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First language attrition

by Céline Graciet

Most people take their mother tongue for granted. They don't consider the fact that those who live in a foreign environment are at risk of losing some of their language skills and fluency if they aren't looked after. First language attrition is a well-known phenomenon that has been widely studied and as a French woman living in the UK, is something that I am acutely aware of. The fact that I am also a translator means that I have a professional interest in maintaining my mother tongue as if I didn't, the quality of my work would suffer. So, as a paranoid French translator living in an English-speaking country, here are some of my thoughts and experiences of acquisition of a foreign language while trying to maintain one's mother tongue.

From the moment I set foot in England, I was determined to make the most of my nine months studying at the University of Sussex; I decided to avoid French speakers at all cost and to do everything I could to socialise with English speakers. This meant three months of initial misery, as I resisted joining the French community which rapidly formed on campus, but didn't master colloquial English well enough to form meaningful relationships with English speakers. However, once my English improved, which happened quicker than if I had mixed with French speakers, I made friends with a few natives (some of whom I still see regularly), and as a result of this early strategy, I don't actually know any French speakers in Brighton. This was great at first, when I needed to concentrate on my second language, but not so great now that I do need to practice my French.

Indeed, language is maintained through a continuous process of repetition and imitation and I have noticed that, if I'm not careful, my French weakens and English tends to pollute it, in several ways:

I remember reading somewhere that expatriates tend to retain their first language better, unconsciously "clinging on" to it, if they see their cultural make-up as central to their identity. I don't tend to define myself by my country and culture of origin, and blend happily into English society; I don't see the loss of a certain "Frenchness" (whatever that is) as a threat to my identity and my sense of who I am, and I think that if I didn't love languages as much as I do, I would probably let my French deteriorate to the point where I wouldn't sound like a native speaker any more.

Fortunately (and paradoxically), it is getting easier to retain my French. The Internet has made it very easy to access French newspapers, magazines, radio programmes, films, etc., and I spend on average an hour and a half listening to French. I try and vary my sources, so I stay familiar with its various different levels/registers: political debates, news programs, comedy, films... I even tried to lurk in teenage chatrooms to keep up with slang, but couldn't cope with "text message spelling" for very long. I don't just listen to French: Skype also means that I talk to my mother as often as I like, almost as easily as if she was in the next room (provided she's not chatting in her shop), which gives me direct practice. I recently participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), and although I ran out of steam and ideas after 21,000 words or so, writing in French was very useful, and I'm planning on taking a long-distance course to carry on honing my writing skills. Practice is key!

About the author:

Céline Graciet is an English to French translator and English to French and French to English interpreter from France who lives in Brighton, England. Her website can be found at: http://www.nakedtranslations.com and she runs a bilingual blog about translating, interpreting and language at: http://www.nakedtranslations.com/en/blog.php

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