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Thursday, March 24th, 2011

Forgetting my Mother Tongue


Francois Grosjean’s recent article on language forgetting struck a cord. I have experienced a form of language forgetting myself when I was seven years old, in a limited sense.

My family moved from Frankfurt in Germany’s Hessen region to Hamburg in the North. Both my sister and I had spoken “hessisch,” the local dialect spoken in Hessen. Within six months after the move we had both completely switched to a Hamburg accent and had actually forgotten our dialect. Today I’m unable to do it.

When I moved back south, to Karlsruhe in the Baden-Wurttemberg region in my twenties, I started picking up words, phrases and even a little bit of the accent. I noticed how my speech gradually drifted. It just happens when you are immersed in a culture.

So how can I hope to teach my kids German if I am losing it myself?

Lately, I often try to recall what books I liked when I was young. My hope is that if I give them to my little ones, they will read them and fill a part of their memories with the very same things I can still find in mine. Maybe good books stand on their own, without the surrounding culture. Maybe they can transport a little bit of that culture. I really hope so.

Family help

My mum helps a lot. She sends German books for all their birthdays and lately DVDs of the TV shows I watched when I was young. The girls loved watching “Heidi” in German. The latest addition is “Wickie,” a show about the adventures of a very smart, little viking boy and his crew.

I guess “Biene Maja” could be the next DVD, “Sendung mit der Maus” or maybe “Sesamstrasse,” even though the latter is obviously American, not German. It illustrates an issue we are facing: For me, the characters were called Ernie, Bert, Kruemelmonster and Graf Zahl. For my wife, they were called something completely different (that I’m unable to spell or pronounce) and their original names are different again! So which one do we show them? All versions?

Actually, we do that already.

Youtube makes it possible to watch the Sesame Street version of “Yellow Submarine” and then follow that by “In dem gruen-gelben U-Boot fahren wir” (which the girls found hilarious). Google might change the world in more ways than they imagine.


Did I mention that we spend about 100% of our travel budget on visiting the grandparents?

We obviously want the kids to know their grandparents. But it is also about language and culture. Every time we are back from a trip to Germany or Algeria, the girls speak the language a lot better. Of course they do. They absorb all the little nuances, the figures of speech, things that have changed since the last time, trendy vocabulary, the works. That’s what their brains are meant to do at that age.

Speaking about changes and trendy vocabulary: languages are of course very much alive. It is fair to say that living outside our respective countries, my wife and I have lost the connection. We are a bit like French-speaking Canadians, I suppose—we speak our respective languages, but we sound slightly out of date when we do. And we inject impossible amounts of Anglicisms into our speech. So on top of language forgetting, we also experience “language detaching.” We’ll have to work on that. Multilingual life can be hard!

Help from the Internet

Personally, I try to follow the evolution of German by following people on Twitter who have a knack for writing. I don’t know whether that works or whether it makes me even more of a geek compared to “normal Germans,” but it’s fun and I like it.

Youtube helps a lot, and so does Skype. The girls can speak with their grandparents pretty much as often as they like. And even if they don’t speak with them, they still hear them talking with their mum every day; I’m sure that has an impact. It’s like having a portal into Algeria in your living room.

When they are bigger and start to use the Internet themselves, I fully expect them to network with friends and relatives from different cultures, maybe via Facebook or whatever the craze is then. Most of that will be in English of course. But because the girls can understand other languages, they can participate where their English peers cannot.

Native speakers of their other three languages are known to shy away from pure English environments in general. Germans, French or Algerians who are comfortable in an English environment are still a minority. My guess is that it will be like that for at least a couple of generations.

In other words: all of this is totally worth it. Bring it on!

© 2011 – 2013, Jan Petersen. All rights reserved.

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Jan, who is German, works mainly from home as a software engineer. His wife, who is Algerian, stays at home to look after their three girls aged 7, 4 and 1. They live in the U.K. and are raising their children multilingual in Arabic, French, German and English.

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1 Comment
  1. CommentsLanguage Forgetting | InCultureParent   |  Tuesday, 19 April 2011 at 11:22 am

    […] am still thinking about language forgetting. The issue at hand is that my daughters do not hear enough German to be able to develop a strong […]

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