How languages are learned (and forgotten)

When a child is learning a new language and totally immersed in it, there are two things that can happen. They can embrace the new language so fully that they actually begin to forget their old language, called first language attrition, or they can continue to view their old language as useful and beautiful and continue to practice it while they learn their new language, which leads to bilingualism.

First language attrition is dangerous for a variety of reasons. First, if children begin to lose their language while they are still learning the new one, there are going to be things that they have no words to describe. They will be functionally language-less as they lose one language before they are fully fluent in another.

Additionally, they will lose the ability to communicate with those who are in their old culture and community, which may include family and friends who may not be learning their new language. They may also begin to assign a value to their old language, thinking of it as “less-than” or worse than their current language (this is especially common when they are a minority in their new language community).

First language retention is actually better for the retention of BOTH languages, but it takes more work. The child must believe that both languages are valuable and continue to practice both. If they are capable, they can become fully bilingual which is such an advantage in life, and their fluency in BOTH languages will be higher than someone who has a experienced first language attrition.


I find myself in a place with two competing languages. For so long, blogging has been a place where I have spoken the language of my Evangelical upbringing, spoken this second language that I have learned in churches and church camps and Christian schools. As I continue to learn this language, my dialect is changing. I no longer believe this “language of Grace” is only and always found in Evangelical circles. As I listen for the Grace around me in the world and learn from the Grace spoken over me, I am speaking it in a different way. And this new way is reminding me that my first language has value.

I used to call my first language “my sin language“. I thought I needed to forget it in order to replace it with the new language of Grace I was learning. And while my first language is more likely to fall into sin and temptation, when I learn it with my Grace language, it’s not my sin language. It’s the language of me, of Rachel. It’s the language of the desires and passions and loves that were created in me before I was even born. It’s the language of things that make me angry and things that I want to tell EVERYONE about, and I have been willing myself to forget it in the name of Jesus.

Sometimes the Bible talks about dying to self, and some of us have interpreted that to mean that we are never meant to talk about what we want or what we care about, because we are just supposed to be little Christs walking around the world. But as John Calvin said, “Nearly the whole of sacred doctrine consists in these two parts: knowledge of God and of ourselves.”

In embracing my first language, I can more deeply understand my second.

My first language attrition has had consequences in my writing and in my life. There are things in my life for which I have been functionally language-less, unable to write about or explain because I do not know the words of Grace to explain them and I have forgotten how to talk about them any other way.

I have lost a lot of my ability to develop deep friendships and relationships with those who do not yet speak the language of Grace that I am learning, who aren’t part of an American Evangelical Church. I miss them in my life.

So, things may be changing (a bit) on the blog. There will still be posts about Grace and Bible stories that strike my fancy, that resonate inside of me and scream to be written. But there may also be posts that aren’t about those things, posts about Justice and Radical Acceptance and even some things that are a little taboo in Evangelical circles. I might (gasp) tell stories about actual personal experiences (although that has never been my forte in the blogging world).

I might offend you. I hope you’ll talk about it in the comments and that we can have civil discussion.

I might say something that speaks your language too. I hope it encourages you to tell your own story.

More than anything, I hope that by being honest to my first language, I can learn more of the language of Grace that God speaks to me and over me every single day.

And I hope that maybe, you will hear it too.


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One Comment

  1. Rachel,

    I can tell you from experience – find YOUR voice and speak YOUR language because that’s the ONE that’s going to help you deal with and live your life. I am sure that God wants us all to speak from our hearts and personal experiences.

    – see Ephesians 4: 14-16 ( Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held tightly together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.)

    keep speaking from your deep down heart


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