Over in Facebookland, a friend of mine recently posted a link to an expat’s blog post. In it, the writer expressed her fear of losing her native language while living abroad and not using it the way she used to. My friend and many other expats shared her concerns. And while I can relate to many of the examples used in the article, I’m not convinced.
Like many coming to live in a foreign country, my first concern was that of fitting in. I wanted to understand what was being said and be understood in return. I also knew Germans don’t come with the best reputation, historically speaking, so trying to pass as non-German, or even a Brit of some sort, became my number one goal. I avoided other Germans, or spoke to them in English. (Even back home, my best friend and I had been conversing in English, mainly for coolness reasons.) I had so badly wanted out of Germany, and now I just wanted to be one of the natives in England. It took a while, but picking up the characteristics and particulars of a language is quite easy when everyone else around you speaks it. After a few weeks, I used local words and slang and knew which register certain situations required. I met people from all over the world, and we made English our language.
We remade it, we used it. Because that’s what language is: a tool. Learning a foreign language, you’re made to remember pronunciation and grammar rules, but it’s not until you actually need the language to communicate that you use it properly, even if the grammar rules go out the window. Don’t get me wrong, there’s definitely a beauty in language that transcends functionality, but those two aspects can and do coexist peacefully.
And while I was busy talking and reading and dreaming in English, what happened to my native tongue? Well, I simply used it a lot less. A few weeks later I started working as a German teacher, and if anything, my recent English experience helped me to reflect on German and explain the differences better. Maybe not everyone would have had that sort of experience — I am a translator, after all. But in my opinion, knowing more will never mean remembering less. Why should you lose what has been yours from the moment you were born? Your life is defined by your native language, and you don’t lose your past when your future happens abroad. Mixing languages, even in the same sentence, is a sign of your creativity and your brain’s ability to cope and adapt. You’re creating something new, useful, and sometimes even beautiful. Beauty and functionality are not mutually exclusive, after all. You’re making the most of your language tool!
I didn’t “lose” my native language, I simply use my German differently now. Since having children, the focus has been on teaching them about their German roots. I had to start speaking German on a daily basis again, and it wasn’t a problem. I actually quite enjoy it. The past I wanted to leave behind when I first arrived in England is something that’s now important and needs to be passed on to my kids. It’s a sentimental journey, because it means remembering and recounting events that I haven’t talked about in any language in a long time. I use phrases that make me laugh because they are typical parent-speak. We make up words, as kids do, and some of them are a mix of all three of our domestic languages. And thanks to the children, I have actively sought out other Germans. I might have done this even without going down the playgroup route, because sentimentality kicks in after the first flush of new love has faded. England is not all that, and Germany is not all that bad, after all. And there is nothing quite as fulfilling as chatting away in German to my best friend. It feels different. I’m confident that I can express myself perfectly well in English, so it’s not a lack of vocabulary. It’s a taste of home, a way to talk about things that language can’t express. It can be a way of showing you’re more than what meets the eye, someone who has this whole other life that happened entirely in German. We use it strategically — when we don’t want to be overheard, and yes, sometimes we need to make snarky comments. It’s also a great parenting tool. Our children know things are getting personal when we switch to German in public. We can tell them off without embarrassing them or us in front of others. I’m not quite there yet, but Eastern Europeans in particular will tell you that swearing is so much better in your mother tongue (I still think Germans are missing out on many delightful F-word combinations).
It’s not all rosy, though. Every time my kids answer me in English, I feel like I failed just a little bit. But they’ll use German in other ways, ways that suit them better. Maybe they won’t at all, and that’s fine, too, but I’m hoping they will at least have a handy way of conveying secret messages to their German playmates.
And if you don’t have children or friends who speak your language? Don’t despair. It’s there. If you miss your native tongue, you will find ways to use it. Maybe it won’t be just like back home, but it will reflect who you are and who you’ve become. And the process of remembering it, using it and making it all yours again will be sweet and worth the wait.