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I’m sitting in my kitchen with my friend who is German trying to figure out a text message from her brother. He lives in her home country of Germany. They speak German to each other, a language that’s rich in quirky words, but she's never heard this one before: fremdschämen. 

She's too proud to ask him what it means. She knows that eventually, she'll get it. Still, it’s slightly painful to realise that after years of living abroad, her mother tongue can sometimes feel foreign.

Most long-term migrants know what it’s like to be a slightly rusty native speaker. The process seems obvious: the longer you are away, the more your language suffers. But it’s not quite so straightforward.

In fact, the science of why, when and how we lose our own language is complex and often counter-intuitive. It turns out that how long you’ve been away doesn’t always matter. Socialising with other native speakers abroad can worsen your own native skills.

The minute you start learning another language, the two systems start to compete with each other. Until the age of about 12, a person’s language skills are relatively vulnerable to change. Even nine-year-olds can almost completely forget their first language when they are removed from their country of birth.

Mingling with other native speakers actually can make things worse, since there’s little incentive to stick to one language if you know that both will be understood. The result is often a linguistic hybrid.

In England, one of the world’s most multilingual countries, this kind of hybrid is so common that it almost feels like an urban dialect. More than 300 languages are spoken here, and more than 20% of British speak a main language other than English. On a Sunday stroll through the parks, I catch about a dozen of them, from Polish to Korean, all mixed with English to varying degrees.
Stretched out on a picnic blanket, two lovers are chatting away in Italian. Suddenly, one of them gives a start and exclaims: “I forgot to close la finestra!”

In a playground, three women are sharing snacks and talking in Arabic. A little boy runs up to one of them, shouting: “Abdullah is being rude to me!” “Listen...” his mother begins in English, before switching back to Arabic.

Switching is of course not the same as forgetting. But over time, this informal back-and-forth can make it harder for your brain to stay on a single linguistic track when required: “You find yourself in an accelerated spiral of language change.”

I forget words.’ This is typically what people tell you: ‘I have difficulty finding the right word, especially when I use vocabulary that I learned for my job."

It is nice to be reminded that from a linguist’s point of view, there is no such thing as being terrible at your own language. And native language attrition is reversible, at least in adults: a trip home usually helps. Still, for many of us, our mother tongue is bound up with our deeper identity, our memories and sense of self. 
Which is why my friend for one was determined to crack her brother’s mysterious text about ‘fremdschämen’ without any outside help.

To my relief, we figured it out pretty quickly. Fremdschämendescribes the sensation of watching someone do something so cringeworthy that you are embarrassed on their behalf. Apparently, it’s a popular word and has been around for years. It just passed by, like countless other trends back home.

After 15 years abroad, she shouldn’t be surprised by this. Still, have to admit that there is something a bit sad about her own brother using words she no longer understands; a hint of loss, perhaps, or unexpected distance. There’s probably a German word for that, too. But we’ll need a bit more time to recall it.

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