Natasha Mumbi Nkonde tells me she’s “haunted” by what she sounded like as a child. Nkonde, who was born in Zambia in 1984 and moved to the UK when she was six, remembers speaking two different languages—Bemba and Nyanja. Naturally, she was forced to switch to English once she migrated to Britain. But it wasn’t until she returned to Zambia in 2008 (almost 20 years later) that she realized how much her first two languages had eroded away.
“My tongue couldn’t get itself round the words. I’d be able to understand really clearly what people say to me, but couldn’t formulate a sentence,” says Nkonde, a black feminist working as regional organizer at The Edge Fund and co-founder of The GLC Story.
As if it wasn’t painful enough coming to terms with the slow erosion of her mother tongue, and how isolating that could be when trying to connect with friends and loved ones in her home country, people accused her of doing it on purpose. Some said she was someone who had returned to Zambia from the UK and now felt “too good” to speak her native languages, while others suggested she was just being lazy. But, Nkonde is far from alone.
The loss of a native language is a phenomenon known as first language attrition. And though it can evoke surprise and at times outrage, first language attrition is becoming all too common as a greater number of people move around the world.
“Attrition sounds very negative. It invokes this mental image of something grinding away at another and wearing it down. We don’t think that’s what’s actually happening,” says Monika Schmid, the leading researcher on language attrition currently based at the University of Essex. Schmid doesn’t believe the new language eradicates the mother tongue—it’s still there, just buried and dormant. More importantly, a growing body of research suggests that in many cases the language can be recovered.
In Britain, teenagers have to dissect and analyze a dozen or so poems whilst studying English literature and language in school. While the specific poems studied differ slightly from classroom-to-classroom, many Brits will remember Sujata Bhatt’s short yet searing poem, Search for My Tongue.
Written in both English and Gujarati, the poem encapsulates the fear of losing your native language. Bhatt is an Indian poet who grew up in Pune, but migrated to the US when she was 12. In her poem, she describes a war between these two languages, as they compete for dominance. She writes about her anguish as English seems to be winning out, but it’s when Bhatt is asleep and vulnerable, when she longs most for home, that her first language asserts itself more powerfully than before. Every time she fears she’s forgotten, Gujarati comes flooding back to her.
I sometimes dream in my native language, Arabic. For a slight moment, I speak and hold conversations fluently. I then wake up and am ripped back into the present. The sun rises and I’m left confused and trying to piece together sentences.
I couldn’t speak a word of English until I moved to the UK when I was seven years old. As Bhatt’s poem so aptly put it, my Arabic, was rotting in my mouth as I progressed through school. But I didn’t seem to notice or care much as a teenager. Among immigrants, there’s a real currency in picking up the language of your host country and losing your previous accent. The rapid pace I picked up English was a blessing and effectively fast-tracked my family’s assimilation into British society—the welfare system, access to health care, education, and other social services, and we found a stability that appears out of reach to so many other migrants.
Though as a school student, I was able to memorize the technique Bhatt uses in her poem for my exam—the repetition, the metaphors, and her use of free verse—it has taken a decade for me to truly understand her fear. She wasn’t just scared of losing her first language, but the consequence it would have on her sense of self. Without her native tongue, Bhatt would in many ways be severed from her community. She would be stuck, one foot in two worlds. Though she sounds like the people from her new home, she would still be seen as an outsider, and while she looks like the people of her birthplace, the words tumbling out of her mouth would be alien to them. She would feel disjointed, untethered.
It’s a fear Nkonde can relate to.“I can cook Zambian food, I’ve lived in Zambia—I feel connected to it. It’s my home. But not having the language is the thing that makes me feel the most disconnected,” Nkonde adds.
You don’t really notice losing your fluency in your native language until it’s almost too late. One moment you’re telling someone “Yarhamuk Allah” after they sneeze, and in the next you’re saying, “bless you.” You don’t notice how much of your vocabulary has slipped away until you’re suddenly forced to speak in only your native language—either because you’ve traveled or have had a loved one come to visit. But once you notice it’s gone, a sense of loss weighs on you more heavily.
“I remember many incidences of not being able to formulate a sentence. And after trying a few times the sentence just comes out wrong,” says Jaswinder Blackwell-Pal says, a PhD student Birkbeck University in London and play writer. The words sit on the tip of your tongue, feels close, yet so out of reach. “You don’t want to turn around to your grandmother and say a few incoherent words.”
Blackwell-Pal’s parents made the conscious decision to raise her bilingual in England, sending her to Punjabi child minders whilst also attending school in English. Blackwell-Pal was fluent in both languages up until she was 15, when she says she really couldn’t speak Punjabi anymore. She wasn’t sure why, or how, but somewhere between the ages of 11 and 14, her ability to speak Punjabi disappeared.
“It’s frustrating because you still feel that connection to it. But you don’t feel ownership over it,” Blackwell adds says.
The science of language loss
Bhatt’s iconic poem isn’t very far off from the science. Schmid describes a process where two languages struggle and compete for mental resources. When, for example, an Arabic speaker begins to learn English that person has to use quite a bit of mental energy to not use an Arabic word or Arabic sentence structure. When they have to focus on saying “bread” and “milk” in English, they have build a mental barrier to block the Arabic version of the words. But then if they want to say the words in Arabic, they have to override that inhibitory mechanism.
This results in a situation where even common words can be difficult to remember. The barrier is even harder to overcome when the speaker is trying to articulate words or sentences out loud, compared to just understanding what someone is saying. That’s why some people find they can easily understand a language, but can’t speak it.
“It’s not that you’re forgetting that language, what’s happening is that it has been buried and you have to dig it up again and that takes quite a bit of energy,” Schmid explains. This inhibitory mechanism is more powerful the greater someone is immersed in a second language.
First language attrition doesn’t just affect children. Steffi Graf, Germany’s most famous sports star is one particularly infamous example. In 2007, Graf admitted that she struggles to speak German. She announced this awkwardly whilst receiving the German media award for humanitarian engagement. “Sorry, I cannot speak German so much,” she said to the crowd—sparking astonished headlines (link in German) across the country.
Graf’s struggle to speak German is all the more remarkable considering her history. Born in Germany in 1969, Graf spent her childhood and a significant chunk of her adult life and tennis career there (quickly becoming one of Germany’s most influential women). She moved to the US in 2000 with her husband, where she went to raise her family. When she returned, however, she was speaking English fluently, but struggled to properly string together German sentences.
Graf isn’t a unique case. In 2014, US soldier and prisoner of war Bowe Bergdahl was released after five years in Taliban hands. When he was returned, his family said Bergdahl initially struggled to speak English.
Back to basics
All is not lost, though. Depending on your age, you can regain the mastery of your first language.
If a child grows up speaking one language, they would have acquired the grammatical rules of that language by the age of six, Schmid says. There’s a period between the age of six and 11 to 12, where the knowledge of that language is consolidated—”All of these things stabilize and firm up,” Schmid says. During that period in your life, you reach a point where mastering the language comes together and it locks into place.
But it’s also for this reason why children younger than 12 may struggle to retain the characteristics of a native speaker if they move. They might retain some knowledge of their first language, but they’ll likely speak it with a foreign accent, littered with grammatical mistakes.
If you understand the language, but struggle to speak it, it’s not a sign of the “first language eroding or being totally forgotten,” Schmid says, adding, “it’s still there and can be reactivated”—it just needs some attention.
The speaker has to overcome the inhibitory mechanism that made one language more dominant than the other and overcoming that barrier takes practice and lots of it. For some, that practice means going to a class to learn the grammar and more complex vocabulary that they’re struggling to remember. But for others, it means immersing themselves back in their home country or being surrounded with native speakers. Nkonde returned to Zambia and lived there for several years. She said it would have been quite a “strange experience” to sit down in a class and try to formally relearn hear native languages. It was more “comfortable” for her to learn it around other people. The key, Nkonde says, is to allow herself “to be vulnerable to attempt to speak my language,” pointing to the fact that for so many people the fear of saying something wrong is what keeps them silent.
But what if you can’t understand the mother tongue at all? Retrieving what’s known as the “birth language” is unfortunately far more difficult.
There’s some evidence to suggest that the language we learn at an early age leave traces on the brain. A 2014 study found that Chinese children adopted at 12 months by French-speaking families in Canada were able to respond to so-called “Chinese tones.” The study recruited girls aged between nine and 17-years-old and put them into three groups; girls who only spoke French and were never exposed to Chinese, bilingual girls who spoke both French and Chinese, and Chinese adoptee who only spoke French. The girls had to listen to “pseudo words” that used the tones found in Chinese languages. The study found that bilingual girls and those who had been exposed to Chinese in early years had the same brain activity when listening to the pseudo words.
But though scientists found that early exposure to Chinese left a demonstrable trace in the brain, it doesn’t necessarily mean that these girls have a huge advantage when it comes to re-learning Chinese. Another 2014 study, using Chinese adoptees in the Netherlands, found that while these adoptees were better than monolingual Dutch children at producing Chinese tones, they weren’t any better at deciphering the distinction between these tones. The advantage to being exposed to another language in early years, Schmid notes, appears to be limited to “phonological features.”
That said, those exposed to a language in their early years might have some advantages. A 2009 study looked at Korean adoptees in Sweden who had spent extensive time learning Korean and lived in Korea for a few years as adults. Researchers found that the group of Korean adoptees did better on phonetic tests than a group of Swedish adults who had also been learning Korean and lived in Korea. The study suggested that while the two groups didn’t differ much on ability on some language tests, early exposure to Korean gave the group of adoptees an advantage in other tests.
In short, the language we are born hearing, however young, have a very strange way of staying with us.
University is in many ways quite a ruthless introduction to adulthood. Young people have to pave a way for themselves; picking their career, the person they want to be, the friends they want to surround themselves with, whilst juggling rent, bills, and their studies. But it’s when you’re forging a new life for yourself that the past can quietly bleed in.
It was a cold December morning and I was sat in my partner’s kitchen watching it snow. The small three-bedroom house sat on a quiet cul-de-sac. He had asked what I wanted to eat for breakfast and I had asked for the cereal, cornflakes. He looked confused—“Some what?” he said. “Cornflakes,” I said again. He smiled as an understanding dawned on his face—“You mean cornflakes.” It wasn’t really up to that moment that I had realized I’d been pronouncing it wrong—saying corn-fur-la-kes—my whole life. It hadn’t really come up before. I should have felt embarrassed, but I ended up smiling. We both laughed.
For someone who quickly learnt the English language, mostly through reading, there were countless words I had pronounced incorrectly. Over the years, whenever someone pointed out that I had said the word wrong—it’s econ-no-mist, not econ-no-mis-cist—I would make a mental note on how to say it and practice at home. But there are an array of words that creep up on me in adulthood that I wouldn’t have had to say outside my home and among my family. I hold onto those mistakes now after burying them initially under many mental layers—the seven-year-old girl, who lived, breathed, and consumed Arabic, had found a way to burst through.
I had called my mom and asked her then to speak to me in only Arabic. Our conversations became an awkward dance where I would suddenly pause mid-sentence and ask; what’s the Arabic word for banana? Month? Happiness? And my mom would answer patiently. I wasn’t only slowly relearning my first language, but rediscovering my mom’s dark sense of humor and her wicked turn of phrase.
Research has shown that how someone feels about a language can also have an impact. In other words, the more positive you feel about language, the easier it is to learn or reclaim.
Schmid points to her 2002 study of German-Jewish refugees, which found a link between the amount of persecution a participant had gone through under the Nazi regime and how much German they were still able to speak. She was surprised to find that other more obvious factors—the age the refugees were when they left Germany, the amount of German they had spoken once moving, and even whether their partner was German—didn’t have a direct link to maintenance of their native language. While some participants were keen to never speak German again (the language, they said, of their oppressors), others held onto the only thing they had left from their parents and loved ones. It was this that ended up being a major factor on their mastery of German.
Growing up in a post-9/11 world, I was keen to distance myself from my Arab and Muslim identity. I had swallowed the attitudes of what others had said about my mother tongue; that it was harsh, aggressive, and even angry, and found myself parroting it back to others. But Arabic isn’t a cold or brutal language, it’s one that feels me with warmth and comfort. It’s the language I want to love others in, the language I want to joke in, and the one I feel most raw. When my partner has been away and he returns, I think “wahashtny”—“I missed you”—a word with the notorious hard “h” sound that so many English speakers struggle to pronounce and use it as a sign to show the language’s “ugliness.” But it’s one that highlights its depth. “Wahashtny; the word comes from deep down my throat, a guttural sound that erupts within me to express the simultaneous ache and relief to see a loved one once more.
Relearning and regaining your mastery in your mother tongue isn’t easy; it’s one that takes years and you may never sound like you once did as a child. But it’s a journey worth taking. On it, you find that once a stranger, your mother tongue, envelopes you once again.