Whether first language attrition happens to ourselves or to someone else that we know, we are usually not prepared for it, and this surprise can express itself in rather unpleasant forms, especially if the person it is happening to has some kind of a public profile. Here is a collection of some cases of attrition that happened to ‘celebrities’ or people who made the news for some reason.
Hilaria Baldwin (2020)
Hilaria Baldwin is a Spanish-American actress who was excoriated in early 2021 for being a “fake Spaniard” and “impersonating a Spanish person“. Her crimes? Appearing to momentarily having problems recalling the word “cucumber” on a cookery show and to imply that she had been born in Spain (when, in fact, her place of birth is Boston, her parents are English-speaking and her birth name is Hilary).
Without wanting to get into the debate on whether there were deliberate lies or errors of confusion in Baldwin’s biography, the levels of vitriol in the debate were startling, and revealed the extent to which people are still convinced that everybody must be one thing – a native speaker of English or Spanish, an American or a Spaniard, someone who grew up in the US or on Mallorca. The idea that a person who was born in the States to English-speaking parents might, in fact, be native-like in Spanish and, on occasion, have an accent when they speak English, was ridiculed. I tried to point out some of the facts of the complexities of bilingualism in this piece on The Conversation.
Regilio Tuur (2014)
The Olympic boxer Regilio Tuur was born in Suriname and grew up in the Netherlands. After his success at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, he moved to New York. Early in 2014, he participated in a Dutch television program for celebrities, causing utter outrage on Social Media and in the press since he spoke only English (although he clearly understood the interviewers’ questions, which were consistently in Dutch). This clip here shows how he would even frequently start a sentence in Dutch but slip back into English after a few words. The general assumption was either that he was trying to show off the fact that he now lived in New York, or that he must be exceptionally stupid (the consensus being that this is, in general, a well-known characteristic of boxers). All in all, the amount of invective heaped upon him was quite disturbing.
Bowe Bergdahl (2014)
In May 2014, American GI Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was released after five years of Taliban captivity. During a press conference at the White House, Bergdahl’s father said that Bowe had ‘trouble speaking English’ (a variety of opinion pieces and analyses of this statement and Bergdahl’s case were published, for example on USA Today and the BBC website). Again, the response on Twitter was overwhelming – many seemed to feel that having experienced attrition of English could only be the hallmark of a traitor, or that this claim was a ridiculous, ‘obvious lie’. Former candiate for Vice President and governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, wittily recommended that Bergdahl should subscribe to a Rosetta Stone language tutorial to re-learn his language as quickly as possible.
Steffi Graf (2007)
The German tennis player Steffi Graf, who is married to a native speaker of English, moved to the United States in 2000. In 2007, she and her husband, Andre Agassi, received the German media award for humanitarian engagement (Deutscher Medienpreis) for their foundation Children for Tomorrow. Graf began her acceptance speech with an apology for the fact that her German was no longer that fluent, and then fumbled for words, for example using the English ‘overwhelmed’, as the German equivalent (‘überwältigt’) had apparently eluded her. This, of course, made all the headlines, and comments on her lack of fluency and her English accent abounded. Notably, Graf had very shortly before this award been voted ‘most popular German’ – it is an interesting question whether the poll would have gone the same way had it taken place after this admission.