Living abroad means losing your mother tongue a little

“The first time was during dinner. I was talking to my husband, who grew up in Paris, the city we live in, and suddenly it was impossible to get the word out correctly,” remembers Madeleine Schwartz. It was the pronunciation of the “r” in English that she stumbled upon. Instead of training him in English, with the language, this “r” stuck in his throat. A scraping. French-style.

The American journalist makes this linguistic hiccup the starting point of a very personal story, published in The New York Times Magazine.

Born to an American mother and a French father, she grew up between New York and the Alsatian forests. In 2020, she moved to Paris. As the years pass, “I began to feel, to my great chagrin, that my French, by improving, was contaminating my English”, she narrates. By writing emails in French – “Please accept, Excellency, my best regards” -, here is what happened:

“Coming back for vacation in New York, I thanked the cashier at (the big drugstore) Duane Reade with a ‘dear sir’ (‘Dear Sir’). My thoughts themselves were intertwined with infinite oratorical precautions, as if I was afraid of appearing impolite if I were too direct. It’s not just that my French was improving: my English was getting worse.”

Competition between languages

Can you forget your mother tongue? she asks herself. The question may seem absurd, as our mother tongue seems linked to our identity… Besides, “in many languages, we associate the first words we pronounce with motherhood: it is ‘mother tongue’ in French, in Spanish ‘lengua materna’, in German ‘Muttersprache’”, underlines the journalist.

However, this cognitive rooting is more fragile than we think. Our mother tongue can be dislodged by another language or erode, she continues. And it has a name: “language attrition”.

The phenomenon is well documented in children, and there seems to be a turning point: “A child who stops speaking a language before the age of 12 may completely forget it.” Later, the language does not disappear, but its mastery may deteriorate. The journalist quotes linguist Julie Sedivy: “Like a home welcoming a new child, the mind cannot bring in a new language without it having consequences on the other languages ​​already present.”

Merel Keijzer, a linguist from the University of Groningen, Netherlands, studied a group of Dutch speakers who emigrated to Australia as adults. As time passes, “we heard more Dutch in their English, but also more English in their Dutch”, explains the researcher.

The journalist from New York Times Magazine invites us to embrace this in-between, which, she assures, “has serious creative advantages”. And testifies to the plasticity of our brain, which constantly adapts.

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