Let’s say that you’ve been learning Spanish for two years now. You’re a dedicated student, and to fully immerse yourself in the language and culture, you’ve spent several months living in Madrid. Upon returning home, you happily try to talk to your friends and family about your excursions in a foreign country. While trying to communicate your recent experiences, such as your flight back, you find yourself inserting Spanish phrases in sentences that you know you meant to say in English and trying desperately to remember the word for “plane.”
If you’re worried that this word mix-up is a symptom of a brain disorder, you can stop panicking. The deterioration of language skills is called language attrition, and it’s a common phenomenon that comes from immersion in a second language. Second language acquisition can interfere with your first language in several ways, including word substitution (“I never drink leche in the afternoon”), syntactic interference (“If he were at the store yesterday, he would have been buying milk”), and forgotten vocabulary (“He went to the store to buy . . . something”).
Because immersion in a second language can result in partial loss of the first language over time, much of the research on language attrition has focused on the erosion of primary languages in immigrants once they have integrated into new cultures. Though this information may sound bleak, keep in mind that it showcases the mind’s inherent ability to adapt to change. If you are living in a new country, you need to exercise your second language more than you need to recall the details of your first. The brain’s ability to learn this new style of communicating allows people to thrive in different parts of the world.
See? Language attrition is good news, after all.