Why am I forgetting my English?
Thursday, 21 April 2022
Ever wonder why you sometimes can’t recall words or have started wording things weirdly in English? So have I! And, don’t panic, you’re not forgetting your English. Let’s dive together into the lesser-known linguistic field of first language attrition and how this affects us as language learners.
I wonder if any of you have had similar linguistic experiences to me recently: struggling to recall an English word, wording things a bit strangely, or even full-on dropping a phrase from your second language into your English! Sometimes these little interactions between our languages can catch us off guard - I often am left confused when I’m at a train station and my brain is only telling me that I need “voie deux” instead of “platform two”! Well, there’s no need to panic. There’s a fairly straightforward explanation for this. It is related to something called language attrition.
Language attrition is a lesser-known and somewhat understudied area of linguistics that is concerned with decrease in language performance, whether first language (L1) or second language (L2). It can affect several layers of your L1, the main ones being your phonology, lexicon, and grammar. Let’s take a quick look at each of these categories.
In simplified terms, this is our use and understanding of accents and groups of sounds within a language. When your L1 is attrited, you may start using some non-native-like pronunciation and may struggle to distinguish certain sounds and foreign accents.
There are many effects in this area as it is the most susceptible to attrition: a slow-down in recalling words, more pauses, repetitions, hesitations, self-corrections, and sometimes an impoverished lexical diversity.
The grammar of your L2 can sometimes intrude on how you speak in your L1, especially in cases where the area of grammar is simpler or shorter in your L2. Similarly, though not strictly grammatical, there may also be times where you’ve picked up a useful turn of phrase in your L2 that has no equivalent in English, and upon finding yourself in a situation where you would use that phrase, you find yourself at a loss of what to say.
So, this rather begs the question of why this all happens.
On a small scale, when there are two words (or more!) for one meaning in your head, the one that is currently being used the most and deemed to be more important by your brain is the one that will come to you first. This is called activation. In my earlier example, the reason I often forget “platform” is because I’m in Paris train stations a lot nowadays. My brain uses and sees the word “voie” far more often than the word “platform”. So whenever I need to use the English word, it takes my brain longer to find it.
On a more general scale, the cause is, unsurprisingly, a decrease in L1 use, which can certainly stem from increased use of your L2 (such as when you live abroad in a country that speaks your L2…sound familiar?). However, it is quite difficult to quantify how much each language is being used, so it’s difficult for researchers to actually chart this cause and effect. An alternative (and more quantifiable) hypothesis is that an increase in code-switching (which is the linguistic term for swapping languages in the middle of an utterance) can significantly contribute to the rate of L1 attrition. This is because it causes both languages to be activated at the same time, causing them to further intersect and interact in your brain.
So, what is the takeaway from this? (Other than learning a nifty little bit of linguistics…) Personally, every time I experience these little moments of difficulty in English, I take it as a sign that my French has greatly improved over my year abroad and that I’m being truly immersed in the language! It can also be really cool to think about how your brain is dealing with having several languages at its disposal. Because it is true that your bilingual or polylingual brain is pretty cool!
If you want a slightly more comprehensive overview of first language attrition, check out the short video below!
● Francis, N. (2005) ‘Research Findings on Early First Language Attrition: Implications for the Discussion on Critical Periods in Language Acquisition’, Language learning
● Gallo, F. et al. (2021) ‘First Language Attrition: What It Is, What It Isn’t, and What It Can Be’, Frontiers in human neuroscience
Being a bilingual family (French mother and British father,) living in France I thought your article was extremely interesting . Have you research on bilingualism ? It seems that when the mother is British and the father French and they both live in France their children seem to be more bilingual than when the mother is French and the father is British . This is what we called mother tongue , isn't it ?