Getting rusty in your mother tongue

I had an opportunity to speak my mother tongue today. I do not really speak it any more since my family moved to the UK whilst I was a teen and we just ended up speaking English.

Anyway, I found I was really rusty. Some words like “location” I was unable to remember and I ended up using German endings such as “mus” instead of “isme” for example or simply did not know what the right endings were for nouns of Latin origin (-tion, -ism, -tion).

That was pretty weird. Anyone else had the same experience?

Sure! Living in Ukraine for a long time, I fairly often find myself knowing an appropriate Ukrainian word, but trying hard to remember Russian analog. It may end up in quite inappropriate (in terms of language purity) mixed speech.

I have seen some interviews with Russians immigrated to USA in their youth. Their Russian was awful.

I think it is a natural way of things. Why should one preserve the skills (not specifically linguistic) he/she does not use?

BTW, I do not imagine how it works for a person who knows 10 (or 23) languages. Continuous training, I suppose.

Note: This title sounded really dirty.

Point: I wanted to ask is since your moved to another linguistic region, did you begin to think in this new language? If so how long did it take before you began to think like that?

Yesterday we had a new customer and of course I had to do the small talk in Danish. He then proceeded to say to me " your Danish is pretty good. Have you ever lived in Denmark". I asked him to specify why he thought I sounded foreign in my mother tongue and he said the intonation was wrong and also the order and choice of words. I find it pretty weird you can lose your mother tongue in this way, especially weird since other people really want to label you a native speaker of the language. I guess it just goes to show you can actually acquire other mother tongues as it were ,or end up with none. The discovery was new.

I’ve been thinking about this very phenomenon recently. It dawned on me that I know quite a few first generation immigrants in Australia who now appear to have some difficulties in their mother tongue (especially when they need to recall it without any preparation). I think some of the factors are:

  • language evolves - if you’re not in touch with it and aware of how it is currently being spoken, you will fall behind
  • if you don’t use it, you (start to) lose it - you might lose 5-10% in the first 10 years, and then slowly more and more
  • as you approach native-like-ness in the target language, almost all of your thinking will probably be done in this language, so when you need to speak (and think) in your native language, it may not be second nature anymore.

I once met a German woman living for 30 years in the US and she spoke German with a strong American accent. Also she used some English words instead of German words. So I guess you can forget your mother tongue if you have no contact for a long time with it.

@Marianne10: “…moved to the UK whilst I was a teen”

This may be the crux of the matter: in a way, English is (almost) your native tongue.

Among the younger generations language evolves very quickly and if you’ve lived away for some years, there’s a lot of catching up to do. As a North German I sound more formal in any case in addition to the slight British colour in my voice. On top of this I still use the German of my generation with all its grammatical structures of the time [and I am not going to drop my accusative or genetive endings! Nor will I give up on the imperative - it hurts me when I hear ‘lese!’ instead of ‘lies’!'or ‘sehe!’ instead of ‘sieh!’]. Quite often I find it easier to use an English word, but then so do most young people in Germany: German - as spoken in some quarters - has become ridiculous to my ears.

I saw a video of Arnold Schwarzenegger speaking German. Even though I’m still learning German, even I could tell he sounded a bit off, with a shoddy accent and halting delivery. I’ve heard him state his German is rusty and he has an American accent now in German - which is funny since his English, while perfectly idiomatic, is still heavily accented in German. He is now one of those people who doesn’t sound like a native in any language. Weird.

Adults normally don’t get worse in their native language’s pronunciation (children certainly do), but foreign intonations stick quite fast!