June 25, 2024

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Living abroad means losing a little bit of your mother tongue

Living abroad means losing a little bit of your mother tongue

“The first time was during dinner. I was talking to my husband, who grew up in Paris, the city we live in, and suddenly couldn’t get the word out. Remembers Madeleine Schwartz. The only thing she stumbled upon was the pronunciation of the “r” in English. Instead of training him in English, with the language, this “r” stuck in his throat. A scraping. French style.

The American journalist turns this linguistic hiccup into the starting point of a very personal story New York Times Magazine.

Born to an American mother and a French father, he grew up between New York and the Alsatian forests. In 2020, he moved to Paris. As the years pass, “To my great chagrin, I began to feel that my French, by improvisation, was contaminating my English”. She explains. By writing emails in French – “Please accept, Your Excellency, my warm regards” -, Here’s what happened:

“Back on vacation in New York, I thanked the cashier [la grande parapharmacie] Duane Reed of A ‘Dear Sir’ (‘Dear Sir’). My thoughts were interwoven with infinite rhetorical precautions, the fear of seeming uncivilized if I were too direct. Not only is my French improving: my English is getting worse.

Competition between languages

Can you forget your mother tongue? she asks herself. The question may seem silly, Because our mother tongue is linked to our identity… Besides, “In many languages, we associate the first words we utter with motherhood: it’s ‘mother tongue’ in French, ‘lengua materna’ in Spanish, ‘Muttersbrach’ in German”, Journalist underlines.

However, this cognitive rooting is more fragile than we think. Our mother tongue can be replaced by another language Or itch, she continues. It has a name: “Language Attrition”.

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This phenomenon is well documented in children, and there is a turning point: “A child who stops speaking a language by age 12 will forget it completely.” Then, the language does not disappear, but its mastery may deteriorate. The journalist quotes linguist Julie Sedivy: “Just as a home welcomes a new baby, so the mind cannot bring forth a new language without having effects on other existing languages.”

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