Living life in two languages – can you forget your mother tongue?
Numerous Hungarians with Hungarian as their first language have moved abroad and been living there for years now. It is a long-going debate whether one can forget their mother tongue or not? Since today is the National Day of the Hungarian Language, one of WMN’s guest authors, Éva Zsuzsa Trembácz, decided to digress on the issue. The following is a translation of her thoughts.
The question whether you can forget your mother tongue (L1) or not has been bugging me a lot for a while. My Bulgarian grandfather – who’s spent 50 years in Hungary – argued that you can not. I’ve been living abroad for about ten years now and have learnt that there is actually a complex maze behind the surface of stereotypical thoughts related to the Hungarian spoken by Hungarians abroad, such as ‘your mother tongue should come instinctively’, ‘it’s all about paying attention’, ‘you’re a snob if you start using foreign words after a given time’. While I was wandering around in this maze, my own attitude to my mother tongue has changed.
If I could give a piece of advice to my past self, I would remind her that there are consequences to living in a different culture, and that my attitude to language will change, even if I’m against it. Back then, I did not realise that I was strictly guarding my mother tongue when I headed out into the world. Sometimes I was struck, other times I was angry by the fact that Hungarians would use words of foreign origin while conversing in Hungarian. Also, how can you not find an ordinary word while talking to someone else? Luckily, life makes you face your own prejudices, in order to help you overcome them.
I was holding unto thoughts like ‘using your mother tongue is all about instincts’ and ‘it’s all about paying attention to what you say and use’ quite stubbornly. Then I had to realise how many factors trump this instinctive use of language in everyday life.
When you’re working 8-10 hours a day using a different language, you use a different language to communicate, argue, process information, do your daily tasks and chores, in a place where there are no Hungarians, the way you use your mother tongue changes.
I must admit, the English word ‘recruitment’ comes to me much quicker than its Hungarian equivalent ‘munkaerő-toborzás’, as I had to learn the professional jargon used in my field of work in English, not in Hungarian. Using two languages at the same time is tiresome, so I don’t think that it is a sin to have minor difficulties from time to time in either of those languages. How much attention you pay to the way you implement Hungarian, depends a lot on how frequently you use a given phrase and how much time you’ve spent/spend in Hungary, as you cannot adapt to the changes in the language, if you’re not living there.
When you move abroad, you take your mother tongue with you in a small bag. You use one part of this bag all the time, but the rest remains untouched. When you go home, you will hopefully refill that bag. The packed goods will become dull with time, as they are not cultivated as much as they should be. Although you can help them grow and develop with, let’s say, Skype, the internet, online radios and TV, it won’t be the same. It is scientifically proven that accent can change: the coordination of the muscles moving your vocal chords and lips will adapt to the other language that you speak, thus influencing your ‘mother tongue accent’ too. However, this manifests in different degrees in everyone.
What about being a language snob? Well, some of us are, some of us aren’t. It’s personal.
I would like to draw attention to previously described problem of not having enough input in your L1. I still stand by my opinion that the language that you’ve mastered after puberty cannot be forgotten. Still, I can confess that it is indeed very hard to keep a minority language in good shape and even harder to pass it on. My own attitude to my L1 has changed. I had to realise how comfortable it is to do your daily tasks while speaking your L1. Sometimes I have to think hard about how to use a given word in English, I question myself, whether I used it correctly or not. I am even annoyed by the fact that I cannot express my thought as well as I intend to in English. It is much better to lead a conversation on how you feel in Hungarian, as I believe that I cannot express everything properly in English. If I tell you how I feel in Hungarian, then I tell you the whole story. This is not so much in English.
Of course, it is very exciting to be able to speak two languages fluently at the same time, because I feel like two different people.
The languages themselves and the cultures that are related to them shape these personalities. I often feel that my entertaining, funny persona cannot be translated from Hungarian into English. I complained a lot about this to my husband, actually, saying that I’m boring in English.
No matter how interesting and exciting this duality is, I feel much relieved when I get home, I can literally feel the walls built by the restrictions of the L2 crumble down. It is so relieving and relaxing to dive deep in the beauties of the Hungarian language, how rich it is in sounds.
Although it is an adventure to shift between the two languages, I perceive the learnt language as a room.
In this room you keep bumping into the walls, as it restricts your space, while the mother tongue is like an endless green field with colourful flowers. I believe that you can expand the walls of the room, but you can never demolish them.
Kosztolányi once said that ‘It is only your mother tongue that will never make you feel stuffed, it will never make you feel sick. It is only this language that you will immediately digest, it will be part of your blood flow in an instant, without restrictions. You can consume smaller or bigger portions of other languages, but this is more like taking medicine’.
It is a common belief that if you speak more than one language, the one that your soul speaks in is the one that you really are close to. Some say that once you’ve dreamt about a given language, you’ve made it yours. I always dream in Hungarian. I know that the language of my soul is Hungarian.
And I know that my grandfather was right.
photos: wmn.hu, Éva Zsuzsa Trembácz
featured image: erdely.ma