We’ve been looking for the perfect sofa for our family room since we moved to the new house. It’s a tough layout, so it’s been hard to decide how we want it. By now, we’ve been to the nearby furniture stores a couple of times, we know the options and it’s just about time we make up our mind and finally get our couch. So, once again and filled with optimism, we roll up for the magical furniture store tour… they’ve got everything we need, satisfaction guaranteed.
After a couple of stops my husband suggests we go to the one where everyone speaks Spanish. I don’t remember that detail, but sure enough, as soon as we step in they greet us with a friendly hola. “Great! I get to speak Spanish with the seller, and even better, I can explain him in detail how challenging our family room is”, I confidently tell myself. So, off I go. I justify my first clumsy Spanish sentence because it is the transitional one. You know, where I switch the language. But then, I continue to describe to him how the TV (la televisión) is on one wall and the bonfire (la fogata) on the other. “The bonfire? The BONFIRE! Did I just say we have a fogata in our family room? That’s right. No wonder we can’t put a couch next to it!”, I’m embarrassedly thinking. He is nice enough to smile. “Yeah, you mean the fireplace (la chimenea)”, he says.
I want to tell him not to smile. Dear seller, don’t be nice. This seems pretty hilarious, but don’t let my tears of laughter fool you. It is not funny. In fact, it is brutal. You see, I’m a native speaker. I grew up in Mexico. I spoke Spanish all day, every day. Actually, I always secretly thought I had a decent vocabulary, and a skilled way with it. I was good with words! But that’s not all. There’s more to my tragedy: I also translate! People pay me to have the right word for that other word. Fogata? Really? Fogata!
This was my most recent episode of First Language Attrition, but I must confess I’ve had many more. Language Attrition is the loss of a first or second language or a portion of that language. People who routinely use more than one language may not use either of their languages the way a monolingual speaker would. The term First Language Attrition refers to the gradual decline in native language proficiency among migrants. Like Céline Graciet explains, “Most people take their mother tongue for granted. They don’t consider the fact that those who live in a foreign environment are at risk of losing some of their language skills and fluency if they aren’t looked after”.
Besides the technical difficulties, forgetting your language can also be deeply emotional. As Alexander McCall Smith puts it: “To lose your own language is like forgetting your mother, and as sad, in a way”, because it is “like losing part of one’s soul”.
I refuse to let that happen. Just as passionate as I was when encouraging my students to immerse into English, I will be an advocate for Spanish. I will speak it, I will listen to it and I will teach it. I may start by watching the news in Spanish in our new cozy couch.