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On forgetting a mother tongue

By J.A. HaglFebruary 23, 2017

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amahric Vanessa/Flickr

One person once asked if using my native tongue is like getting back on a bicycle. It is for me. My ability to speak my mother tongue is as clumsy and uncomfortable as riding a bike. Like everything learned and then slowly forgot after a lack of use, my native tongue has been buried in the deep recesses of my brain.

“Is she one of us?” a store clerk asked in an East African language.

“Maybe?” the other store clerk responded.

Amused, I interjected “yes.”

Either embarrassed being caught talking about someone or surprised, they both followed with a rapid barrage of questions.  

I tried to string together a sentence. The words seemed to drunkenly stumble out of my mouth. Incoherent and the syllables slurred, I have no control of how my tongue attempts to form the once-familiar words.

 

 The words seemed to drunkenly stumble out of my mouth. Incoherent and the syllables slurred, I have no control of how my tongue attempts to form the once-familiar words.

I might have been born in a different country, but my accent is most definitely American, of the southern variety.

There is a momentary shame when someone asks if I can speak the langue of my parents’ hearts and I have to reply no. The shame lingers when a monolingual speaker chastens me for missing an opportunity to be bilingual. Have you forgotten your country and your heritage? But, but, I protest. I was once fluently bilingual, but there’s only a need for English in my everyday life.

The brain preserves a first language at some level of fluency. The children of immigrants retain fluency when they use it daily and the use of a second language doesn’t eclipse the first. More often than not, the second language— the language classmates speak and the one spoken on T.V. — feels more natural the more it is used. Sometimes, passively listening can trigger a flood of words, phrases, and sounds. Other times, it’s just an opportunity to tune out. Once you start thinking, dreaming and yelling in a different language, it’s hard to consider your native tongue your language.

 

Once you start thinking, dreaming and yelling in a different language, it’s hard to consider your native tongue your language.

Trying to relearn, even a simple greeting or asking to use the bathroom, feels much like a dishonorable exercise highlighting your inability to grasp a seemingly inherent concept.

Language is a more definite link to culture than clothes or food. Even if you can hear the words, being unable to understand the idioms, clichés, and puns detract from understanding another person,  Speech pattern is often directly tied to how you think and your language helps established thought patterns. Finding someone in a crowd who thinks similar to you makes the world a little less foreign. But finding you can’t speak in your mother’s language makes her a little more foreign. She is part of an experience that’s concurrently part of you and distant.