Flavours are hard for the tongue to forget. Traditional dishes survive a long time even in a diaspora, or even in scattered families, for centuries or more. However, unfortunately, the spoken language does not have this quality and is much, much more fragile than family recipes that get passed down through generations. So much so that spoken language can even be forgotten from one generation to the next if another language takes its place.
At a meeting the other day – even though I have been living abroad for more than 20 years – I said “initiation” instead of “proposal”. The moment I said it, I knew that wasn’t the word I wanted. If I try to recall exactly what happened, I think the word initiative came to my mind in Spanish first, and maybe its first few letters led me astray. So, instead of saying “proposal”, I started saying “initiative”, which led me to “initiation”. I waited for a fraction of a second to say it because I felt that this was not what I wanted to say, but then, because I couldn’t think of anything else fast enough, I still left this word in my sentence – accompanied by a faint grimace, indicating that I would rather put the word in quotation marks. However, one member of the group looked at me so strangely that I had no choice but to pull myself together and pull the word “proposal” from the depths of my memory. I know the difference between initiation and an initiative, but there was a miscommunication during my speech.
Language fading can happen not only to speakers of languages which are not widely spoken but also to speakers of world languages. So a language with an institutional background, one that can be studied abroad, can be affected in the same way if it breaks away from its original environment.
At the German school in Barcelona, I have observed that the German kindergarten teachers do not always correct expressions used incorrectly by the mulngual children, who rarely hear the correct version from anyone. In fact, the teachers sometimes pick up these incorrect expressions themselves.
Even the smallest change is noticeable when travelling home, because even if we still use our native language with the same fluency and freshness as before, maybe we don’t sound quite like the speakers at home. If someone lives abroad for a long time, on the one hand, the customs of the new country leave their mark on their native language, and on the other hand, it seems that they continue to use the language that they left behind.
However, the use of every language is in constant flux and development within every community. This is a chain of small changes that is difficult to follow when living abroad.
Naturally, the years spent abroad leave their mark and it is completely normal to feel the signs of language erosion.
However, even though I fully understand that language changes over time, I don’t like the term “language erosion” at all, because it does not seem to accurately represent what is happening.
This process would be more aptly termed “sinking into oblivion”. The meaning of the word sinking presupposes that something goes under the surface for a while, but it does not rule out the possibility that it may resurface when we need it.
Unfortunately, all learning involves forgetting.
We may feel as if our mother tongue is an exception to this, but this is probably only true if it is the only language a person uses. In the case of multilinguals, they may gradually forget one or more of their languages, and even if it does not disappear completely, it may recede to such depths that it is difficult for them to recall it. Of course, this does not happen overnight.
The implicit rules and behaviours that accompany language are the easiest elements to forget. For example, after moving from England to Spain, children may find themselves speaking more loudly than they used to because they have adapted to the way people tend to speak in their new environment. They forget that they used to speak at a different volume, and do not even notice the change. No matter how small a change, it can immediately cause resentment from the native-speaking community. It can even appear in writing. For example, when writing a cover letter, the level of reasoning, directness or formality varies from one language to another. Readers immediately sense when they “don’t speak the same language” as someone.
However, what is more striking than this is the weakening of the ability to speak the language. The less often we find ourselves in a certain speech situation, the deeper the elements that we need at that moment sink. Our speech may become more fragmented as we look for words, we repeat them because synonyms do not come to mind as quickly, and then we may borrow from the vocabulary of another language. The latter seems practical in diaspora groups, where members of the community have several languages in common.
Then comes the incorrect use of grammatical structures, and the intonation specific to the language may be forgotten, or it may be replaced by intonation and possibly an accent borrowed from another language.
How quickly someone forgets depends on many things. Children, for example, forget as quickly as they learn. If they move from one country to another at a young age, they quickly learn their new language, but they can also quickly forget the previous one if they don’t practise enough. On the other hand, the older we are when we move abroad, the less we have to fear our native language being forgotten.
Forgetting is hardly noticeable in those who already had a rich vocabulary since a wide vocabulary remains even after some has been forgotten. However, what makes us resistant to forgetting is a positive emotional attitude. If we don’t like something, it is difficult for us to learn it, and we forget it more quickly. The language(s) of late multilinguals are more easily forgotten.
Fading is immediately perceptible in speech. But if we look at the other aspect of language knowledge, the understanding of the language, fortunately, remains much more resistant and durable. Even when it is difficult for someone to bring the correct words to mind, he still understands many times more than what he can say.
However, when fluency in one of our languages, even our mother tongue, decreases, and we can switch to the one in which we express ourselves more fluently because others understand us anyway, that is the beginning of the end. This is the perfect situation for further oblivion.
In such cases, a supportive environment is important, one that does not enable you to switch to another language. For example, if a speaker switches from a language they are losing to a language they are more comfortable in, and their conversation partner keeps speaking the original language, this will support the speaker.
In this way, we can update our vocabulary, so that after a few conversations we can return to conversing in the same language, having strengthened our language. Of course, it is important that the speaker wants to preserve the language and puts effort into doing so. In practical terms, it is important that we use the language to do or learn things that interest us. For example, if something comes to mind in our new language, should we look it up in a dictionary to see how it is said in the language we are losing? If we are learning new words in our new language, we should look in the dictionary to find the most appropriate expression in the language we are working on. It is no coincidence that we say that practice makes perfect!
During consultations, parents living abroad often worry about how they will be able to pass on their mother tongue to their children, using a language that is not at its full potential.
Children can help parents to preserve their mother tongue. Together with the children, they will be able to strengthen their mother tongue. After all, from verses to storytelling, they can speak and practise more and more. Don’t forget that the mother tongue can not only be forgotten but can be strengthened again when we are in a situation where we can practise it.
Things that have already been forgotten can be learned and answered again. When it comes to reviving old knowledge, it comes back quickly, it’s not like hearing it for the first time. For all those who have been living abroad for a long time and practising their native language, both speaking and writing, never give up on learning or relearning!