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‘S like riding a bike…

Posted by Ilona Dawson

Helmeted_boy_on_training_wheelsIs it actually possible to lose your native language or a language you are fluent in?  Surely, once firmly embedded it is there for good? With this in mind, there is no better way to prove or disprove this than by asking the ‘experts’.

My first case study is Kate (to us), Katarina (to her Slovak family). She moved over to the UK in 2005, having secured an au pairing position, met her future (English) husband, who she married in 2008. They have settled in England with their 2 children. She had a smattering of English when she arrived but being immersed in the language she became fluent quite quickly. She did find certain sounds hard to pronounce.

Here is my interview with her:

 

What is your native tongue?

Slovak (Slovakian)

What other languages do you speak/have spoken?

Just Slovak and English.

Do you speak all languages regularly?

I regularly speak English. I speak Slovak to my children, but they answer me in English, so I wouldn’t call that a Slovak conversation. I speak Slovak to my family and friends back in Slovakia once or twice a week.

Have you lost fluency in any of the languages you speak?

I have lost fluency in Slovak.

If ‘yes’ why do you think this is?

I believe it is due to the lack of use of it on regular basis.

Have you lost fluency in your native language? Please give examples of how this loss manifests itself, for example, Have you lost words/phrases?

Yes, I have. I often forget the Slovak words and have to stop and think and try to remember it.  I struggle more with the syntax e.g. I went to town yesterday. In Slovak you would always put yesterday at the beginning of the sentence

Have you kept up with language nuances, words/phrases that become popular and ones that aren’t used anymore?I have kept up with popular phrases via social media,  reading my friends’ posts, memes, etc.

I find that my fluency improves when I go back home; after a couple of days it is pretty much as before. But I still forget Slovak words sometimes.

How do you ensure you don’t lose your fluency in the languages you speak?

Using the language as much as I can. It could be more often; at the moment it is limited to Skype conversations or the simple stuff I tell my children. Also reading in the particular language makes a difference.

When you return to your native country, do people comment on your accent/language?

Apparently, I have an English accent now. I can’t hear it, personally.

With any loss of fluency have you lost confidence in the ability to speak your languages?

Not really, at times I just have to really concentrate and think in my head what I want to say before I say it.

Any other information or funny experiences you may have had, relating to speaking another language would be fab!

There are topics I can’t discuss in Slovak at all, or with very limited vocabulary only, because I learned about that particular topic in English whilst living in the UK, i.e. photography – all the terminology I know is in English. I would find it almost impossible to explain anything photography-related in Slovak. Also, a lot of pregnancy, motherhood, parenting topics – I gained all the words and phrases once I became a mum here in the UK.

 

A slightly different perspective from Kate’s, is Olivia’s. Olivia is English and moved to France, with her family, when she was 12, became fluent as she lived there until she moved back to England, to attend university.

What is your native tongue?
British English.

What other languages do you speak/have spoken?
Spanish and French.

Do you speak all languages regularly?
Not anymore, I use both once a month verbally and text weekly in French.

Have you lost fluency in any of the languages you speak?
Yes, both.

If ‘yes’ why do you think this is?
Lack of use.

Have you lost fluency in your native language? Please give examples of how this loss manifests itself, for example, have you lost words/phrases. Have you kept up with language nuances, words/phrases that become popular and ones that aren’t used anymore?
When living in France, I lost the accuracy of verb tenses in my native English. I thought the past participle of ‘to sweat’ was ‘swatted’

How do you ensure you don’t lose your fluency in the languages you speak?
I need to read books in those languages, watch films and talk to natives.

With any loss of fluency have you lost confidence in the ability to speak your languages?
Yes 100%, I obviously still know them, because 3 glasses of wine later I can jabber away in both languages and there is a linguistic flow in my brain, as in, the words come to me in that language instead of my brain thinking in English and finding the translation.

Any other information or funny experiences you may have had, relating to speaking another language would be fab!
Native language filler words such as ‘like’ or ‘ummmm’ become harder to shake when I haven’t spoken Spanish or French in a while and I will naturally use the English fillers.

 

So, we can perhaps see from this that “currency” is a watchword for linguists – especially for translators and interpreters. It’s all very well to say that a linguist is a native speaker, but how familiar someone is with current usage is vital too. The different structures of your second language can rub off onto your native language too.

Spontaneity when using a language does come back with time, but a linguist can’t afford to be saying ‘Ooh just give me a minute – it’s on the tip of my tongue’ in the middle of a job.

Currency also refers to the ‘updating’ of language that Katarina alluded to in her response about photography.

I remember using an expression on holiday in France once and the basic reaction from my French friends was “how quaint’ – I wasn’t wrong, but somehow old-fashioned. I’d been out of the country too long! Language changes and evolves, especially in the world of technology and bizarrely informal language.

If you’re not hearing and, as importantly, using current language you can’t be expected to be fluent or contemporary. All our linguists are rated regarding their currency, and we ensure that we work with only the most up to date.

You can rest assured there’ll be no ‘television sets, ‘raining of cats and dogs’ where Dialogue is involved!

We’ve set up a little questionnaire on Survey Monkey to see what other people experienced when they moved away from their ‘motherland’. If you have 5 minutes, we’d love to hear from you. It’s totally anonymous and we’ll be publishing the results a little later in the summer. https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/dialogueukrelocationsurvey



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