It was lunchtime and my co-worker asked me to make a note of what I wanted for takeout. Working as a summer-term English teacher in Tianjin, China at the time, I was eager to try boxed lunches that were popular among the students. I remember struggling and erasing my draft several times before I could admit that I forgot how to write the Chinese character for ‘box.’
This scenario was just one of many since my family’s migration from China to Canada. As a nine-year-old child, I practiced calligraphy, recited poetry, and loved Chinese literature class. If I were to meet my former self, I may not be able to out-compete her in Chinese language skills.
This experience resonates with many bilingual speakers who can comprehend text and speech in their first language but have trouble speaking and writing in it.
Researchers at the University of Essex believe attrition in a healthy bilingual adult ultimately arises from competition between the two languages in the brain. Although both languages are active, one will eventually dominate. In addition, continuous inhibition of the native language can make recalling vocabulary and syntax difficult, since the brain substitutes these with those of the second language.
Age is one of the biggest factors that lead to a decline in native language proficiency.
Children who immigrate before reaching puberty — which is often considered the critical period for cementing language skills — are the most prone to first language attrition because their mother tongue has not been fully acquired yet.
Due to the plasticity in developing brains, linguistic concepts children learn from their first language are not stored permanently. Along with prolonged inhibition by a newly acquired second language, this causes a gradual loss of the language.
On the other hand, adolescents past the critical period are less prone to first language attrition, but the access pathway for the retrieval of the language can be influenced by the second language. For example, vocabulary and grammar substitutions can occur, but the underlying principles remain intact.
Contrary to popular belief, prolonged contact with the native culture’s migrant group cannot prevent attrition. In fact, this can make the speaker more susceptible to interference.
A French study comparing isolated contact and continuous contact with immigrant communities found that frequently switching between two languages and activating the languages together eventually leads to native language attrition.
The brain cannot completely inhibit the second language when activating the first language, resulting in the interference of concepts from both. This gradual loss is characterized by restructured sentences and grammar.
It can be difficult to accept that you are no longer proficient in your native language. Like many other immigrants, I experienced culture shock upon my arrival to Canada. I longed to speak English as fluently as my peers. The desire to assimilate to a new culture can overpower the desire to maintain a native one. As a result, some children may even feel ashamed of their native language due to feelings of social rejection.
Eventually, these thoughts morph into an innate desire to forget the native language, which can have devastating effects on its maintenance.
A study on German fluency in Jewish Germans who immigrated to America just before or after the onset of World War II showed that there were drastic reductions in syntax and vocabulary compared to the successful maintenance of German in immigrants who were not affected by World War II.
Typical linguistic factors, such as age and language exposure, had little influence on attrition. Instead, the traumatic prosecution endured by Jewish Germans and their wish for acceptance from American society caused them to distance themselves from German culture, and in turn, the German language.
These factors pose a big problem for immigrants, especially of our generation, because language is so intertwined with culture and identity.
So how do we recover what has been lost? There needs to be just enough exposure to the language — but not too much — to prevent interference. Short periods of intense cultural exposure are the most ideal, especially if that exposure takes place in a person’s native country.
A case study shows that perhaps even a 10-day visit is sufficient and can provide more opportunities for first language activation and language production than typical weekend language schools.
Bilingualism is not a black-and-white concept — it exists as a spectrum ranging from dominance of one language to a balanced state where the two languages are equally active. Languages are fluid and constantly changing along with our environment.
On my flight back to Toronto Pearson International Airport from Tianjin, the man sitting beside me asked if I could help translate his declaration card from English to Chinese because it was his first time flying to a foreign country. He then asked about the cultural differences that he would encounter in Canada. I realized that, despite my brief language attrition, perhaps that is the greatest benefit of bilingualism — the ability to bridge two cultures.