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Can a second language affect your first language?

Emily By Emily Published on October 30, 2015

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This article was updated on November 26, 2015

It could be said that we take language for granted. We assume that the language we learned as a baby – and have continued speaking as a child, teenager and adult – will always stay with us and cannot be lost. Lost is a strong word: it would take years of isolation and nonverbal communication for a human being to actually lose his or her first language. However, the idea that your first language (L1) can be affected by the introduction and use of a second language (L2) is an interesting one.

In this article, I won’t deal with early bilingualism. The learning of two first languages simultaneously implies a whole different approach and result. What I want to look at is the effect of speaking a second language on an adult’s communication in his or her first language.

According to a study conducted in the United States, evidence suggests that immigrant children lose fluency in their first language due to English use at school and the need to speak English to communicate and assimilate. I won’t go too deeply into this study (it addresses other socioeconomic factors beyond the scope of this article), but I’m interested in the phenomenon mentioned above because it reflects my own situation – a British woman living in Montréal – and accounts for certain blips in my first language.

I started asking questions and listening to conversations. I took note of the following linguistic situations in which I found myself:

  • literal translation of an L2 expression into L1
  • language regression: the misapplication of grammatical rules
  • language mixing: the replacement of an L1 word with an L2 word

Let’s look at these sentences as examples:

“It’s at the home.”

“I thunk about it.”

“Can you pass the miel, please?”

The first sentence is not grammatically incorrect. The answer could refer to a residential home or an elderly person’s home, with the article the pointing to a specific place already mentioned in the conversation. But in this instance, I was referring to my home, and the article was unnecessary. My second language, French, was affecting my L1. This type of “error” is an example of “interference,” or literal translation of à la maison (“at home”).

The second sentence is grammatically incorrect. Thought is the correct form of the verb, which doesn’t follow the pattern of drink, drank, drunk or sink, sank, sunk. When the brain receives too much information to process – a new language, a new environment, a new job – it may not be able to keep up. Interestingly, we then witness how the building blocks of language are assembled – because they start to come apart. If we listen to a child speaking, we’re likely to hear forms such as “I eated, I wented, I goed.” It takes the child a while to acquire and apply grammatical rules. This can also happen to an adult who has already acquired the rules and can usually apply them. I made the above mistake a few weeks after my move to Québec, when I was busy adapting to a new accent, a new job and a winter of –30 degrees Celsius.

The third sentence is neither correct nor incorrect grammatically. Often context, the person you’re speaking to or a temporary inability to recall vocabulary can create the necessity for an L2 word in an L1 sentence. I was away for the weekend with friends and had been to various local farms, tasting local produce. All the descriptions and talks had been in my L2, so my brain went to miel rather than honey. Since the person answering my question understood both languages, the sentence didn’t seem wrong to me.

Was it wrong? Are any of these sentences wrong? On a grammatical level perhaps, but on a sociolinguistic level, they’re perfectly acceptable, and they demonstrate the beauty of learning a new language and adapting to different environments. I’m confident that I’ll never lose my first language, but my language output is certainly evolving in a different way than it would have if I’d never lived in a foreign country nor learned a second language. 

With 10 years in the publishing industry and 35 years of enjoying all types of books, I can safely say that I am a certified book lover. Language, linguistics and education is the domain I am ... Show More

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