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Tip of the tongue

First language attrition in bilinguals is more common than you think

Tip of the tongue

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.

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.

From Toronto to ‘Tronna’

U of T linguists chart how language has changed in Toronto over 150 years

From Toronto to ‘Tronna’

“Everybody has an opinion about language. Everybody observes language,” Professor of Linguistics Sali Tagliamonte tells me as we sit in her sunlit fourth-floor office in the Sidney Smith building on St. George campus. “And as a language scientist, you’re constantly like, ‘Yeah, right, why would you want to listen to me? I’m the one who studies it.’ No no one believes us!”

It is less an exclamation of exasperation than a kind of exuberant incredulity. “It’s a great time to be a sociolinguist,” she says.

As part of Canada’s sesquicentenary, a team of professors and graduate students at the U of T Department of Linguistics, including Tagliamonte, has charted the changes in language in Toronto over the last century and a half.

The group has organized a series of three workshops over the course of the year, which are designed to explore language change in Toronto and promote broader awareness and discussion of a topic that Tagliamonte says “everybody is interested in… And everyone talks about.”

In conjunction with this program, a pop-up exhibit from the Canadian Language Museum titled Canadian English, Eh? will offer a broader, cross-Canada view of language change over the course of our country’s 150 years.

Toronto’s heritage languages

A forthcoming workshop entitled Toronto Language Tapestry: Exploring Heritage Languages will take place this Friday, April 28 at Woodsworth College. Organized by U of T Associate Professor of Linguistics Naomi Nagy, the event will consist of a series of presentations by researchers who have been investigating the shifts in the heritage languages spoken by first- and second-generation Torontonians, such as Italian, Cantonese, and Polish. 

The range of languages spoken in Toronto is staggering. More than two million residents’ home language is neither English nor French, Canada’s two official languages. Diversity makes for an interesting laboratory for people who study language,” says Tagliamonte. Her colleague Nagy emphasizes that the melting pot of the Torontonian cultural tapestry may be forging entirely new dialects.

“Italian has been spoken in Toronto for a hundred years,” she says. “Now, it seems possible that we’re developing a Canadian dialect of Italian. And so to see if that’s true… we’ve been recording speakers of different generations — immigrants, children of immigrants, grandchildren of immigrants — and looking at whether there are differences in their pronunciation or their grammar or their vocabulary.”


Highlighting changes

The first event of the sesquicentennial workshop series introduced the theme of language change in Toronto. Titled From Quaint to Cool: 150 Years of Language Change in Toronto, the event was held on March 3 at the Jackman Humanities Institute. Topics spanned Confederation-era Toronto English to the movement of social media slang into everyday speech in the present day.

Tagliamonte, an organizer of this event, emphasizes the magnitude of language change in Toronto since the nineteenth century. “‘From Quaint to Cool’ is exactly what has happened. We have gone from Victorian English and Canadian Dainty, where people had British accents, right down to the GLBQ phenomenon going on today,” she says, referencing the debate around heteronormative biases in language and gender pronoun identification that has ignited a firestorm of controversy at U of T and elsewhere.

Language change is both an indisputable and mysterious phenomenon. As with biological evolution, subtle processes of gradual, cumulative change lead to new words and pronunciations that share few similarities with their predecessors. The differences between the late-fourteenth-century English of Chaucer and the English of the present day bear testament to the dramatic shifts that punctuate any language’s history; they are reflections of the ever-changing cultures that speak them.

“It’s a great time to be a language scientist, because… language change keeps apace with sociocultural change,” Tagliamonte says. “And so if you think of the twentieth century, it’s amazing how much change has gone on… 1991, when the World Wide Web goes online, things explode after that in terms of social contacts and interactions in multi-dimensional global world communication… Before most of my students have breakfast they’ve already had a conversation with someone in another country, let alone the neighbours down the street.”


Our city’s name serves as an interesting example of language change. Both the first ‘o’ and the second ‘t’ in Toronto are subject to deletion based on the speaker, creating variants that carry cultural information. Formal speech, such as that of an American sports announcer covering a Leafs-Penguins hockey game, tends to accentuate the consonants —Tor-ON-toe. This variation is generally mocked by native Torontonians, who take pride in trimming the primness of that second ‘t’ to produce Ta-raw-no or Tronna.

Both variants are often used in exaggerated fashion by non-Torontonian Canadians to poke fun at a city that itches for an accent and the individualism that comes with it — think Boston, for example. “When we’re trying to imbue words with sociosymbolic value, they often undergo those kinds of processes,” Tagliamonte notes. One wonders if Calgary and Halifax might be undergoing similar sound changes, to Caw-gree and Ha-fax.

Simplification or reduction of word sounds appear to be the dominant mechanisms at work in such a shift. Like a pencil tip being whittled down with use, words used with higher frequency in language tend to undergo processes of weakening, shortening, and deletion that permanently change the word in question. The middle vowel in a commonly-used word like every is more likely to be dropped than in lower-usage words such as wintery or memory. Consonant deletion is apparent in the many high-frequency English words that begin with the consonant cluster ‘kn’ but that are today pronounced without the hard ‘k’ — know and knife, for example.


Understanding dynamism

There are many interesting histories and idiosyncrasies to the words we use so freely today without second thought. Because language change is so gradual, it is difficult for most speakers to recognize the dynamism and pliancy of the spoken and written word, which contain our history and our future. The events organized by the department seek to address this gap in our awareness about perhaps our most important tool as humans.

“One of the things we would like to share and celebrate is the fact that language is an amazing thing,” says Tagliamonte. “That’s part of who we are as human beings.”

Language is a useful criterion in examining the way a community or city’s cultural coherence and collective thought processes change over time. As such, symptoms of generational divides inevitably emerge when tracking changes and shifts in the written and spoken word.

Nagy notes that parents often criticize their children for not speaking their heritage language with enough frequency or proficiency. As a result, younger generations use English more because “in many cases, their English is better than their parents’ and their grandparents’ English… so it’s kind of much safer for them.”

When English becomes the default, heritage languages risk a decline into obsolescence. But instead of disappearing, they may also morph into new dialects, as noted above with the example of a distinct Canadian-Italian dialect. It is a development that Nagy acknowledges is contentious among older-generation speakers even as it is extremely fascinating to linguists.

“Part of the goal of this project is to understand how languages change, but another part of it is to try to help the communities where these languages are spoken to understand that languages do change… When a language has fewer speakers, change can be very scary for the people where that language is an emblem of their whole culture,” Nagy says.

Tagliamonte adds, “When you look at language, you’re not just looking at a complex, adaptive system that is rich in systemically shifting parts… We’re also looking at something that operates in a social world, with interactions and people and prestige and identity.”

Speakers who identify closely with their native language and recognize peers in their community based on sociolinguistic cues are untethered when the mainstay of their culture changes across generations.

Canadian Indigenous languages

The third workshop in the linguistics series will take place this autumn and will focus on changes in Canadian Indigenous languages across time, taking on a broader view that includes many Indigenous communities. “As we go back in time, we can grow in the geographic scope that we can look at,” Nagy explains.

This is a particularly important component of the project. Of the more than 60 languages spoken by our country’s Indigenous groups, as recorded by a 2011 Canadian census, only a few — such as Inuktitut, Anishinaabemowin, and Cree — are expected to survive.

Marginalized identities and dialects are being lost completely with the onward march of globalization. One need only look at the legacy of Canada’s residential schools, whereby entire Indigenous languages have been lost through the government’s program of assimilation and systemic eradication of these groups’ cultures.

In his Course on General Linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure writes that “without language, thought is a vague, uncharted nebula.” Tracking how language changes through the maelstrom of human expression is an important project in mapping the “nebula” of cultural thought and identity across its many dialects — and, as Tagliamonte notes, understanding what it means to be human.

The next event in the series, Toronto Language Tapestry: Exploring Heritage Languages takes place on Friday, April 28, 2017, 12–5 pm at Woodsworth College, Room 126.

How do you say Toronto?


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