Can you really forget your native language? Does language attrition really exist?

Learning languages is fun, especially if you’re a bit of a language nerd 🙂 It can be quite frustrating, though because if you don’t use a language you can easily forget it. As was Mother Language Day yesterday, we started talking in the office about if it’s really possible to forget your native language?

And the answer to that is, unfortunately, yes 🙁 Language attrition is a serious thing, and it’s been scientifically proven too. Children adopted by families abroad have been found to have totally lost their ability to communicate in their mother tongue. Children who decided to re-learn their mother tongue later in life were found to have better pronunciation than their peers. They still had to work just as hard on grammar and vocabulary, though. There are also strong indications that languages aren’t stable until the age of 12, making it easy for children to forget their native language if they start using another language before that age. Luckily adults who move abroad and start speaking a different language will normally resist the full force of language attrition. Instead, they will have problems caused by two (or more) languages competing for attention and the selection process that takes place in the brain.

Here´s my experience with language attrition

I can vouch for this, as I am unfortunately suffering from the side-effects of language attrition first-hand. For those of you who don’t know me, I was born in England and have been living in the Czech Republic since I was a teenager.

As a kid, we spoke Polish quite a bit at home. My friends even used to tease me for getting better marks in Polish than in English at school. Now, I’m so used to speaking Czech all the time I am finding that my English has now transformed into something more like Czenglish. I find that when I’m trying to explain something in English, the Czech word pops into my head first. Instead of saying “yuck”, everything is “fuj”. And instead of saying “yes”, I automatically say “jo”. I even start my sentences with the dreaded “no”, or if I am feeling super Czech “nojo” will accidentally slip out. Don’t even start on word order and grammar. Today I asked my kids “do you have hlad?”, only to be told off by my 5-year-old daughter. (By the way hlad is Czech for hunger. In Czech, we say máš hlad, which literally translates into do you have hunger.)

Living abroad also messes your accent up. When I go to England I get told I sound “nearly English”. But when I go anywhere else I get told I sound like a member of the royal family because apparently, my English is so posh. When I speak Czech I get told I still have a slight Polish twang to my accent. And when I speak Polish now I sound Czech. So yeah, thanks languages, it looks like no one will claim me anymore 😀

Been living abroad for a long time? You probably have the same problem

I’m not alone. I have lots of friends who live abroad, and almost all of them complain about being slow in their native language. I remember some of my family members who moved over to England from Poland after the war complaining they found speaking Polish really hard. When I was younger I didn’t really get it, especially as they still had super strong Polish accents (even after 60 years in the UK). But now I see exactly what they mean.

When it comes to translations, this is why it is so important that you work with in-country linguists. If you work with native speakers who have been living abroad for a long time, they’re likely to use words and phrases that sound a bit odd to people living in their native country. Languages are also constantly evolving. So if you want to make sure that you’re up to date (especially when it comes to things like slang), using an in-country linguist is a must.

Written by Sarah Pokorná, Czech translations´ multilinguist and business development manager


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