Losing Your Language.

A very interesting BBC Future piece on language loss by Sophie Hardach:

“The minute you start learning another language, the two systems start to compete with each other,” says Monika Schmid, a linguist at the University of Essex.

Schmid is a leading researcher of language attrition, a growing field of research that looks at what makes us lose our mother tongue. In children, the phenomenon is somewhat easier to explain since their brains are generally more flexible and adaptable. Until the age of about 12, a person’s language skills are relatively vulnerable to change. Studies on international adoptees have found that even nine-year-olds can almost completely forget their first language when they are removed from their country of birth.

But in adults, the first language is unlikely to disappear entirely except in extreme circumstances.

For example, Schmid analysed the German of elderly German-Jewish wartime refugees in the UK and the US. The main factor that influenced their language skills wasn’t how long they had been abroad or how old they were when they left. It was how much trauma they had experienced as victims of Nazi persecution. Those who left Germany in the early days of the regime, before the worst atrocities, tended to speak better German – despite having been abroad the longest. Those who left later, after the 1938 pogrom known as Reichskristallnacht, tended to speak German with difficulty or not at all. […]

Such dramatic loss is an exception. In most migrants, the native language more or less coexists with the new language. How well that first language is maintained has a lot to do with innate talent: people who are generally good at languages tend to be better at preserving their mother tongue, regardless of how long they have been away.

But native fluency is also strongly linked to how we manage the different languages in our brain. “The fundamental difference between a monolingual and bilingual brain is that when you become bilingual, you have to add some kind of control module that allows you to switch,” Schmid says. […]

Mingling with other native speakers actually can make things worse, since there’s little incentive to stick to one language if you know that both will be understood. The result is often a linguistic hybrid.

There’s lots more good stuff there (like Cubans in Miami starting to speak more like Colombians or Mexicans), and I had personal experience with some of it, like losing my early Japanese when we left the country (though fortunately not with traumatic loss). Thanks, Trevor!

Comments

  1. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I guess it would be difficult to lose my English, even if I went to live in a very small and remote village in Cambodia. However, I’m conscious that I haven’t kept up with the evolution of the language. At a time when even young members of the Royal Family talk as if they are from Essex I still speak the way I did 30 years ago. My daughter, who picked up virtually all her English from me (and her Spanish from my wife: she realized at the age of 3 who was the proper model for which language) tended to speak like an adult when she was 5 or 6. Once an English young man at her work said that she spoke like his grandmother.

    My wife has a similar experience when she goes to Chile: she is conscious that she doesn’t speak like a modern Chilean and sometimes isn’t easily understood by taxi drivers etc. At present we know a lot of Spanish people, and she has picked up a lot of Spanish words: I haven’t heard her say vosotros, but plata is gradually giving way to dinero, and lindo to bonito.

    Until some occasion in about 1980 I thought one couldn’t lose one’s native language. At that time a Hungarian of my acquaintance who had moved from Hungary to Toronto in 1956 came on a visit, and, as it happened, the wife of a professor in our department was of Hungarian origin. She was impressed that he could converse in Hungarian. When afterwards I expressed my surprise at this observation he said he knew quite a few people in Toronto who had left Hungary in 1956 who were no longer able to converse in Hungarian.

  2. SFReader says:

    Another Kato Lomb quote:

    “The painter Philip de László moved to England in his youth and lived there till the end of his life. He married a distinguished English lady. He didn’t really seek the company of his compatriots… neither his wife nor his three sons ever learned Hungarian. Whenever he invited over any of his artist colleagues in London, such as our sculptor Mr. Strobl, he immediately apologized: he would speak English because he had completely forgotten his native tongue.
    One night, however, our Mr. Strobl was woken up by the knock of an elegant valet. Mrs. de László was summoning him, for her husband had suddenly taken ill and kept speaking in some unknown language; in vain he had been addressed in English, but still wouldn’t answer. The master sculptor hurried there but, unfortunately, arrived too late.
    His old friend wasn’t able to speak any more, not even in his native tongue, to which he found his way back after so many decades, in the hour of his death.”

  3. David Marjanović says:

    Losing specifically Hungarian? My dad did that when he was 5 and his family left the country. From his much later attempts to relearn it (all abandoned from lack of time) he says quite a bit actually came back – but still he has no concept of vowel length.

    To make a proper multigenerational saga out of it, I then lost his new native language when I was 2 (and had no more need or opportunity for it). I hadn’t grown a long-term memory yet, so I can’t remember having ever spoken or understood it, and nothing came back when I started learning Russian. Due to later exposure (mostly my dad talking on the telephone) I’m familiar with what it sounds like, and can’t remember having ever had a problem with the concept of syllabic /r/ which does not otherwise come naturally to German-speakers this far from Switzerland, but – although I noticed there’s a lot more intonation than in German – I never noticed the pitch-accent system at all and have learned the Mandarin tones from scratch like the native SAE speaker that I am. I’m also remarkably bad at alveolar [r] of any kind, which is surprising because I’m not fully incapable of it and because I can pronounce all sorts of sounds I had never imagined existed. Except voiced nonnasal clicks.

  4. minus273 says:

    he has no concept of vowel length

    Don’t the languages with pitch accent in the region (Štokavian, Slovenian and everything in between) all have contrastive length?

  5. David Marjanović says:

    That seems to be the point: length seems to be a fully integrated part of the pitch-accent system there, so maybe he can’t imagine one without the other?

    Personally I haven’t noticed the length either. Maybe it’s become part contour tones or something. However, the language does not sound like Polish, where all vowels really are short all the time except in the mild complaint chuuuuuj.

  6. David Eddyshaw says:

    I knew a Dutch Catholic priest who’d been in Ghana since before independence and could no longer speak Dutch (on the other hand, he was one of the probably single-figure number of Europeans ever who could speak fluent Kusaal; he used to preach sermons in it. Something’s gotta give …)

    I used as a student in the 1970’s to live downstairs from a Hungarian who had left in 1956 and lived in the UK ever since, and who couldn’t even manage everyday greetings in English. He lived in a world of other Hungarian refugees, who came by all the time to drink and argue and help him out with unavoidable interactions with the natives. We communicated largely by playing Nine-Men’s-Morris, at which he always beat me.

    On the basis of the comments above, I now understand that he had wisely adopted the only strategy guaranteed to avoid him losing his command of Hungarian.

  7. David Eddyshaw says:

    Reminds me of the ancient proverb: “A Hungarian is someone who can enter a revolving door behind you and come out in front of you.”

  8. marie-lucie says:

    Athel: My daughter, who picked up virtually all her English from me (and her Spanish from my wife: she realized at the age of 3 who was the proper model for which language) tended to speak like an adult when she was 5 or 6.

    Until she was 4 years old my own daughter picked up all her French from me and her English from her American father. When she was about 2 years old, friends who knew some French sometimes addressed her in French. She would look up at them with an indignant look and say “My mommy say that” (seeming to imply “How do you dare to impersonate my mommy?”). Around that time, my mother came to visit us for the first time, so my daughter had to get used to the fact that her mommy was not the only one with that peculiar way of speaking. A few years later I took her to France to meet the rest of my family, and she played a lot with French children. Her French vocabulary and syntax became more mature, but she was sometimes upset that I had not “taught her” words from current children’s slang, which of course I had never had the opportunity to learn.

  9. ancient proverb: “… revolving door …”

    Oh? How ancient are revolving doors? Is it possibe the ancient version of the proverb was about something else?

  10. a linguist at the University of Essex […] At a time when even young members of the Royal Family talk as if they are from Essex […]

    The men all looked up as we came into the room, my mate leading me by the hand, and he called out in his rough, good-tempered voice, “Here, my masters, I bring you tidings and a tale; give it meat and drink that it may be strong and sweet.”

    “Whence are thy tidings, Will Green?” said one.

    My mate grinned again with the pleasure of making his joke once more in a bigger company: “It seemeth from heaven, since this good old lad hath no master,” said he.

    “The more fool he to come here,” said a thin man with a grizzled beard, amidst the laughter that followed, “unless he had the choice given him between hell and England.”

    “Nay,” said I, “I come not from heaven, but from Essex.”

    As I said the word a great shout sprang from all mouths at once, as clear and sudden as a shot from a gun. For I must tell you that I knew somehow, but I know not how, that the men of Essex were gathering to rise against the poll-groat bailiffs and the lords that would turn them all into villeins again, as their grandfathers had been.

    —William Morris, A Dream of John Ball ch. 2

    (I myself also come from Essex, but Essex-beyond-the-Sea in New Cesary.)

  11. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I used as a student in the 1970’s to live downstairs from a Hungarian who had left in 1956 and lived in the UK ever since, and who couldn’t even manage everyday greetings in English.

    As a counter-example, I met a young woman at a party in about 1966 who spoke English with no trace of a foreign accent and with no sign of foreign vocabulary or grammar. Everyone assumed she was English and was incredulous when she said she was Hungarian and had come to England after 1956. She was in her early 20s, so she had been in her early teens when she became immersed in English.

    I also know a young Algerian woman who speaks French with no accent that I can detect (though Marie-Lucie probably could). She said that she only started learning French when she arrived in France at the age of about 20. If she had come from an educated family in Tunisia or Morocco she would certainly have heard a lot of French when growing up*, but Algeria is different, and it’s quite possible to grow up there without ever hearing much French.

    *A Moroccan student we had 25 years could read and write Arabic, but she always wrote to her mother in French, because her mother couldn’t read Arabic.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    Similarly, two of my colleagues from Québec started to learn English when they were 20 and transferred to an English-speaking university. One has a trace of an accent that comes out after a few minutes, the other has not even that – and her Swedish, too, is fluent and sounds native to me, because Sweden is where she went next!

  13. As the revolving door joke, I first heard it 16 years ago. In terms of joke freshness, that could be called ancient. 🙂

  14. Yes, I rule that any joke that predates LH can be called ancient.

  15. David Marjanović says:

    LH was up & running in 2002, though. Fruit flies like a banana.

  16. In 2002, but not quite 16 years ago.

  17. The way I heard it was:

    “A Romanian can enter a revolving door after you and come out ahead.”

    A bit more colloquial.

  18. David Eddyshaw says:

    Ah. But my version is more ancient, you see. And more Hungarian. But I expect the Romanian was a Transylvanian. That would explain a lot.

  19. AJP Crown says:

    Perhaps like Athel’s, my daughter, who grew up in Norway, has an accent out of an Ealing comedy (I’m thinking of the genteel old landladies who open a tenant’s suitcase in, I think, The Lavender Hill Mob and shriek “BANK NOTES!”). I can’t think how she acquired it. She learnt English as a small child mostly from me and a little bit off the telly. But my accent can lurch towards some sort of American and veer back to southern English within a couple of sentences, so I don’t know why hers isn’t equally odd. Klaus Herdeg, an extraordinarily smart and well-read Swiss architect who died eventually from a brain tumour, had a brain operation that wiped out his ability to speak German. He was left like Kissinger, speaking slurred, slightly German-accented English for 30 odd years, the poor man. He didn’t seem to mind.

  20. tangent says:

    “The two systems start to compete with each other” sounds more true if she’s talking about social systems, rather than language processing systems. I’m not sure which she is.

  21. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    She learnt English as a small child mostly from me and a little bit off the telly. But my accent can lurch towards some sort of American and veer back to southern English within a couple of sentences, so I don’t know why hers isn’t equally odd.

    I suspect even young children know when you’re speaking “properly” and when you aren’t, just as my daughter knew without ever being told to imitate my English and my wife’s Spanish, and not vice versa.

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