Does emigration affect idiomatic knowledge in the native language?

Ferdy Hubers | Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen
Catia Cucchiarini | Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, Union for the Dutch Language
Nicoline van der Sijs | Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, Institute for the Dutch Language

A considerable body of research has investigated whether native speakers forget or lose their native language (L1) when they move to countries where another language (L2) is spoken. In the particular case of Dutch, this research has focused on the twentieth century Dutch emigrants who almost invariably set aside their L1 and concentrated on acquiring the L2. This was indeed the policy in both country of origin and country of arrival, as L2 learning was considered the best option for their future.

Nowadays, Dutch citizens emigrate to a large variety of countries, but often they do not emigrate for good, only for a limited period (van Dalen & Henkens, 2008). In addition, our views on bilingualism have changed: L2 learning is no longer considered to threaten the L1 and fostering the L1 is no longer viewed as hampering L2 acquisition (Bhatia & Ritchie, 2006).

In order to get a clearer understanding of how emigration and consequent L2 immersion  affect L1 knowledge, we conducted a study on Dutch emigrants to several countries across the world to investigate whether emigration leads to reduced knowledge of idiomatic expressions, which are considered to be particularly rooted in the native language and culture (Boers et al., 2004; Kovecses & Szabó, 1996).

The results show that a) when effects of age are minimized, no significant differences in idiom knowledge emerge between emigrants and non-emigrants; b) idiom properties like familiarity and transparency positively affect idiom knowledge in both groups and c) age has a positive effect on idiom knowledge in non-emigrants, while for emigrants this effect might have been obscured by that of emigration length, which appears to have a negative effect on idiom knowledge. We discuss these results in the light of previous findings and suggest possible perspectives for future studies.