How does living in France affect your English?

Forgetting some English is more common than you might think - in fact there is even a word for this

Can living in France make your English worse?
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A US journalist recently wrote about her experience of losing her English after she moved to France. 

In ‘Can you lose your native tongue?’, Madeleine Schwartz writes that she found herself suddenly struggling to bring to mind some English words after she had been living in France for a couple of years. 

This experience is not uncommon for people who move to a different country. 

“Losing one’s native language is a recognised reality, and linguists call it attrition,” Cécile de Cat, Professor of Linguistics and Phonetics at Leeds University, tells The Connexion

“Attrition doesn't affect everyone in the same way. It depends on how actively you maintain your language (e.g., through reading). It affects vocabulary – as you learn fewer new words, and forget some – but also other areas of language.”

‘Access to words becomes slower’

One of the first signs of language attrition among English speakers who have moved to France is often vocabulary – noticing a word comes to mind faster in French and struggling to think of its English equivalent. 

“I definitely notice myself forgetting the words for things if I’m in the middle of an English-language conversation and picture the thing in French first,” says a colleague, who has lived in France for four years. 

He recalls supermarket trips where he can only think of the French word for certain vegetables.

These changes are, if anything, to be expected and are a normal part of bilingualism, according to experts. 

“Changes in the native language are completely natural and selective: not only does access to words become slower, but certain aspects of grammar are initially more affected than others, and this creates more variation in the way people speak,” says Antonella Sorace, Professor of Developmental Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, who specialises in bilingualism. 

“Attrition is a term with negative connotations, but in fact languages in contact always change, both in the individual speaker’s brain and in communities.” 

This phenomenon of language loss will be familiar to some native English speakers who have lived in France for many years. 

“My husband and I have both found that we have replaced quite a few English words with French ones – from the basic truc instead of thingy to midi as the standard for lunchtime,” says writer Sheenagh Harrington, who moved to France with her family from the UK in 2009. 

“They tend to slip into daily conversation without us really noticing – I often say I've forgotten the English word,” she says.

“I have had a lot of experience forgetting words in English, especially when I use the French word more often than the English one,” says American travel blogger Jen Ciesielski, who moved to Paris six years ago and has lived in Strasbourg since 2019. 

“When I first started speaking French, there was a period of about six months where I didn't speak English at all. I had a job interview at a big company and it was in English. I, actually, stumbled quite a bit and at one moment I asked if we could speak in French,” she says. 

What causes language loss? 

The extent of language loss, or attrition, can depend on how well established the language was when a person was exposed to a new language. People who were adopted as children, for example, will lose their original language faster than those who were adopted as teenagers. 

“But even adults who are competent speakers of their heritage language can experience language attrition, and the extent of the loss will be determined by how much or how little they still hear and use their heritage language,” says Professor Ludovica Serratrice, from the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences at the University of Reading. 

“If we stop reading in the heritage language our vocabulary becomes less rich and we start experiencing ‘tip of the tongue phenomena’ where we have difficulty accessing lower-frequency words,” she says. 

Ms Harrington has noticed that because her son Robert, 14, who was born in France to two English parents, is not as big a reader as his siblings, there is a stronger French influence on his English. 

“His sentence structure is naturally French. It can make him sound a bit strange from time to time and lead to frustrations,” she says. 

Research into bilingualism has also focused on the effects of parental language loss on successive generations. 

“My personal example: because my Italian has changed, the Italian that my bilingual children (born and raised in Edinburgh, with an American father) heard from me was not the same as the Italian I heard from my parents while I was growing up in Italy,” says Professor Sorace.

Grammatical loss 

Professor Serratrice says that while grammar is typically more robust to language loss than vocabulary, your native language can be affected by “crosslinguistic influence” from the other language, e.g. French grammar rules start to impose on your English. 

“For example when word order is flexible in the heritage language but more fixed in the new language, when we speak the heritage language we stop using the full variety of word orders and we become more fixed,” she says.

A colleague at The Connexion, who has lived in France for over 20 years, has noticed French creeping into her English syntax. 

“I find myself saying things like ‘Do you want a coffee or not?’ and that “or not” (common in French) sounds a tad aggressive in English” she says. 

“While a mature and competent speaker may not really lose a language, they certainly can experience difficulty in accessing their linguistic knowledge and in using the language in the same way as they did before moving,” says Professor Serratrice. 

“I sometimes say ‘make attention’ (faire attention à quelque chose) rather than ‘look out’. I also say I do sports rather than play sports… my mom is constantly telling me to rephrase things or that she doesn't understand,” says blogger Ms Ciesielski. 

And even linguistics experts are not immune to the phenomenon. 

“I observe in myself that, after more than 20 years in the UK, I started making mistakes with the subjunctive in French, and sometimes even with the gender of pronouns, especially when mixing French and English with my son,” says Professor De Cat. 

Is core knowledge affected?

While more superficial changes to the language are well documented, there is less research into how much attrition affects deep grammatical knowledge. 

“In the case of adult speakers who migrate well in adulthood we know that changes happen at a 'superficial level' (not feeling confident speaking your native language, forgetting words, picking up a different accent etc) but the key question for many linguists including me is: do the changes affect unconscious grammatical knowledge, which is the key core knowledge of a language e.g. the rules that make English different to French,” says Laura Dominguez, Professor of Linguistics at Southampton University.

“For instance, the basic word order of sentences or attaching '-ed' to verbs to mark past actions. These are the type of deep changes that linguists want to see but existing research has not been able to show convincingly,” she says. 

Lost for good?

If you notice language attrition creeping in there is a simple solution – try to use your native language more. 

“The good news is that increasing exposure and use of the heritage language through speaking … watching films or digital media, and reading books can boost the heritage language and stem language attrition,” says Professor Serratrice. 

And it is possible to tackle language deterioration. 

“Changes can be reversed, if speakers are re-exposed to their native language,” says Professor Sorace. 

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