We all have our existential worries. Some worry about being inadequate parents. Some live in fear of ending up as bag ladies under a bridge. I fret over losing command of my native language.
I’ve been an expat longer than an inpat. I spent 19 years living in my birth country, Germany, followed by two decades in the UK, and since September 2011, I’ve been in Spain.
Unlike many other expats, I’ve never surrounded myself with German people while away from Germany. It’s not that I’m consciously avoiding my fellow countrymen, but I just tend to make friends with people I connect with, regardless of their extraction. I don’t seek out places where Germans might purposely meet and congregate. Incidentally, Germans are not a very congregatory people, nor am I particularly gregarious by nature.
The upshot of it is that I’ve used very little German in my daily life over the past two decades. I speak to my family only when forced at guiltpoint, and I’ve but two close friends left from my school days, plus a couple of German friends I’ve picked up in recent years, and that’s pretty much it. The rest of the time my life happens in English, and, since moving to Spain, in Spanish.
During my absence, Germany has been through a spelling reform, and even though I’ve looked at the new rules, I can’t seem to retain them. German now is littered with peculiar-looking words like “Essstörungen” and “Schifffahrt”. I find it disturbing. Besides, I used to understand the old rules, e.g. when to use ‘ss’ and when an ‘ß’ was needed, but the entire batch of newfangled edicts elude me. Sigh.
Also, I lived in Germany before the arrival of the internet, email, mobile phones, lady shavers and other assorted gadgetry. I lack a whole host of tech vocabulary. Most of the time, German has just adopted the English term, which is handy for me, but what gender has been assigned to it? German nouns have one of three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. Is ‘blog’ masculine or neuter? Is ’email’ feminine or neuter? I haven’t a clue.
Being the nerdy bookish type, I used to have excellent spelling and vocabulary in my native language, but my former competence is eroding, syllable by syllable. Although there’s no imminent danger of me ‘forgetting’ my native language, i.e. I’d never not understand what I was reading or what somebody was saying to me, but much of my vocab has moved from the active part of my brain to the passive side, resulting in a pronounced loss of verbal eloquence.
I realise that I’ve got no one to blame but myself for this sad state of affairs.
Sure, not having lived in a German-speaking country for most of my life seems like a vaguely passable excuse, but I’ve let things slide really badly. I’ve been taking my native language for granted, doing next to nothing to keep it brushed up and sparkling. I’ve locked it up like some captive creature in a dungeon. Every now and again I go down there, shine a torch at it, and note to my horror that it has atrophied a bit more.
So, am I doing anything to stop the rot?
Well, over the past year, I’ve been making a more conscious effort. I dip into German newspapers over breakfast every day. I’ve also bought myself an e-reader, which allows me to download books in various languages, and so I’ve started reading German books again – something I should have done a long time ago! (Incidentally, if any of you can recommend some good German reading, I’d be very interested to hear. But please, I don’t want anything that’s been translated into German, and no Schwedenkrimis, I beg of you!)
I’m thinking that maybe starting a blog in German would be great way of resuscitating my writing skills, but somehow, I can’t see that happening any time soon… not even as a New Year’s resolution. I’ve totally lost my confidence 😦