Healthy individuals may lose hold of their languages, a process that is sometimes called language loss, or language attrition – which is not the same, by the way, as so-called language death.
We may lose our languages for a number of reasons, including perceived lack of prestige of a particular language, or lack of (willing) users of it around us, all of them having the lack bit in common: lack of use. I mean “use” in the sense of meaningful use. Talking about a single vs. several brown cows in order to introduce the grammatical concepts of singular vs. plural, for example, or about the same ruminants jumping over the moon in order to introduce prepositions is not meaningful, so the languages that we learn in school as “language subjects” don’t count for what I want to say here. Languages learned in this way cannot be lost, because they were never acquired: they are lost from the beginning.
I’ve talked before about how children may lose their languages because of less than ideal input conditions. Let me add here a couple of additional factors. One of them is that multilingual families may live in places where none of the parents’ languages are used, like my family did as the children were growing up. In our case, mum and dad were the only input providers. In our sporadic visits to our respective home countries, our children used to gape in incredulity at their realisation that Swedish and Portuguese could after all be spoken by “everybody” around them, as they put it.
One other factor is that parents use, well, parental-kind of language, and therefore dated language – which is true of any cross-generational uses of language, whether each generation uses one language or more than one. In my family, we parents had as little contact with child users of Portuguese and Swedish as our children did, so none of us had any idea about what the trendy youth-speak of the day was. Our children, whose peer-nurturing in their home languages was proceeding exclusively through home-made cross-pollination, learned about it the hard way, through scoffs and guffaws from visiting and visited peers at the “aaancient!!!” metaphors, idioms and turns of phrase that they had inherited from us. Chapter 9, ‘A new language: intruder or guest?’ in my book Three is a Crowd? reports in detail about this. If you read Swedish, have a look also at Lena Normén-Younger’s post on a related topic, Vad gör Du när någon skrattar åt dina barns svenska? (‘What do you do when someone laughs at your children’s Swedish?’).
Children, however, may have the good excuse that they are still learning their languages and that, in time, they’ll get over whatever linguistic glitches they’re stumbling over. What to say, then, of fully grown-up individuals who give similar signs of dwindling language skills? It happened to me, for one. Given the away-from-home-country kind of globe-trotting which characterises my family, both of us parents were naturally unaware of trendy adult-speak in our respective languages too. What we heard and read, back in Sweden and Portugal, on radio, TV, newspapers and all around us, at times struck us more like foreign-speak than native-speak. My case was compounded by being a stay-at-home mum while the children were being born, which meant that my Portuguese ended up fluent in baby-speak only, for a significant number of years. I literally lost the ability to construct complex things like full sentences, for example, or to avoid using jingly language peppered with diminutives and/or augmentatives.
I was, in short, using my supposedly “native language” like an imbecile, and I didn’t know I was. I do know one thing now: I wouldn’t have wanted to have my Portuguese language skills clinically assessed at that time, as little as I would have thought it fair to have my children’s linguistic proficiency assessed through a single language, either Swedish or Portuguese, as they were growing up. All four of us were using our languages inappropriately for our ages.
We got over it, all of us, to regain our languages whenever we got the chance to use them beyond the restricted contexts to which they had been limited. To me, observations such as these are evidence of two things. First, that the process of learning to use your languages goes on throughout life. Languages remain alive if the uses that they serve remain so too. And second, that your languages will be more or less well-oiled at different times in your life. Languages come and go as and when we need them to do so.
Nevertheless, like my children, I was also judged (and laughed at...) by my peers on account of my linguistic inadequacy. The way we express ourselves through our languages seems indeed to count as a reliable gauge of what we are. I’ll leave this matter for my next post.
© MCF 2012
Next post: You speak so, therefore you are so. Saturday 17th March 2012.