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Can monolinguals forget their only language?
The L Word

Can monolinguals forget their only language?

by Sarita RAO 3 min. 10.05.2022 From our online archive
Columnist Sarita Rao discovers that trying to learn Luxembourgish and French has had a serious impact on her grasp of English
What happens when a monolingual can't remember the one language they should know
What happens when a monolingual can't remember the one language they should know
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Is it possible to lose grasp of your mother tongue, even when you aren’t remotely fluent in any other language?

This monolingual has discovered it is.

I’m not talking here about people who can speak six languages, and whose families code-switch into different ones at the dinner table. That, of course, is pretty much every Luxembourgish family, and true for plenty of foreign residents. They are entitled to forget the odd word, or get a bit mixed up.

I am speaking here of someone who has tried, sometimes quite hard, to learn at least two other languages – French and Luxembourgish – but speaks neither fluently enough to participate even in idle small-talk.

Somehow though, these languages have invaded my brain, rooted out English words and replaced them. I find myself unable to remember the English for everyday words. 

It’s a “sortie” not an “exit”, and a “seche linge” not a “tumble dryer”. It’s a “grompere” not a “potato” and “dat ass richteg” not “that’s right”.

Even worse, I’ve transposed words so they come out in English but remain in a foreign format. My children find it highly amusing when I ask for their “box of lunch”. 

I’ve even started putting genders on articles in English, as in “give her to me to wash” referring to said lunchbox  and hoping it isn't non-binary.

Forgetting my mother tongue

Then there’s the point where I can’t remember a word in any language and just say “thing” as in “pass me that thing over there,” or “use the thing to do that”.

My family have decided this is partly old age, but I wonder whether some monolinguals should never try to speak another language because the outcome is they forget their own.

I know we’re in Luxembourg, where everyone is tolerant of any language you attempt to speak, however badly. But it’s not good to forget your native language when your job is to write in it.

I find myself googling the word for an object in English, or typing in a sentence I know would contain a word I can’t remember just to see what the search engine will throw at me.

It works by the way. Just type in “the word for the thing you use to switch channels on the TV” and you’ll get the answer “remote control”. Of course you might also get zapper, doodah, or doofer.

In fact when I type in “what do you call it when you can’t remember the word for something”, Google gives me the answer “ignorance and lack of knowledge”.

So a monolingual idiot then?

Back in the language-learning saddle

The pandemic gave me an excuse to legitimately give up on any language learning. Much to my relief, classes were cancelled in 2020 and half of 2021 and somehow I have never got back to enrolling again.

INL are launching free online courses in September to help monolinguals become multi-linguals
INL are launching free online courses in September to help monolinguals become multi-linguals
Photo: Serge Waldbillig

But the truth is, mastery of language comes from using it. I need to practise my foreign languages more, so that they stick. I need to revise verbs off by heart in all their conjugations and listen to Luxembourgish and French spoken on the radio and TV, to improve my comprehension.

Knowing that National Institute of Languages will be launching free online courses in September has given me an incentive to open a few books now, revisit the Lupin series and be the last person in this country to finally get around to watching Capitani.

There are plenty of opportunities to get back in the language saddle. Everyday shopping does not have to involve starting in Luxembourgish, switching to French and then eventually resorting to English if I can make a bit more effort to plan what I want to say and practise possible conversation outcomes.

Many people used being housebound during lockdowns to learn languages, whilst I did my best to forget all of them. Now that we’ve come out the other side, I no longer have an excuse. I know it’s time to have another go.

And as for my mother tongue? I need to stop reading Facebook posts and start reading Booker-prize winning novels – otherwise “doodah” and “thing” will be the only words left in my already limited vocabulary. 

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