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Lost for words – in your native language


When I was fifteen, I was awarded a scholarship to live and study for a high school year in Nashville, Tennessee. This would have a huge impact not only on my English – if y’all know what I’m sayin’– but on my native Italian, too. Indeed, shortly after my return to Italy from the United States, my mom was very much worried about my ability to speak my native language. “You seem to have forgotten your Italian” – she would say – when the words I needed would oftentimes come to my mind in English, first, and only later in Italian. Sometimes, they would not come at all. Now, imagine speaking a mixture of Italian and English to your Italian-only speaking parents… thank God the word for pizza is the same in both languages! But I thought I always had a thing for languages; not only foreign ones – in fact, I was very passionate about my own Italian. I loved writing. Grammar and punctuation were my thing. How could this have happened to me? It felt as if my native language had become somewhat foreign to me after only one year of speaking the Bard’s language with a southern American twist. Unbelievable. 

Fast forward nine years, and here I am, at the University of Edinburgh, doing research on – you may be able to guess it – the exact same phenomenon I described above. Specifically, my PhD project looks at how learning a second language after puberty may have effects on the way one speaks his or her own first language; what, in developmental linguistics, is known as ‘first language attrition’.

I am particularly interested in understanding whether attrition affects different domains of linguistic competence to the same degree, and whether first language attrition goes hand in hand with second language acquisition. To put it in other words: is the ability to remember words influenced more than that of forming grammatical sentences in your first language?

But also, does second language learning affect the way you sound in your first language, too – in that your accent might get less native-like in your first language? Additionally, I am intrigued by the factors which, in turn, might mediate the degree of first language attrition that one experiences – such as the type and quantity of input in the second language, the amount of time spent actively speaking the language, and the degree of proficiency reached in the second language.

I ultimately aim to understand not only what, but also who gets ‘attrited’– is it the most proficient second language learners? Those who are immersed in a foreign language environment? Or less proficient, classroom-based learners, too?

In order to address these under-examined issues, in the upcoming year I will be gathering data from different groups of language learners: in the UK, I will look at how learning Italian in a classroom compares to studying Italian abroad for a semester; similarly, in Italy, I will look at how learning English in a classroom compares to studying English abroad for a semester. I will then examine the effects that learning Italian has on English, and those of English learning on Italian – seeking to understand whether immersion in the foreign language environment plays a role in the occurrence of attrition, and whether there is a link between second language proficiency and first language attrition. 

As you have gathered by now, my personal interest for this PhD topic stems from my very own background; yet, I believe that a more thorough understanding of attrition and language learning in general will not only benefit me, but our increasingly bilingual and multilingual society as a whole.

About Mattia

Linguistics PhD student Mattia is the Linguistics Social Media Ambassador (Research Focus) at the University of Edinburgh. Keep an eye on the Linguistics & English Language at Edinburgh Twitter account @EdinUniLEL for research and event updates from Mattia.

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