German? My native language? You must be mistaken!

First post of 2012 and to kick things off I'd like to talk about my native language, which is apparently German. Yes, feel free to do a double-take, I too thought it was English.

I asked my dad and he confirmed -following much laughter- that German is indeed my native language. Then why do I feel like a fish out of the water every time I have to speak the language? Don't get me wrong, my German is fluent -at least I think it is- but more often than not I feel misunderstood when trying to explain myself. Words don't come as easy as they used to (seven years ago). I often find myself having to look up a word or I simply substitute it with an English one to save myself the hassle.

I used to be the best in my German class when it came to essay writing and I was forever scribbling down notes for a short story or other. Saying this now seems surreal. I cannot believe I once possessed the skill to write anything remotely fluent in German, let alone get some sort of credit for it.

English is so much easier. It comes natural to me, it's the language I think in, dream in. It's the language I speak every day...with my friends, in the office, when grocery shopping, at the doctor's office. It's the main language on my television, the radio, the magazines and the books I read. It's the official language of the country I live in.

Sure I use German. I call my dad and my friends ever so often. I email my sister. I chat to my friends. I write German letters at work and speak to my colleagues. Hand me a German grammar book -blurgh- and I have no problem understanding the confusing nonsense that is described in (German grammar) gives me nightmares though so if you could refrain from making me talk or think about it and give me coffee (or chocolate) instead, that would be appreciated, thanks.

Speaking German requires effort, too much effort. It is tiring, it makes my head hurt. I'd therefore rather not, thank you very much.

This morning on the way to work I bumped into a colleague. He asked how I was and then wanted to know what music I was listening to. He asked in German. I replied -without thinking- in English (and some Chinese to answer his question about the music).

So. Can you unlearn your native language?

That's a lot to forget!
Everyone knows it's really easy to forget a second language. It gets rusty as soon as you don't speak it/use it for a while. Sure, you remember once you get back into the swing of using the language but it'll take you a moment or two. I can vouch for it. As I may have already mentioned, I was raised bilingually (German and Polish). I used to switch from one language to the other at the blink of an eye from a very early age onwards.

One second I would ambush my mum with a waterfall of fluent Polish, the next I'd translate into German for my dad and reply to his question before giving out to him for mocking my Polish (Damn, why do dads always know what drives their daughters up the wall?!). Growing up it didn't bother me which language I was speaking...until I gradually stopped spending my summer holidays (and every other holiday) in Poland. I lost touch with my Polish friends. I stopped speaking Polish to my mum. Slowly but surely the skill to use the language without a second thought vanished. I can still speak Polish but it's really rusty. I can follow a conversation and understand it too, all the vocabulary is there, but ask me to reply and I'll give you a blank stare. I can manage the easy stuff just fine but the moment the conversation gets more challenging I'm out.

Now I know Polish is not my native language but if I forgot so much of it, can I (will I?) forget that much German if I'm not careful?

The Wikipedia article on language attrition is actually quite interesting and well worth a read (or skim), especially the part on First Language Attrition. According to a bunch of wise guys, who spent a lot of time studying language attrition and are therefore quite knowledgeable on the matter, it is entirely possible for you to become less fluent in the usage of your first language if you're predominantly using your second language (my case!).

Based on those studies you're most likely to forget words (meaning your vocabulary becomes less developed) prior to forgetting the grammatical aspect of the language - phew, lucky for me because like I've already mentioned German grammar sucks. Really people it does, please don't let anyone tell you any different. Those people who are most likely to try to convince you that German grammar is fun and easy to learn are German teachers themselves and they have been brainwashed in university! German grammar is not fun and it is not easy. I'd sooner handwrite every single traditional Chinese character there is before I go through 10 years (or was it 15?) of that torture again. Once burned, twice shy. Yet I still somehow managed to become good at it, or maybe all my teachers were so impressed by my story-telling abilities they forget to grade my grammar? There is a thought. I must have a word with one of my old teachers.

Seriously, I had some pretty awesome teachers.

They managed, sometimes against all odds, to teach me something. Some even taught me life lessons I unfortunately I only learned to appreciate after leaving school. I'd like to, at this stage, give a shout-out to my old maths teacher who started 9th grade with the following introduction: "What you have there in front of you is this year's curriculum. You're not meant to have this but as you can see it's packed. 70% of what I'm going to teach you, you can forget come graduation. I still have to teach you though so please open your books on page 23."

What an awesome way to start class after eight weeks of summer holidays, eh? Yep, we were impressed. The principal was not when 75% of us failed the first exam and she had to decide whether to validate the exam results or order a retake.

Speaking of exams, I failed my first English exam, would you believe that? I was really bad when I first started learning English, got nothing right. I scored an E (5), which is the second worst grade you can get in Germany, worst being an F (6). My mum was not impressed. Her reward (or punishment I should say) were hours and hours of studying irregular verbs and whatnot until I went to bed dreaming about go, went, gone and be, was/were, been. Thanks, mum, you totally didn't make learning fun. Nevertheless I passed the next English exam and the one after it and any of others that followed in the 12 years I went to school for. I continuously managed to screw up my grade though by making one silly mistake that would knock me from an A- (1-) to a B+ (2+) or some nonsense like that. It gets frustrating after a couple of never quite get used it. It makes taking exam a total and utter nightmare.

But before I go really off topic, back to the actual subject of this blog post. My deteriorating German case you too went off topic in your head (I forgive you, if, yes there is an if (!) you give me cookies!).

Since I'm really way too lazy to relearn all the German I will lose if I don't work on my dwindling language skills I'm trying to work out a few things I can do to improve my German (besides listening to my dad lecturing me!). Since I'm forced to speak (and use) German at work I'm not taking that into the equation but I figure a movie every other week, combined with actually reading those German books my sister keeps sending me, will sort me out quite quickly. It would be a real shame if I was to forget my German. It is a handy language to have...if only because most people in Germany cannot be bothered to learn English properly (but that's a different topic for a different blog post for another day).

Honestly though, I have to actually kick myself to speak German (you'll sooner find me mumbling random Chinese phrases). I've even started calculating in English and rarely resort back to German for that these days whereas some of my friends (whose first language isn't English) always fall back on their native language to calculate things quickly. I do it just as quick in English...unless I'm tired or distracted.

I'm genuinely interested, if you live in another country and predominately speak this countries' language, do you struggle with your native language or do you switch between the two without any difficulty? If you share my problem do you care or do you brush the subject aside and continue to speak the language of the country you're living in? Have you even noticed that your native language isn't quite as fluent as it used to be? Let me know!