Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Lost For Words - Why My German Sucks

My mother just can't help herself. She had to slip in another comment about the frightful gaps in my  vocabulary. We were having coffee at her friend Maria’s house yesterday when, recounting an anecdote, Maria mentioned the German word for ‘fairground ride’, and I remarked that I couldn’t remember having heard that term before. There was guffawing and stares of disbelief. How can you not know that?! Last week, there was a similar incident on the train with Mum berating me for failing to recall the word for (railway) sleeper.

My pointing out that, in fact, I do know what things are called, but... in English, does nothing to mellow maternal consternation. 

I guess it’s hard for her to understand my predicament. It’s just one of those things you don’t really get unless it happens to you.

Mum spent all of her 65 years immersed in the language of her native country, listening to German, reading in German, thinking in German, speaking nothing but German. I’ve had less than a third of that time to assimilate my mother tongue. Much of the passive vocab, which I once possessed as a teenager, has slipped into oblivion during the past quarter of a century of living abroad.

I also made the fatal mistake of not reading any books in German for two decades, which must sound paradoxical to anyone who knows how much of a bookworm I am. Since moving to Spain five years ago, I have been trying to remedy this sad state of affairs, and I have the Kindle archives to prove it.

I do know where my mother is coming from. I, too, took my German for granted for far too many years, never making an effort to maintain, expand and update it, believing that it would always be there for me, held in suspension, pristinely preserved, like a pickled marsupial in a museum display cabinet. But nope. It’s very much a case of “use it or lose it”.

23 comments:

  1. Now you have me to teach you new German expressions ;)

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    1. Like kindkrank and Fotowanderung... keep 'em coming :)

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  2. I find it fascinatong that you have lost German words. Like you, I expected those words to be part of your lexicon forever.

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    1. I find this to be an issue with passive vocabulary in particular. It's many times bigger than the active part, and once you lose regular contact with a language environment, the passive part starts to gradually fade, and the smaller the pool becomes, the harder it gets to drag stuff out of there when someone puts you on the spot.

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    2. Luckily, this will never be something I experience ;)

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  3. It was a long time before I realised that people lose their native language if they don't get to use it regularly. I know a few people in this situation now.
    It always makes me feel better when I lose my ability in languages I learned!
    I'm looking forward to this blog Simone

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    1. Thanks Debbie, I sure appreciate my small but loyal following :)

      I've not looked at any French for weeks, I can feel it atrophying by the second...

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  4. Ha! I may have an advantage :) I do't have any language to lose.

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    1. Wait... what about your Polish? And your Portuguese?? Those cannot possibly be any worse than my French ;-)

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  5. But that's happening to me in the language I use every day (Me: "Dang - what is the word for the pot that I boil water in that has the spout?" ... Him: "Kettle?" Me: "yeah"). Maybe you're just getting a little bit older, too.

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    1. Too right, same here, but just imagine how bad it is for me ;-)

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  6. I have nowhere near your experience in a second language, and still, speaking a ton of Spanish these days (despite reading a ton of English every day), when speaking English it's alarming how often I can only think of the Spanish word for something. Even more annoying is when I don't know a word in Spanish, but want to look it up on my phone in English, and then can't even remember the English word.

    My friends (Americans) consider me fairly talented in languages, but sometimes I wonder. I used to speak passable French, and some of my Mexican friends here speak French, and I've had a go at it with them, but I also find it terribly hard to not mix French and Spanish.

    Surely there are some very interesting psychological studies lurking there.

    Saludos,

    Kim G
    CDMX, México
    Where regional accents still sometimes throw me.

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    1. Oh yes, I often have that particular crisis of wanting to look something up and not remembering it in any language at that point! Having said that, it's great being able to look up a word when having the choice of two or more languages, e.g. in the case when an English word has multiple meanings, but the German word only has one, and vice versa. Not sure I expressed this very well, but you'll know what I mean.

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    2. My guess is that German, like English, has a lot of very specific words for rather narrowly used things, like "fairground ride." One of my frustrations with Spanish is that it seems oddly devoid of many of these very specific words, and instead relies on these little groups of descriptions, or worse, a very broad word that is supposed to somehow become quite specific based on context.

      Do you find this? Do you find it frustrating or at least limiting?

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    3. Spanish sure has a lot less vocab than English and this is something I notice particularly with adjectives and verbs, though not so much with nouns.

      For example, there are so many words in English for "to look" (at sth/sb in a certain way), whereas Spanish seems really limited in this way. E.g. "to stare" becomes "mirar fijamente" etc... then there's glare, gawp, ogle... German also has lots of these.

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  7. Hi,

    Very interesting!

    I feel the same about Russian, my mother tongue. I was 10 years old, when we moved to Portugal and now Portuguese is my main language. Although I still speak Russian quite well, reading and writing are like a real nightmare.

    Beijinhos

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    1. Hi there Alexandra! Nice to see you popping up on here :)

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  8. hi there,

    Klaus here from Australia, Queensland, the Sunshine State, where it is raining ATM ;-)
    On a comment somewhere on Duo I classified myself as an 'ex-native'
    German speaker and heard protest like "once a native, always ...."
    True, I will always know specific vocab better in German than English, my definite first language, but I discovered (for me) the difference between mothertongue and first language when asked what my 'best/first' language really is, > I had to think long and hard about it, and the answer was clear as mud to me when I realised that all my THOUGHTS happened exclusively in English, there was no German involved at all.
    Listening to German radio or watching TV, my comprehension seems always 100 %, but my production: maybe 90 something percent. I find myself in a Skypesession with my sister from Germany at least twenty times in an hour searching for the right way of expression, whereas in English it just comes out naturally without having to give it any thought at all.
    An important factor, I realised, is that my wife is a Aussie English native, it makes such a difference!BTW; Spanish is still my alltime favourite! ;-)

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    1. Hi Klaus! Yes, I can totally relate. I've moved back to Germany five months ago (there will ben an update on this situation soon) and I still find myself searching for a lot longer for some German words than I would be for English ones. I guess this will change at some point in the future and German will become my dominant language again...

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  9. My active vocab in German is very limited these days which makes visiting family difficult at times. But it's the changed rhythm of speech that makes me sound like a Brit trying to speak German. In a professional ( health care) setting at a conference somebody commented on how good my German was and asked where I had learnt it. It was quite embarrassing to tell him I grew up and lived in Germany for nearly 20 years....
    I did find a lot of words came back to me after a week or so of total immersion in German with my parents but my thoughts and dreams are still in English.
    It frightens me a little bit how much I do lose the ability to speak German but in my normal life I just don't need it.

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    1. This happened to me once during a work phone call. I was speaking to a German academic in Berlin and was experiencing a bit of trouble finding the technical vocab when he complimented me on my German... eeeek! LOL.

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  10. Hey Simmone, interesting to hear that it's possible to loose even your mother native language. I'm currently learning German because I'm going next year to go abroad to Germany, and when I forget the words, I get mad at myself but seeing that even people who have German as their first language and still can loose or forget, it just shows to me that it's normal to have sometimes those gasps in what some words mean.

    As my native language being Portuguese, I found German as a tough language to learn at the beginning, but I'm getting used to :)

    Ich hoffe, du kannst dich wieder an alles erinnern, was du vergessen hast.

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    1. Hallo Lucas, schön von dir zu hören :) I think the more words you know, the more you can potentially forget. It's quite a challenge to maintain fluency, once you're reached it, in all your languages. Enjoy your time in Germany, I'm sure you'll get a lot out of it!

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