to the States, her children had “re-acquired” some of their English language skills. Unfortunately, the final results of her study only show the success rate of re-acquisition over the first 7 months, following their return to the US, while there is no mention if the children regained their full English language proficiency.

Language attrition is undoubtedly a complex phenomenon, one that linguistics love to study. But it’s not as simple as just losing your language. Language attrition can also cause the death of a language within a community, with speakers stopping the use of their L1 in favour of learning and using an L2. It can also affect younger children, older children and adults differently. This is because of the limitations of accessing Universal Grammar, which linguists often describe as the innate knowledge of language. So, rather than getting frustrated at people who don’t speak your language, instead keep it in mind that they’re probably just as frustrated as you.


Michelle Heinrich

(Image courtesy of MInd Fuel Daily)

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