How to cope with first language attrition as a newly arrived expat

How to cope with first language attrition as a newly arrived expat

How to cope with first language attrition as a newly arrived expat

First language attrition when learning a new language can be a problem for expats.

Many expats who’ve accepted a relocation to an unfamiliar country with an even more unfamiliar language can experience ‘first language attrition’ – the forgetting of familiar words leading to an inability to correctly express themselves in their native language. It’s disturbing at best and scary at worst, especially when you’re aware you’re struggling to make sense in your own language. The brain simply doesn’t seem able to cope with the basic levels of two languages.

Finding out you’re one of millions of expats who experience the same unpleasant symptoms whilst learning a new language may be reassuring, but it doesn’t make coping with it any easier, especially if you’re a new arrival without the opportunity to make many English-speaking friends. One way of dealing with the syndrome is to speak your native language whenever possible, but when you’re busy adjusting to a new job it’s usually not possible. As with many other expat issues, the internet is your friend, as reading as many English language newspaper articles, books and magazines as you can find is one way not to temporarily lose access to your own language.

The syndrome itself is your brain’s reaction to relearning familiar ingrained speech patterns by replacing what you’ve learned before with a new speech pattern and form of expression. When human babies first learn to speak, the brain relates language to physical reality and makes the words instinctive and spontaneous. as in ‘thinking as you speak’. Adults learning another language in adulthood attempt to achieve the same spontaneity, which then takes the place of the words you’ve learned as a child, but doesn’t actually replace your native tongue, which is never actually lost.

This is why reading articles and books in your native language will help you lose the disturbing effects of first language attrition. Oddly enough, expats who absorb the culture of their new home country seem to have a similar syndrome as regards their original culture in their country of birth, as if the experience of living overseas is replacing the understanding of the home country’s culture.

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