Standing up to attrition

Standing up to attrition

This content has been archived. It may no longer be relevant

How to safeguard your native language

Language attrition is a risk for all of us who live in a country that doesn’t speak our language. It happens when we start to allow vocabulary and grammatical constructions from the language of the country where we live to creep into our native language, in my case English. It has an obvious negative effect on translations and it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.

As I’ve already mentioned a couple of times on this blog, here and here, after the Brexit vote I really have no wish to go on being British. My first visit to the country I once called home since the referendum disaster will be in a couple of weeks, and, to be honest, I am dreading it. As I still have family in the UK, I imagine I will continue to go from time to time, but I can see that being less and less frequent, especially if some of the visa plans I’ve heard talked about are put into effect.

This clearly represents a risk, so I thought I’d share some things I do or have done that make me less likely to fall victim to language attrition. I’ve used the word “English” here because I assume this blog is largely read by English-speaking translators, but exactly the same principles will apply, whatever your native language is.

1. Speak English. I speak English at home. When I met my Catalan wife I couldn’t speak either her own language or Spanish, so we started speaking English together and, as any mixed nationality couple knows, once you start speaking a language it’s very difficult to change. I also speak English with my nine-year-old son, as from the very beginning I found it completely unnatural to speak any other language with him. This has gone through its awkward moments when he’s sometimes been reluctant to follow my lead, but I’m delighted that he speaks excellent, natural sounding English, although with a few idiosyncrasies that make me realise how attrition actually operates. He has a particular genius for inventing his own verbs in all three of the languages he speaks by simply adapting a verb from one of the others. For my part, though, I’m convinced that speaking English every day keeps the language alive for me. It must be much more difficult for anyone who doesn’t.

2. Listen to English. This time I’m not talking about English at home. That can too easily become infected with your own family’s expressions, some of them drawn from your source language. I mean real English on radio, television, films in original version or wherever else you can find it. Personally, a lot of my exposure to English comes via the BBC, particularly Radio 4, although it seems my ability to listen to it may soon be under threat as the Corporation clamps down on listening by those without TV licences. Still, I am quite ingenious and unscrupulous at finding ways round broadcasting restrictions on a computer so I’m quite confident of avoiding them.

3. Read English. It’s so easy to read in whatever language you like on the Internet these days that I almost forgot to mention this. Read blog posts, newspaper articles, whatever you like and see how the way the language is used subtly changes over time. Or just get annoyed about mistakes and bad grammar on the Internet and read books instead.

4. Teach English. Anyone who works with English should teach it at some point, and an awful lot of English-speaking people already have. I taught for a while and, although I didn’t enjoy it very much, I learned an awful lot, having to work out how to explain fine points of grammar I had never actually been taught myself. I stopped giving classes some time ago but, partly just to get me out of the house, I spend an hour a week chatting in English with a small group of Catalans. I won’t take money for it – I do it because I want to – although I do allow my conversation partners to buy me a beer. But listening to non-native speakers talking and deciding whether to correct them is also an excellent way of spotting exactly the kind of not-quite-English I could fall into if I dropped my guard.

4. Be observant. Which expressions are coming in and which are going out? Has that Americanism now been adopted in UK English? What kind of people are using which expressions? Whenever you listen to other native speakers it pays to be observant. That doesn’t mean you have do adopt everything you read and hear without question, but maybe if you’re editing someone else’s work should at least consider not correcting words or phrases you’ve heard or seen other people use, even if they wouldn’t come naturally to you. An example would be the most obvious change I’ve noticed in UK English in the 17 years I’ve lived abroad. When I left Britain, most people when asked the question “How are you?” would say “I’m fine”. Now, almost everyone will say “I’m good”, a response that really grates on my ears, but, when even older characters in the world longest running radio soap opera The Archers start using it, I have no choice but to accept the usage.

5. Listen to young people. At a time when most of the world’s ills – Brexit, Trump, global warming – seem to be mostly the fault of my own failed generation, it’s heartening to think that the future depends not on us but on young people. And the future of language is also in their hands, so if you want to hear where the language is going, listen to them. You might not always like what you hear, still less want to adopt some of the usages, but you will find it clever, innovative and enlightening.



  1. Genevieve Shaw

    This is a topic I think a lot about. I often think of us as being ‘contaminated’. A lot of EU jargon is based on attrition, with words like ‘actors’ for ‘players’ or ‘partners’ becoming acceptable usage. It is a difficult trade off though because part of the reason I came to live in Spain was to be able to speak Spanish and Catalan as much as I could.

    • Simon Berrill

      I think actors is horrible too, Genevieve, but it’s so widely used now even beyond the EU that it’s impossible to ignore. I suppose I’ve ended up still using a lot of English because I came here to live and I see the languages as tools for doing that rather than an end in themselves. But we certainly need to be careful.


Submit Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *