Natasha Mumbi Nkonde tells me she’s “haunted” by what she sounded like as a child. Nkonde, who was born in Zambia in 1984 and moved to the UK when she was six, remembers speaking two different languages—Bemba and Nyanja. Naturally, she was forced to switch to English once she migrated to Britain. But it wasn’t until she returned to Zambia in 2008 (almost 20 years later) that she realized how much her first two languages had eroded away.
“My tongue couldn’t get itself round the words. I’d be able to understand really clearly what people say to me, but couldn’t formulate a sentence,” says Nkonde, a black feminist working as regional organizer at The Edge Fund and co-founder of The GLC Story.
As if it wasn’t painful enough coming to terms with the slow erosion of her mother tongue, and how isolating that could be when trying to connect with friends and loved ones in her home country, people accused her of doing it on purpose. Some said she was someone who had returned to Zambia from the UK and now felt “too good” to speak her native languages, while others suggested she was just being lazy. But, Nkonde is far from alone.
The loss of a native language is a phenomenon known as first language attrition. And though it can evoke surprise and at times outrage, first language attrition is becoming all too common as a greater number of people move around the world.
“Attrition sounds very negative. It invokes this mental image of something grinding away at another and wearing it down. We don’t think that’s what’s actually happening,” says Monika Schmid, the leading researcher on language attrition currently based at the University of Essex. Schmid doesn’t believe the new language eradicates the mother tongue—it’s still there, just buried and dormant. More importantly, a growing body of research suggests that in many cases the language can be recovered.
Read more: Quartz