Stories of language loss often mask other, larger losses
June 8, 2024 6:12 PM   Subscribe

Can You Lose Your Native Tongue? After moving abroad, I found my English slowly eroding. It turns out our first languages aren’t as embedded as we think. Madeleine Schwartz for the NYT: “For a long time, a central question in linguistics was how people learn language. But in the past few decades, a new field of study called “language attrition” has emerged. It concerns not learning but forgetting: What causes language to be lost?”
posted by bq (54 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
I found this very interesting. I’m a poor language learner, and often regret that my mom, fluent in three languages, didn’t pass the other two on to me. It somehow feels like a loss of a person I would rather be. This article sheds a bit of a new light on that thought of mine, and of the idea of the mother tongue.
posted by PussKillian at 6:36 PM on June 8 [2 favorites]

I worked with a Norwegian guy who spoke good, but not great, English. After years in the US he went back to Norway for a family visit and, when he returned, said that his Norwegian sucked and he was now fluent in zero languages.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 6:39 PM on June 8 [22 favorites]

If you don’t use it, you lose it! That’s from personal experience. I was once fluent enough in a second language that I dreamt in it. I went back this summer and by the end of two weeks I was able to order food confidently. I still have the accent, though, which is nice for impressing waitstaff in authentic restaurants.
posted by bq at 6:45 PM on June 8 [6 favorites]

The simultaneous acquisition of multiple tongues was thought to cause delays in language development and learning.

When my son was born, a doctor I spoke with about wanting to raise him to be bilingual repeated this misinformation. It made me realize this doctor was a fool and I stopped going to see him.
posted by signal at 8:08 PM on June 8 [11 favorites]

Thank you for posting this fascinating article bq.

I'm Afrikaans, and I used to be able to speak some German as a child. I learned to speak English when I was about 8. I can't speak German anymore, but I retain some understanding that helps me "get" unfamiliar words in other languages.

The sections about German and its associations struck a chord for me. Afrikaans is my first language, and it's complex and loaded as it's simultaneously a language of white supremacy, as well as an indigenous language of a large number non white people. As a white person, which language am I speaking?

Afrikaans people, especially non white Afrikaans people, often don't teach their children Afrikaans because speaking English is a marker of status.
Even I, as a privileged middle class white person regularly get side swiped by English people assuming that Afrikaans people are unsophisticated / unintelligent / conservative / racist / worthy of scorn. Being able to speak relatively unaccented English is definitely an advantage both socially and professionally.

I am mostly around English people, and my Afrikaans has deteriorated. When I'm talking to my father, for example, I often have to ask him to remind me what a word is. Which is painful and embarrassing. My parents encouraged us to speak "pure" Afrikaans growing up, and many (especially older) Afrikaans people disapprove of mixing in English words.

When I'm with Afrikaans friends, we constantly switch back and forth between Afrikaans and English, even within a phrase, often using either language for effect. For me, and I assume for them, this is a way to avoid the purity / white supremacy associations with certain ways of speaking Afrikaans.

When I interact with strangers, Afrikaans people will often, sometimes pointedly, sometimes unconsciously, speak English to me even if I speak Afrikaans to them, which I experience as a signal that they consider me as an outsider, and that hurts. I don't think it's because of the way I speak (accent and so on), I think it's because I don't "seem" Afrikaans in other, more subtle ways (non standard gender vibes, tattoos, social awkwardness).

The writer of the article kept coming back to the correctness of language in a context of writing and editing.

I write fiction in English, and not in Afrikaans. One reason is that it's difficult to write fiction in a language you don't read, and there are very few Afrikaans books I enjoy reading.

I know that my written English retains traces of Afrikaans syntax, and my editors push me to correct these, but more and more I'm resisting this because this is how I speak so this is how I write.

Especially as a self published writer, there's a pressure to present as professionally as possible in case people group you with the great unwashed of "those" self published writers who aren't "real" writers because they can't afford a professional editor or don't care to use one.

So I appreciated the thoughts at the end of the article:
At the end of the text, she describes speaking with her son “in a tongue reciprocal, abundant and motherless.”

posted by Zumbador at 8:31 PM on June 8 [33 favorites]

My first language is Chinese, and I knew I had, at one time, been capable of reading and handwriting Chinese, during my elementary school years. However, I've gradually lost the ability to handwrite Chinese over the years, except my own name and a few other characters. I've came to be heavily reliant on Pinyin (which I had to teach myself) IME and voice to text. But I am still fully fluent in reading Chinese.

I can also understand the power of peer pressure in the case if Kai Feng, as I underwent something quite similar back in the 1980's, when my family emigrated to South America, and attended an elite "foreign" school there for eventual emigration to the US. At the time I spoke no English, barely any Cantonese, almost all Mandarin. Suddenly I'm in a country whose official language is Spanish (Castilian, to be specific, or "Castellano"), all of my peers spoke Spanish and English. There were only 4 Chinese kids in the school (one of them my brother), none in my grade. I managed to master most of the languages and today speak Cantonese, Mandarin Chinese, English, and some Spanish (my accent is supposedly quite good), but I can see why the kid, being bullied, decided Cantonese is something to be completely avoided.

My family's situation may be somewhat out of norm, as my grandparents and my dad, uncles, and aunt were a part of the KMT retreat to Taiwan, and refused to let go of our Cantonese heritage. I grew up with the normal Taiwanese mandarin education, supplemented at home with ad hoc Cantonese lessons. I don't recall having ever seen a Cantonese textbook until college, never needing one. Yet I can usually pass for native HK, Cantonese, regular Chinese, Taiwanese, South American Chinese, or just plain banana ABC.

But yes, I did lose a bit of my primary language.
posted by kschang at 9:55 PM on June 8 [12 favorites]

Two people close to me lost their native language pretty much entirely once they started going to school in the US. They learned it at home from their parents as babies but gradually stopped speaking it. It's a shame! But you understand how it happens.
posted by potrzebie at 10:22 PM on June 8 [1 favorite]

I still have Danish, but it is somewhat degraded from not being used as much in the decades since I moved away from home. I haven't lived in Denmark since I was 5,never went to school or had any formal training in it, but applied the principles I was being taught about how to read and write in English at school to the language we spoke at home, and recreationally taught myself to read and write Danish when I was... eight?

My Danish is increasingly old-fashioned if not anachronistic, as it is the Danish of the very early 90s,when we left the country, and I haven't had that much connection to a lot of contemporary Danish language and culture for a while. I do try to maintain it though - it's still what I speak with all my family (on the phone, and once or twice a year when I'm back to visit) and I've been teaching my husband. So useful to have a language where you can effectively have private conversations in public.

I used to be effectively fluent in German when I was a teenager, having learned it as a foreign language at school and enjoyed it, again pursuing it recreationally. I used to read the newspaper in German in early university, and converse in German with the German-speaking students. A couple years ago, I was stopped by a German tourist couple when I was back in Denmark visiting family. I could understand where they wanted to go no problem, but wow, trying to string together a useful reply with the little-to-no vocabulary I had left was an eye-opener. ("Go straight through two junctions, then then left at the roundabout, second exit" became "uhhh, gerade aus, gerade aus, es gibts ein runnes Ding [frantically gesturing a circle]... err, links, nummer zwei." It was hilarious, embarrassing, and horrifying. I definitely do not speak German any more (but I think I'd pick it up again reasonably quickly if I had to, and had opportunity to). I hope that tourist couple found the place they were headed!

I remember hearing lots about how your language development is hampered or limited by your mother tongue when I was growing up. Can categorically say this is bullshit, or not consistently true at least. I very quickly picked up English at age 4/5, and it quickly eclipsed my Danish because I was using it more. I learned to read and write in English first. I predominantly think in English, but I can think in Danish quite happily as well (not German any more but at one time...) My relatively clumsy Danish "mother tongue" has never been an impediment.
posted by Dysk at 12:22 AM on June 9 [5 favorites]

If I had to guess, I'd imagine some version of "critical age" plays into just how embedded an L1 language is in your head. (and the phonetics, accent, etc that go along with that).
posted by readyfreddy at 12:22 AM on June 9

When I'm with Afrikaans friends, we constantly switch back and forth between Afrikaans and English, even within a phrase, often using either language for effect.

This language switching seems to be absolutely how bilingual friends/family normally speak with each other for any pair of languages. Although any thought can be expressed in any language, some concepts are easier to say in one language or another, and people tend to use one language more than another in some particular context which means they have a more extensive relevant vocabulary for that language/context pair. It's a fairly widely studied phenomenon particularly with heritage speakers.
posted by plonkee at 1:41 AM on June 9 [9 favorites]

After living in France, my daughter was constantly searching for English words she'd forgotten. Two years after coming back, she asked me if I had a laundry rope. It took me a second to translate that to clothesline.

Now her family uses English, Spanish, and sign language. She thinks she's losing her French. I told her to watch a French movie occasionally, but she has kids and no time.
posted by Miss Cellania at 3:22 AM on June 9 [2 favorites]

This resonates a lot. I am German, my father is from rural Bavaria (heavily accented), my mother was from the Ruhr region, much less accented. As a young adult, I moved to the UK for more than ten years. I had no reason to speak German and completed my higher education and obtained professional qualifications in English. My English was accented but apparently I sounded a bit Swedish or Dutch, not German.

I then moved to German speaking Switzerland for work. I work for a multinational with multinational clients and Switzerland has several official languages and dialects. So yes, there is more German in my life again but there is still more English than German. But it is no longer British English, there are a lot of Americans and a lot of other nationalities - we don’t speak each other’s languages but we do all speak English.

And the German I hear and speak is not the German of my childhood. It’s not just the local varieties of Swiss German, which I can understand but don’t attempt to speak, the high German in Switzerland is accented and it uses different words, it is also spelled differently.

So I have now reached a point where I speak, understand, read and write a wide variety of versions of both German and English. But none of them in a pure form. In addition, any kind of German technical or professional writing is very hard work for me - I can read/understand it just fine but I only ever learned about these things in English. So I have to translate it all to English and my responses back into German. As a result, I do not sound fluent during technical discussions and my German technical writing is awkward. That confuses people because I am German. It does not help that it is not uncommon for me to present in German using English language slides.

So yes, our brains are amazingly flexible but the result can be a bit of a mess. The only reason why I get away with the garbled mess I now call language is that I live in a country where people are open to many languages and one that relies on migration.
posted by koahiatamadl at 4:14 AM on June 9 [5 favorites]

On top of school French and German, I worked in the zoo in Rotterdam and later did field work in Portugal, so could manage the newspaper and general chatter; if not philosophy or technical mechanics. Now when I try to speak any of those languages, I dredge up a hideous mix of "Europeo": clearly baffling to those with whom I'm conversing.
posted by BobTheScientist at 4:32 AM on June 9 [1 favorite]

I learned French when my family moved to France for a year when I was seven; I also lived in Quebec as a child for long enough to have spent a lot of time in French Immersion classrooms, and kept on studying French on and off afterwards, up to doing a semester in college of French Literature Before 1789.

What I notice about my French is that my accent is very solid, though not perfect; the last time I was in Quebec someone asked me if I was Belgian, which I'll take as a compliment. My grammar is very solid when it comes to the basics. My vocabulary... if it's not a very common word or an English cognate, I'm in trouble. There's a lot there in my memory that's not instantaneously accessible, but it is buried somewhere deep. If I'm in a French-speaking place for long enough, gradually more and more of my French gets reactivated, and it doesn't feel like re-learning; it feels like turning on one of those very old televisions that takes a few minutes to warm up.

The bigger obstacle, honestly, is psychological; it's the fear of being judged as someone whose speech is, at best, awkward, in a place like Quebec where being an anglophone has a lot of historical baggage, and where it's hard to predict if the person you're talking to will just switch seamlessly to English if you're having a hard time, or be unable to do so, or be able to do so but be a little put out about it.

I haven't been back to France in a million years, and I'm kind of curious how that would be different.
posted by Jeanne at 4:43 AM on June 9 [6 favorites]

Thanks for posting this, it is fascinating and of particular interest to me.
posted by chavenet at 5:07 AM on June 9 [2 favorites]

One of my continual heartbreaks is that my mom was never allowed to teach my sister and I her native tongue (Spanish). She actively discouraged from doing so by my late paternal grandparents.
posted by Kitteh at 5:07 AM on June 9 [2 favorites]

The simultaneous acquisition of multiple tongues was thought to cause delays in language development and learning.

When my son was born, a doctor I spoke with about wanting to raise him to be bilingual repeated this misinformation. It made me realize this doctor was a fool and I stopped going to see him.

My parents got told this when I suddenly stopped talking between ages 2-4. Went from being constantly bilingual (as in I would say the same word twice in Bengali and English) to not much of anything. We were in Malaysia, where nobody else around us spoke Bengali and the only person super fluent in Malay at the time was my teenage sister, so English became my main language.

The idea of "native speaker" gets especially frustrating when it's racialised. For instance, the likelihood that I'd get hired or even trained up for an English teacher job overseas is very low because I'm South Asian and from a country that isn't seen as "English speaking" (even though English is a business language) - never mind that I've spent almost half my life now in English-centric countries, have multiple degrees conducted in English, have done multiple IELTS tests for immigration that put me at native-level scores, and spent a significant amount of my career writing publicly in English or even tutoring others! But melanin and ethnic names are incompatible with my language skills, apparently.
posted by creatrixtiara at 5:12 AM on June 9 [5 favorites]

I was raised as a native English speaker, but after spending a lifetime in Indiana, I find myself often slipping entirely into Hoosier.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:23 AM on June 9 [4 favorites]

living in new york, my ecuadorian parents raised us bilingual (english & spanish). there way no way we weren’t going to be able to speak with the family back in ecuador. the rule was “you reply in the language spoken”, so in that way it wasn’t one parent’s responsibility for any language. It’s like switching a channel in my head.

the tricky part came later after we moved to Puerto Rico. That’s when very young me discovered that spanish isn’t the same across the spanish-speaking world. There I was throwing out the occasional word in quechua (andean language still spoken in ecuador) as this is “normal” in ecuadorian spanish - but completely “weird” in PR! Until my parents cleared it up for me, I didn’t know why other kids didn’t understand some very specific words as in every other way I was speaking perfect spanish!
posted by alchemist at 5:39 AM on June 9 [5 favorites]

The other day I ran into one our neighbours as she was getting ready to lug two cases of water up the stairs. She and her husband and kids are originally from Tunisia, and as such I speak French with her. With the kids, when they were around, and the father I speak German. I will say that the father is not a sympathetic character. He's a translator of some kind (for the courts or something), educated, but he's also shouty with his family and overbearing and complains a lot and generally seems to be having a crappy time. I avoid him when I can. When I saw her there, getting herself psyched up for the exertion to come, I offered to bring them because it would be easy, one in each hand, and so why not. We had a brief, chatty conversation going up the stairs about aches and pains and getting older and then the father was suddenly there. He'd come, obviously, to help with the water. Because I was in the middle of the one conversation in french I addressed him without thinking about it in french and he answered in kind. And it was like a magic spell. He was gracious and pleasant and ... normal. Not trying to be ingratiating (which he often seems to be in German (and which I ascribe to his being, like me, an immigrant and alienated a good amount of the time.) But just a guy happy and thankful (but not overly, appropriately so) that someone has helped them get these stupid cases of water up the stairs. We've lived in the same building for more than ten years and I've only ever heard him shouting at his wife or his kids (in Tunisian/Arabic) or complaining about some insignificant thing in German and finally here, in french, he was in truth. Just a guy getting through his days. It was preposterously moving.

The worst thing about sitting on the edge of a 'new' language is all the subtleties that are out of reach and which make a language one's own. It might be adequate to get through a lot of transactions but you never move into it with your emotional world.

To paraphrase Peaches (talking about living in Berlin for a long time), “Your german never gets better but your english definitely turns to shit.”
posted by From Bklyn at 6:30 AM on June 9 [25 favorites]

My first language is Polish. I'm very grateful to my parents for continuing to speak exclusively Polish at home when we emigrated to South Africa. A lot of family friends in the same situation started to speak English to their children (I believe that they meant well, buying into the misinformation about "confusing" them and making it harder for them to learn English), and as a result those children lost their Polish almost entirely.

I'm much more fluent in English, but I never lost my muscle memory of the structure of Polish, although my vocabulary is a bit shit. I find that my fluency improves a lot when I read Polish-language books or listen to Polish youtubers, and the baseline has definitely improved since the period in my early adulthood when I seldom spoke Polish at all (because when I visited my parents it was always with my English-speaking ex, so we all spoke English). So I think of the language as being stored in my long-term memory, and getting swapped in and out. I don't think I can ever forget it completely, but I can make it a lot worse temporarily if I don't use it.

I've also had the experience of hearing that my own pronunciation is bad, but being unable to correct it in the moment, and I've definitely felt the frustration of not being able to express myself in Polish with the same level of fluency that feels effortless to me in English. This happened a lot during my "very bad Polish" era, whenever I tried to discuss complex concepts with my parents -- sometimes I was missing the vocabulary because I had never learned it, and sometimes they couldn't help me because they had never learned it either (because it was modern vocabulary, and they were as isolated from recent changes and developments in the language and culture as I was). And these were friendly conversations; I can imagine how unpleasant it would have been if they'd been more acrimonious.
posted by confluency at 6:30 AM on June 9 [3 favorites]

I moved to the US after high school, and even though I still had a lot of opportunities to speak in Chinese with my Chinese friends, we would frequently mix in words or phrases in English so it was quite a hodge-podge. My Chinese was like half-cooked rice (夹生饭).

After my daughter was born though I made sure to speak as much Chinese to her as possible, and have to make more 'clean switches' between the languages when I talk. As a result my Chinese is now better but my English is getting poorer. It's definitely a seesaw for me.
posted by of strange foe at 8:02 AM on June 9 [5 favorites]

As an American of Irish decent who grew up in the US I speak...English!

I really enjoy hearing these stories from those who have been raised with multiple languages. I wish I had had that chance as a child (other than studying Spanish in HS, which I did.) no one language can encompass the totality of human experience.
posted by supermedusa at 10:05 AM on June 9 [3 favorites]

I think we can generalize enough that language, much like memories, is a "use it or lose it" storage. The more you use it, the less likely you'll forget it, but the brain will lose the connections / associations that you use LESS frequently. And you can not re-memorize everything all the time like computer DRAM refreshes every clock cycle.

Yet in a way, we are still judged by the way we speak, with particular accents or not, and people will judge us by our voice, our accent, our vocabulary, our looks, and so on. I remember I was living in Texas at the time and some people complimented me on my "Texas accent". I wasn't aware I had acquired such.
posted by kschang at 10:15 AM on June 9

I love this idea of a language mother vs a mother tongue:
[The writer Yoko] Tawada plays with homonyms and the awkwardness that comes from literal translation. What emerges in her work is not a single language but a betweenness, a tool for the author to invent as she is using it, the scholar Yasemin Yildiz has noted. Yildiz quotes an essay by Tawada called “From the Mother Language to the Language Mother,” in which a narrator describes the ways that learning German taught her to see language differently: Writing in the second language was not a constraint, but a new form of invention. Tawada calls her typewriter a Sprachmutter, or “language mother” — an inversion of the German word for mother tongue. In a first language, we can rarely experience “playful joy,” she writes. “Thoughts cling so closely to words that neither the former nor the latter can fly freely.”
posted by spamandkimchi at 11:35 AM on June 9 [1 favorite]

I'm curious if there's a connection between early acquisition of multiple languages and the phenomena of inner monologue. One of the more common responses to somebody saying they don't have an inner voice is wondering how they manage to read, which only makes sense if you're internally saying everything you read. If you're raised monolingual, are all your thoughts then just trapped by the strictures of that language?
posted by ndr at 3:02 PM on June 9 [3 favorites]

ndr that's a good question.
I have an overwhelming inner monologue, but I'm not sure what language it is (apart from when I'm playing back conversations) In fact, I'm not sure that I always think in words, although I do a lot of the time. Sometimes it's more wordlike vibes, or just vibes. And a lot of the time I think in images.
posted by Zumbador at 3:10 PM on June 9 [3 favorites]

I have acquired three other languages since childhood and I can (and occasionally do) have inner monologue in them, which is just like the English monologue as far as I can tell, except just as when speaking, I might flip back to English when I run out of words. "Thinking" is subtly different. That is, when I am cogitating, I talk to myself, but as Zumbador says, not always. For me it's as though there's some more primitive and diffuse "thought language" that gets formed into something speech-like when it's sufficiently well-defined... it doesn't always make it into speech in my head though. Also like Zumbador, I have continuing inner monologue which I struggle to shut off. As soon as I'm aware it's not going, it starts again.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:47 PM on June 9 [2 favorites]

What appears to have been overlooked in the comments here is that language is not a static thing. It is constantly changing as peoples experiences require 'better' ways to communicate a concept or idea in order for an individual to be understood. Technology and the constant churn of instant stimuli have accelerated the speed of change. How a 15-30 year old and how a 30-60 year old acquires the means to be understood will differ significantly. Equally, in country influences in speech, idioms, and intonations move on in the absence of you the person being influenced by change. Taking the basic concept of a soap opera and the breadth of its influence on the viewer as a basic example. 'Eastenders' (a very popular soap - apparently) has seen the rise and broad usage of the accent spoken. Note to none Brits - it is NOT Cockney! See here.

I left the UK 28 years ago and have been back briefly on two occasions. I have noted the influence of that soap on the way many people across the country communicate with each other. Language is an important way for an individual to be accepted and understood by their peers. Adopting 'common parlance' is an integral part of this and it works at the micro and macro level - imagine trying to speak with someone from Birmingham (strong regional accent) using RP (Received Pronunciation). It simply would not work.

Mrs. Underpants (American) has adopted certain terms and phrases from me and likewise I from her. It is the need to be understood and a means to achieve a communication shortcut.

In the above mentioned 28 years I have noted significant changes in the 'standard' English language spoken. Note what I mention below is not a speech impediment, it is 'affected pronunciation'. Once I tell you this cannot be undone... you have been warned!

Put simply, English people across all 'class' and 'economic' structures, now pronounce their "R's" as "W's". Best example being from BBC Radio 4, supposedly the epitome of 'correct' speaking, just yesterday:

"We now go over to our cowespondent in Ukwaine weporting on the acts of tewor by Wussian twoops..."

Note there is nothing wrong with this as it is reportage being passed on to people who live in the UK. Looking from the outside in it sounds horrific but it is simply 'affected speech' allowing the speaker to be understood an accepted by the people being spoken to.

Listen and you will see what I mean... it is twuly dweadful!
posted by IndelibleUnderpants at 9:39 PM on June 9 [2 favorites]

Swedish is my first language, English my second. I’ve dabbled in German, French, Spanish and studied Latin, and I did many years of Chinese. Now I consider myself fluent in Swedish and English only, although my Swedish is a bit old fashioned and I don’t know some of the words that were added after I moved away to the U.S.. If I try to speak German, it becomes a hodgepodge of German and Chinese- the two I know best as third and fourth languages. I might mix those two or English/Swedish, but never any other language pairs, something I find interesting.

I will say that I thought my Chinese was completely gone after almost 30 years of little to no practice, but I found myself being able to communicate pretty well when I was in a taxi in Taipei earlier this week. It was a complete surprise to me that the words just… surfaced somehow. Made me really want to study it again, to see if it will come back. It seems to be there in some primitive form even still, which gives me hope that it’s not completely gone.
posted by gemmy at 10:54 PM on June 9

imagine trying to speak with someone from Birmingham (strong regional accent) using RP (Received Pronunciation). It simply would not work.

I live in the West Midlands and can assure you that this does in fact work. Brummies have TV, radio, the Internet. Birmingham is big and contains multitudes. They aren't done idiot rubes that simply can't understand RP, and nor is it at all necessary to slip into some weird mockery of the accent in an attempt to not sound different.

Put simply, English people across all 'class' and 'economic' structures, now pronounce their "R's" as "W's". Best example being from BBC Radio 4, supposedly the epitome of 'correct' speaking, just yesterday:

I don't know where you're getting this idea from, but this (non-British, living in Britain) person cannot see this at all. You might as well be claiming that all Ts have been replaced with Ks - it bears no resemblance to a reality I recognise.
posted by Dysk at 11:56 PM on June 9 [5 favorites]

BBC's Chris Packham replaces Rs with Ws, but he has a legit speech impediment.
posted by fnerg at 12:47 AM on June 10 [3 favorites]

A half-formed thought I left out of my first comment is the idea that being just fluent enough in a language to be able to hold a superficial conversation is kind of an invisible disadvantage. It's deceptive, because it appears that you're as fluent as a native speaker, but as soon as you require nuance or a specialised vocabulary you simply can't draw on the same resources that a native speaker can. And that can make you feel helpless and stupid -- you know what you want to say, but you lack the technical ability to say it. I think this is exacerbated by the asymmetry of language acquisition -- at least in my experience it's much easier to understand what someone else is saying than to construct your own response.

I have felt this myself, trying awkwardly to have those complicated conversations with my parents. I also think that I observed something like this in the interactions between a South African couple I used to know. He was English-speaking, and she was Afrikaans, so of course they defaulted to English, because that's how it goes here (most Afrikaans people are bilingual at least; English people are often monolingual -- and this is a mostly English-speaking circle of friends in a mostly English-speaking area).

Like every Afrikaans person who lives here and hangs out with a lot of English speakers, she spoke good enough English that we didn't really even think about it being her second language. But I could see that in adversarial conversations with her partner (not fights; just debates in which they had differing opinions) she seemed to be struggling to express herself. And when they broke up, I couldn't help wondering how difficult it had been for her to make herself understood in more serious arguments that we never saw.

And I think about this whenever I see couples that don't appear to share a high level of fluency in one language. How do you build such an intimate relationship with someone that you can only sort of talk to?
posted by confluency at 3:33 AM on June 10 [7 favorites]

I don't know where you're getting this idea from, but this (non-British, living in Britain) person cannot see this at all.

I don't agree with that poster's larger point -- of course people in Birmingham could understand the Queen (before she died) and it's just a change, not a degradation -- but this is a pretty common way that people who speak rhotic versions of English hear UK nonrhotic accents, especially when the "r" sound follows another consonant.

I can hear it in several of the accents being demonstrated here, listen particuarly on "price" in the RP and estuary English speakers. It's not literally r's as w's like Elmer Fudd or anywhere near as exaggerated as Pontius Pilate in _Life of Brian_, but it's noticeably distinct from "price" in a national-newscaster American or Canadian accent.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 5:33 AM on June 10 [2 favorites]

I can hear it in the linked EE example, but not at all in the RP. You hear it in some London accents as well. But the RP is definitely an R rather than W (unless you're on really bad speakers turned way down, maybe?) as is most every presenter voice on the BBC.
posted by Dysk at 6:10 AM on June 10

Are we just talking about the labiodental approximant here? The one that a lot of languages transcribe as a V?
posted by polytope subirb enby-of-piano-dice at 6:49 AM on June 10

My mother was a native Welsh speaker but in 60 years of marriage I don't recall my (English) father speaking a single word. He just didn't seem interested in it, and it is one of my enduring sadnesses that it wasn't part of our family life.
posted by 43rdAnd9th at 8:49 AM on June 10

GCU Sweet and Full of Grace - Note that I am from Birmingham! Plus lived a huge chunk of my life in the Black Country where the local dialect is probably the nearest thing to Old English / Anglo-Saxon.
posted by IndelibleUnderpants at 8:52 AM on June 10

half-formed thought I left out of my first comment is the idea that being just fluent enough in a language to be able to hold a superficial conversation is kind of an invisible disadvantage. It's deceptive, because it appears that you're as fluent as a native speaker, but as soon as you require nuance or a specialised vocabulary you simply can't draw on the same resources that a native speaker can. And that can make you feel helpless and stupid -- you know what you want to say, but you lack the technical ability to say it. I think this is exacerbated by the asymmetry of language acquisition -- at least in my experience it's much easier to understand what someone else is saying than to construct your own response.

I think this is so true. As I said, I'm bad at languages, and have scraps of Spanish and Italian (which I've studied the longest, including with a tutor.) But I have discovered that one of my favorite conversational styles is making small, sometimes self-deprecating, jokes, and I just Do Not have anywhere close to the language skills to do that. So I need to restrict my conversations to the most rudimentary exchanges, if I can even manage that, or absolutely confuse the poor person I'm trying to talk to.

Now I'm sort-of kind-of learning French via podcast, which means I will add a third Romance language to the slurry and confuse myself even further. When I told my dad that I wasn't a good language-learner, he said "you learned English really quickly" and for years I thought that meant I must not have been trying hard enough at the other languages, but learning a language in school and at home organically are not the same, DAD. (Which...he learned Korean via the State Department teaching him, and got pretty fluent, so maybe I wasn't trying hard enough.)
posted by PussKillian at 9:29 AM on June 10 [2 favorites]

One thing that hasn't been discussed much is that the language you speak with another person who is bilingual (or multi-) has emotional and intimacy connotations, not just practical ones. I lived in the US from 3 to 8 years old. When we came back to Chile, I kept speaking English with my brother for a few years, but we grew apart in our teens and stopped doing so. Since we were no longer as close, it felt weird to speak this different, shared language with him.
I went to a nominally 'British' school, but it's teachers (and students) didn't really speak English well. I did have a few US-based cousins and a girlfriend, and I lived in the US for 2 years after graduating university, so I've managed to hold on to my English, though that might also be because I've mostly read in English my whole life.
I recently started writing SFF in English, and it's going OK, though I have some imposter syndrome about being 'caught out' as a non-native writer, but fuck that.
I raised my child to be bilingual in English and Spanish. I've always, since they were in the womb, spoken only English with them, and my wife speaks Spanish. They're 16 now. We have recently switched to speaking Spanish when my wife is present, so she doesn't feel excluded. It feels really strange to me, as if I were speaking to a different person.
The two of us continue to speak English when we're alone or when we're speaking of specialized topics that my wife wouldn't participate in anyway, like music production, programming, video games, anime, math, etc.
posted by signal at 10:02 AM on June 10 [4 favorites]

When I moved from Poland, where I had lived for a few years in smaller regional cities and could, by my last year there, have coherent conversations (a particularly memorable victory was ordering pizza on the phone and being understood and the pizza arriving and the order being correct!) to Hong Kong, a city where I would experience a quite unsettling absence of social expectation that I as a non-Chinese person who had moved there to teach English would know more than basic Cantonese pleasantries, one of the first things I discovered I missed was the simple joy of being able to use literacy in the local language as a means of teaching myself how to speak it, since I had never lived anywhere with a non-alphabetic local language.

In Poland I supported my own learning of Polish, a language I had had no previous exposure to, by following Antimoon’s method — digital staged repetition, basically — and making myself into a big user of Anki and Supermemo. As a language teacher, I was also exposed to learners’ English affected by their first language, so I was professionally expected to be attuned to how our languages differed, and the simplicity and control Anki in particular gave me were motivating. Crucially, I think, I took the time to make my own digital cards rather than downloading a huge set of Polish-English cards already made — this made what I was reading into something I was typing, helping me remember it further, and I often added declensions, a sound clip or a picture to flesh out the material.

After a few months of doing this, I had hundreds or maybe thousands of words I had typed and reviewed and could recognize that I needed but might never have seen in my textbook, like imbir, ginger, an ingredient I cooked with a lot, and, more importantly, I was able to see connections I recognized from the other languages I knew, English and Spanish and French, like how a shop sign labeling a product as nowość - new - was related to the word for news, nowośći. Polish grammar also seemed like it would be a serious challenge given its case system, but over time I developed a sense for knowing how to end a particular word both from active instruction and from listening to people and reading in Polish, since accurate and comprehensible Polish I could at least sort of read was everywhere! I will never forget, for example, how the reggae song “Jah jest prezydentem” by Vavamuffin was used by my Polish teacher to remind me of the need to append the -em ending needed on the sentence object prezydent when I described my own job: jestem nauczycielem, “I am a teacher”; she had the foresight to give me a printed copy of the lyrics to illustrate her point, knowing I’d want to read them.

I can also say that I am very grateful that the vast majority of people I met all over the country, from Warsaw to the smallest village, seemed genuinely enthusiastic and patient as I spoke or wrote to them in Polish. On one of my last visits there, fully five years after moving away, a dining-car attendant on a train told me in English, after we had conducted a whole conversation about my Polish in Polish, that I “shouldn’t be afraid” and that he didn’t care about my “many small but not important mistakes” since so few people outside Poland would ever get the chance to “practice our amazing language”. Even today, twelve years after I left Poland, I think my single-word, bare-form/non-declined Polish vocabulary remains pretty robust, especially in the domains of language where I had to use it the most — the supermarket, travelling, ordering in restaurants, that kind of thing. My Polish literacy really mattered here, I think, because it allowed me to add to what I kept hearing: I might be able to remember that kawa is coffee, mleczko is milk, z is with and bez is without, but both always seeing and hearing kawa z mlekiem multiple times a week and never seeing and hearing kawa bez mlezkiem (you’d say kawa czarna, black coffee, here, I think) reinforced in my mind that the former is what people in real life actually said when asking for a coffee with milk in a café and the latter wasn’t used in that context, if at all, just as it isn’t in English, either.

All of that is to say that the end of my time in Poland came with the end of the casual pleasure of reading things and understanding them and knowing how to say them in the local language without help for the first time in my life, and having to use English whenever I was looking for whatever I needed or wanted to know — and almost always finding it — really flattened my experience in Hong Kong the longer I was there in ways that crippled my motivation to dive into Cantonese beyond basic phrases, especially when compared to my bilingual and biliterate colleagues and friends, who could benefit from perspectives and ideas in both English and Cantonese. Sadly, I never learned much Cantonese at all despite being there for a decade and trying a few different methods and classes, and using romanized Cantonese alone as a learning tool wasn’t very supportive of literacy development given the absence of real-world source material other than textbooks.

Lacking any meaningful second-language literacy and oral fluency in Hong Kong was, in retrospect, not something I could breezily ignore as I moved through the city’s numerous monolingual-English spaces. It was profoundly, deeply socially isolating, because even if English got me what I legally or bureaucratically or commercially needed most of the time, things I wanted to do or see, especially those things not happening under corporate or government auspices, were very often only available in Cantonese. Without literacy, I told myself I lacked any hope of being successful at learning enough Cantonese to be as social as I had been in Poland, and constructed quite an intimidating social hurdle I never managed to cross. The longer I was there, oddly, the worse it got: I learned about (and through work, participated in constructing) the role of English in the city as the language that Hong Kongers should be good at, regardless of their actual need or desire to use English at all. What hope was there of making friends in Cantonese if at every warehouse concert, karaoke evening or pick-up game of football, I wouldn’t be able to self-administer my experience? The last thing I wanted was to be someone whose language abilities and inabilities caused problems for other people, but my Chinese illiteracy made me feel like that is what I would be doomed to become.

I never suffered in any practical way for not knowing Cantonese, which is a frankly shocking statement to write, since Hong Kong’s government and institutions offered all their services entirely in English, as did any company that attracted non-Chinese speakers, and in practice, if anything was unclear, it was always possible to clarify a misunderstanding with a question or two, and many people were not only able to help but eager to do so in English. A majority of Hong Kongers speak at least some English, and millions of Hong Kongers are either first-language users of English or highly fluent in English. My smartphone, a luxury I had never had in Poland, also filled in the gaps, and helped me sometimes “read” through the magic of camera translation short texts like a notice from the company that administered my block of flats or a printed storefront marquee in an industrial area where the expectation was that all possible readers would be Chinese-literate.

But that was never a replacement for knowing the language myself in the way I had known Polish. Chinese handwriting was often very difficult to parse, and since printed English, not romanized Cantonese, accompanied printed Chinese in bilingual written texts, I could never match syllables I could sound out to their corresponding Chinese characters. This made it much harder to guess how what I was hearing might be related to something I could read (and write and thus remember) and vice versa.

It was my illiteracy making self-teaching and self-study feel impractical more than anything else, I think, that sapped my motivation to learn Cantonese the longer I was there, and while the Hong Kongers I met and worked with were universally encouraging and accommodating when I tried to use Cantonese, the simple fact remained that after ten years there I could not write a thank-you note to my neighbors, a shopping list or a short email — all things I could easily do in Polish in much less time — which made me feel like I’d never really belong there, even if I took “extreme” steps like use vacation time to do a Cantonese immersion course, move into a Cantonese-speaking flatshare or find a monolingual-Cantonese partner.

And yet, there was so much that happened in Hong Kong in the last few years I was there that made Cantonese feel much more open to anyone who shared Hong Kongers’ values. I probably chanted and sangand even learned to read — more Cantonese in the second half of 2019 and first few weeks of 2020 than I did in all the years I had lived there before, and I did it automatically, without thinking, because I was finally in situations where doing so was not just something I could do, but something I felt an obligation to show my neighbors I wanted to do. I can only conclude that the languages we speak stay with us as long as our brain and our heart both need to speak them.
posted by mdonley at 2:20 PM on June 10 [9 favorites]

I read this article last month, and had some real problems with the generalizations it makes. I an anglophone who lives in Quebec. I am also completely bilingual, a fluent French speaker. 90 percent of the population around me speaks French. And yet, somehow, I've never "lost" my English, nor has any other native English speaker I've ever known whose grown up in this environment.

She spent...4 years in France? I've been speaking both languages daily for 39 of my 44 years, without issues. My mother, who is an anglophone who was educated almost entirely in French, has been doing it even longer.

This really felt like one person expanding a personal experience into something else with no data to back it up, or even the realization that being surrounded by another language daily isn't even that rare a thing in this world.

On preview: language is a multifacted thing, and this collection of anecdotes doesn't support her premise.
posted by jordantwodelta at 3:56 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]

A closer read of the article will reveal that the author’s personal experience is of the style of other languages leaking into her English writing, and that she doesn’t claim to be losing her English, but also includes synopses of research into people who lose fluency in a language they once spoke as children.
posted by bq at 5:10 PM on June 10 [3 favorites]

I appreciate what you are saying - but as a pro writer myself, while my vocabulary has certainly been expanded and modified by full immersion in a French-language environment my entire life (more often when I speak), it has never impacted my ability to write in my native tongue of English.

Again, anecdotally (as with her experience) with 10 times the length of immersion she experienced.

Losing fluency of a language one spoke in childhood, but not adulthood, feels very different from what she is writing about. She "lost" her English as an adult after 30 years of speaking it - she didn't just speak it as a kid. This is part of what I mean when I find the anecdotes provided don't support her thesis - it's a mish-mash of "language is mysterious," which is find as long as it's not used to try to support a specific point.

I feel like this piece would have been more effective as a personal essay rather than taking a psuedo-scientific "hey, we can lose our native tongues" approach. But this may have been steered by editorial.

As a side note: the weirdest way living in a French population has affected my English is that my diction is almost entirely non-regional. I suspect this is because the place I heard the most English growing up was professional broadcasting, not local broadcasting, and so I largely avoided regional accents outside of my peer group, who were also of course influenced by the same broadcasts.
posted by jordantwodelta at 7:51 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]

as a pro writer myself

Have you considered the possibility that, as someone who works with language professionally, you are an outlier in this domain?

The anglophones I know in Berlin talk about the changes to our English all the time. We simplify grammar, we excise idioms, our cadence is different, Britishisms have invaded our vocabulary, we sub in German words both ad-hoc and for some terms permanently. (No one in my circle takes a kid to a "playground" — it's always a Spielplatz or Spieli.) Talking to people in the US we often struggle to remember the North American word for something. We're still speaking "English" daily, but it's absolutely a different "English" than what we grew up with.

Knowing what we know about languages, it would be shocking if this didn't happen.

This all reminds me of a great essay (previously) about Denglisch:
The English spoken by those newcomers who settle here and end up making some German friends and studying the language — it also absorbs subtler influences from German. The other day my friend S., an American Berliner, said that he had noticed his English-language social circle starting to use the word « spontaneously » wrong. When Germans say they’ll organise a social event spontan, they mean they’ll work out the details at short notice. To socialise spontaneously, in English, means something rather different. But S. and I and our Neukölln friends have started using it in the sense of spontan. « OK cool text me Sunday and we’ll choose a place spontaneously. » This error is becoming part of our little language, our ultra-local dialect, just among us.
We all spoke English together — a specific, trans-European kind of English. I did not even notice it until once, while chatting on the phone to my brother in Australia, I said: « Your mate Ben, he plays very well the guitar, no? »
posted by daveliepmann at 1:43 AM on June 12 [2 favorites]

Have you considered the possibility that, as someone who works with language professionally, you are an outlier in this domain?

Sure - but she's a professional writer as well, so I think that washes out.

And as I've written in my posts, this applies, anecdotally, to the other anglophones who live in Quebec, surrounded by French, who live their daily lives in French, for decades. They are not writers.

I've also pointed out that changing how you speak is not the same thing, at all, as losing your native tongue, which is the crux of the NYT piece. I say things like "close the light" when I speak, but when I write that doesn't make me forget how to construct the sentence, "turn off the light."

Again, my argument here is that the article and the writer do not support that supposition.
posted by jordantwodelta at 5:45 AM on June 12

There are populations out there where this could easily be studied - anglos in Quebec, Spanish-speakers in Texas and California - places where linguistic groups are isolated and completely surrounded by a second language in which they transact their lives.

I would have loved to read something about that, which I think could provide actual data to show that being immersed in a second language could cause you to lose your native tongue. Someone who has spent a few years in France and worries she is losing her English, a language she has spoken for 30 years, is a weak premise for what's projected here, and certainly not my experience after a lifetime of daily immersion.
posted by jordantwodelta at 5:56 AM on June 12

I've also pointed out that changing how you speak is not the same thing, at all, as losing your native tongue

I dunno, I don't see it as strictly binary. To me it seems like language attrition is a gradual set of processes which does involve piecemeal changes to speech patterns. Passages like "All available evidence on the age effect for L1 attrition, therefore, indicates that the development of susceptibility displays a curved, not a linear, function." from the wikipedia article seem to back up this way of looking at it. Maybe this is a case of a headline overselling the article?
posted by daveliepmann at 8:38 AM on June 12 [1 favorite]

The article discusses research analyzing how child lose their 'native' language. It directly links this study: Brain Imaging of Language Plasticity in Adopted Adults: Can a Second Language Replace the First?
posted by bq at 10:57 AM on June 12

Such an interesting idea - thank you for posting! I just attended a conference in Montréal in which research on multilingualism in comparison to unilingualism was presented and so this is quite topical for me.
posted by narcissus_and_ambrosia at 1:41 PM on June 12

The article discusses research analyzing how child lose their 'native' language. It directly links this study: Brain Imaging of Language Plasticity in Adopted Adults: Can a Second Language Replace the First?

That study looks at Koreans adopted by French families who have no memory of ever speaking Korean. From the abstract:

"We tested adult subjects born in Korea and adopted by French families in childhood; they have become fluent in their second language and report no conscious recollection of their native language."

So, they didn't "lose" their native language as adults after having grown up speaking it, which is the crux of the author's article—they lost it as children after adoption.

Maybe this is a case of a headline overselling the article?

This seems most likely.
posted by jordantwodelta at 3:22 PM on June 12

“the ages of adoption were 3, 3, 5.5, 5.5, 5.5, 7, 7.5 and 8 years”
posted by bq at 4:47 PM on June 12

“the ages of adoption were 3, 3, 5.5, 5.5, 5.5, 7, 7.5 and 8 years”

I think you missed the part where these study subjects had "no conscious recollection" of ever speaking Korean. How is this scenario at all the same as the subject of the NYT article, where a 30 year old adult claims to be losing her native tongue after speaking it for 30 years?
posted by jordantwodelta at 5:00 PM on June 12

She does not claim that.
posted by bq at 5:24 PM on June 12

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