Amongst the many challenges facing foreign language learners and speakers there is the added and frequently unforeseen side-effect of language attrition or the gradual loss of ones first (or other) language through lack of use.
Needless to say, language attrition works both ways – when you are immersed in a new language, for example while living overseas, the risk is in losing your first language while you spend all your time speaking a second language. Then when you return to your own country your newly acquired language falls into disuse. So you lose either way! The effect is compounded by following one of the most often recommended strategies for learning a language – that being language immersion. The more you immerse in one language the more that your other languages suffer from attrition.
Language attrition manifests itself in various ways, such as simply in forgetting words you used to know and resorting to an ever shrinking vocabulary. Also getting increasingly unfamiliar words mixed up with your other languages. Since language is alive and changing year by year, the longer you are cut off from a language the less up to date you become and you are left speaking a relatively archaic form instead of staying hip and trendy like the cool kids back home. You may not even notice or realise how out of touch you sound but to get an idea, check out BBC presenters today compared to 50 years ago, or find some old language course tapes designed to teach your native language and see what they sound like today – you may be surprised!
Such language dissociation is a common problem amongst heritage languages of course and one reason why it is so important for migrants to pass on their heritage language to their children before it is lost.
So what can you do to mitigate this language attrition? Well basically many of the same techniques and methods you used to learn a new language can also be used to maintain your existing language(s). Of course you can’t really spend much time on maintenance while you are aiming for the recommended total immersion to learn a new language as it goes against the whole concept of immersion.
However there is generally a learning phase and then a maintenance phase and so once you have progressed into the maintenance phase (which doesn’t mean you give up trying to learn more of course), you can then spend some time maintaining any other language you already know, along with your new language, using the usual language resources such as language exchanges, reading books, watching movies etc. The trick, as with everything in life, is to maintain a balance.