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From Anxiety to Pride: Growing up Bilingual and Losing My Mother Tongue

This November marks my 11th year living in England, a momentous milestone in my life journey.

When my parents broke the news that we would be moving to an entirely new country one of the first things they did was enroll my sister and I in English classes. At the time, as a nine-year-old, the thought of navigating the world in a foreign tongue was daunting and triggered a wave of anxiety within me; “Would people mock my foreign accent?” “Will I be able to communicate and make new friends?” These questions flooded my mind as I embarked my first day of school in England.

Over the years, my initial feelings of anxiety began to fade, replaced by a growing sense of pride as people around me pointed out how impressive it was that I learned and embraced English so quickly.

However, what I did not anticipate was that eleven years later, I would find myself experiencing a familiar feeling of unease towards speaking a language. What surprised me the most was that, this time, the anxiety was directed toward speaking Spanish, my mother tongue.

The irony of the situation was not lost on me. I had conquered the fear of speaking a foreign language, only to be confronted by a resurgence of anxiety when speaking my native tongue later on in my life.

At home, my mother insisted we only spoke Spanish. However, beyond speaking Spanish with my family, the majority of my everyday life remained and continues to be, immersed in the use of English. I speak to my friends in English, received most of my education in English, and consume most of my media in English. Therefore, my proficiency in Spanish has gradually waned over the years. This has made engaging in conversations with my family, using my native tongue, somewhat challenging. I often stumble over my words, struggle to maintain fluency, and have at times felt a profound sense of frustration and embarrassment when people would point out mistakes or express concerns over me losing my native accent.

This concept can be described using the term “first language attrition”. This term signifies the shift in linguistic behaviour resulting from the frequent use of a second language, which has now become dominant, ultimately leading to the deterioration of one’s native tongue.

Research has shown that there is in fact a correlation between self-perceived lower language competency and pronunciation skills, and elevated levels of anxiety. Moreover, an individual’s anxiety tends to be greater when they perceive their native language abilities as inferior compared to others. Together, these factors contribute to a distinct form of anxiety known as social anxiety, defined as the fear of negative evaluation and constant worry about saying or doing something that leads to them feeling embarrassed. For me, this constant fear of being judged and feelings of anxiety, when speaking my native tongue, has reached a point where I unconsciously shy away from conversations with fellow Spanish speakers.

Currently, I am pursuing my undergraduate degree in psychology at Kings College London and have recently become a member of the CELEBRATE project team as part of my placement year! With this big change in my routine came a lot of reflection about my life.

I realised that losing my mother tongue has elicited a sense of shame within me. Spanish is not just a tool I use to communicate with my family and friends back home; it’s an integral part of my identity. Slowly losing it has made me feel like I have lost a part of myself.

Therefore, I made the conscious decision to not let anxiety define my relationship with my languages. Instead, I am determined to rediscover the sense of pride that comes with being bilingual. To achieve this, I have immersed myself in Latin American music, started reading more books in Spanish, actively engaged in conversations with others, as well allowing others to help me when I make linguistic mistakes.

Growing up bilingual has its share of challenges, including the anxiety associated with losing your mother tongue. However, it is more prominently a journey of self-discovery and a celebration of the richness and sense of pride that comes with mastering multiple languages, even if one surpasses the other in proficiency.

Let this be a gentle reminder that the languages you speak, and how well you speak them, do not define who you are or where you are from. Instead, they represent a collection of your life experiences, cherished memories, and your own personal growth on this life journey!

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