As a child, I remember hearing stories about Poles who had emigrated to the US and within a few years were ”forgetting” the language. ”Nobody could forget their mother tongue” – people in Poland would comment, insisting that it was simply impossible and ascribing the Americanised accents of emigrants (when they spoke Polish) to their sheer desire to impress. I grew up convinced that this would never happen to me; I learnt English from a young age but I would never allow it to dominate my native Polish. Or so I hoped.
Having spent almost 6 years in the UK, I can proudly confirm that I haven’t forgotten my language, but – I have certainly begun to lose it… See, I’m a multilinguist. By the time I was 19, I was not only proficient in English but also a teacher. I’d learnt French at secondary school, went on to do my degree in English, and then another one in Spanish with Portuguese. I spent 9 long years at university, with 90 percent of classes conducted in a foreign tongue. My work life revolved around teaching languages, but all was good while I was still in Poland. After all, I spoke Polish with my friends and family, in shops, gyms, street markets. I lived Polish reality and the language was part of it.
The first year or two in London made no big difference to my Polish, apart from a few borrowings here and there. Sure, my Polish flatmate and I would often speak Ponglish to each other as we were simply too lazy to look for equivalents of English words, but gradually our conversations were becoming more and more Anglicised. Nowhere was this more apparent than in phone calls to Poland. How do you even translate ‘council tax’ or ‘landlord’? It took time to explain and sometimes, I admit, I just couldn’t be bothered. I soon realised that one reason for ‘losing language’ is living a different reality, with different vocabulary, and it often involves a change of circumstances; if you left your country as a student, and you work abroad, you will be using words which you never came across back home.
How else was I losing my language? After over a year of not visiting my family, I thought it was time to go to Poland again. The flight was pleasantly bilingual, but then I had to change to a train, and, as there was little time before the departure, I had to ask people waiting to jump the queue. Easier said than done. In fact, not easier said at all; the moment I opened my mouth I noticed something was wrong. Every time I tried to utter the polite phrase (Przepraszam bardzo, czy moglby mnie pan/moglaby pani mnie przepuscic, bo spiesze sie na pociag, ktory odjezdza za kilka minut?) I stuttered, my tongue stiff, producing a distorted sentence that was almost incomprehensible. A wave of embarrassment swept over me like a cold shower. It was ok to forget a few words, but not being able to pronounce them properly was beyond awkward. Sheepishly, I got on the train, took my seat and fell asleep. Two hours later I woke up suddenly only to see we were approaching my station. My heavy suitcase resting on the railings, I quickly asked a fellow passenger to take it off for me. We’d spoken at the beginning of the journey, he seemed like a nice guy, so I couldn’t understand why he was looking at me as if he’d seen his dead grandmother. Mid-sentence, I realised I was speaking English… Too flustered to explain anything, I grabbed my bag and hurried off the train. Too much for one trip.
So yes, I came to discover that if you speak another language much more than your own, your mouth fairly quickly loses its grip on the phonetic intricacies you are used to and instead exercises a completely different set of muscles, or in a different way. Think of it like you do about fitness. You are toned and agile if you practise regularly, but when you stop, you quickly become a mass of floppy folds. I also discovered that when slightly dazed or distracted you may not even realise which language you are speaking until the big eyes of your listener become impossible to ignore…
To be continued…
Photo credits: Patricia Castilho, Rance Costa / Flickr