Is this the time of the disappearing mother tongue?
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Two weeks after my eighth birthday I boarded a plane for the first time in my life with my mom and my sister and left the country of my birth – Poland. We were bound for South Africa, which we were going to call home for a few years. Those few years passed the ‘19’ marker in January 2013, and although I technically don’t live in South Africa at the moment, it is home – spiritually, if not physically.
In the beginning I recall my mom giving my sister and me Polish language lessons at home, but like most small children, we were not particularly enthusiastic about these lessons and they did not last very long. Polish is a rather difficult language and while I had started some formal schooling in Poland, my younger sister had had very little. Later, when the time came for us to select the obligatory second language that all school children in South Africa have to take, my mom told us we could apply to take Polish as an official second language. Horrified at the idea, both my sister and I opted for the path of least resistance and chose the much easier Afrikaans. (In retrospect I would not have wanted to take Polish either and would have opted for isiZulu – but that’s another discussion for another day).
It isn’t that we didn’t want to speak it – both of us are very happy that we can both speak it – fluently, albeit with slightly odd accents and skimpy vocabulary. We also have a ‘policy’ of only speaking Polish to other Poles, unless in the company of those who cannot speak it. But we never wanted to take formal lessons and to work at it –at least I did not. - After I finished school and started the journey of leaving my parent’s home I would notice that, more and more, certain Polish words seemed to be hiding in the crevices of my brain when I needed them and occasionally I would become conscious that I was directly translating phrases or sentences from English. Such realisations would usually set me off in a panic, reaching for the nearest bit of Polish literature, in the hope that I could find the truant vocabulary teasing me from the corners and force it back in its place.
I think I have only finished one Polish book in the last eight years, maybe two – in most cases I simply didn’t have the time to devote to reading at a pace five times slower than my English reading pace and looking up words in the dictionary. Book choice is also an issue – books that stimulate me intellectually tend to be difficult to read and the easy books tend to be boring or immature.
So on the eve of International Mother Language Day 2013 I sit and reflect on my current position: • Yes, my mother tongue proficiency is dwindling. A few months ago I sat down in a Polish restaurant and spoke with a waitress in mother tongue and I was horrified that the words coming out of my mouth sounded strange and artificial. • Yes I can read, but I cannot even read Polish subtitles fast enough to follow a film. • Yes, I can write, but my spelling is atrocious.
Where does this leave me? If I am honest with myself, I am not prepared to go for lessons or to spend the little spare time that I have attending talking groups or something similar. So perhaps I just do not want it badly enough? Perhaps. But am I the only one who feels like this, in a globalised world where people are moving around more and more and losing that physical contact with their mother tongues. Am I just part of a generation that will feel really guilty that we couldn’t really pass our mother tongues on to our children; a generation whose children will blame their parents for not teaching them?