Where did my German go? – Language forgetting

Born native speaker of Polish, she started to learn English in elementary school. German followed in high school and she successfully passed her A-level exams in Polish, English and German. It seemed that her path was set for life, when she decided to continue her education at the faculty of Applied Linguistics, with specialization in foreign language teaching and translation studies of English and German. One could expect that after graduation she would end up either in rainy London or in the city hosting Oktober Fest, but alas! she marched south, getting herself a job in the capital of the ancient world – Rome.

Is mental lexicon language-dependent?

Acquiring a new language brought remarkable changes to her previous mental lexicon. Strangely enough, Italian interfered not with Polish or English skills, but with German proficiency. Even at very early stages, when she knew only a few phrases in Italian, these phrases were eager to come up at every attempt to communicate in German. Not surprisingly, it all started with inserting ‘allora’ in place of ‘also’. With time, Italian language took over and German became a mere caricature of itself.

Two questions spring to mind. First of all, why did Italian interfere with German mental lexicon and not with lexicon of another language? As far as the mental lexicon is concerned, there has been a lot of research aiming to discover its organization in the bilingual speaker. In the model of speech by Kees deBot (A bilingual production model: Levelt’s ‘Speaking’ model adapted, 1992) the lexicon is considered to be language independent and built of subsets. The degree to which the subsets are separated may depend on the proficiency level of the speaker. Balanced bilinguals store their languages separately to a greater extent than non-balanced bilinguals. Seeing that my German skills were least developed we can assume that the German mental lexicon was not totally independent yet, thus most sensitive to interference from newly acquired language.

Language forgetting

Why was Italian acquired at the expense of German, why couldn’t my German skills remain intact? Language forgetting is probably as frequent as language learning in adults and may occur as a result of either a conscious decision (as in the case of some German Jews who abandoned German language after emigrating to the United States before World War II) or because exterior events have made the language unnecessary. The so-called dormant bilinguals become hesitant in their language production, code-switching is extensive and whole phrases are borrowed from the dominant language, often unconsciously. Pronunciation is affected at the level of intonation and stress and writing skills suffer to a great extent. The least affected is language comprehension, which is also preserved the longest.

So now, every trip to German-speaking country brings painful memories, like this one: I was just coming back from a week long stay in Alzace. During the trip I was quite happy to find out that my German language skills, which I had thought were lost for good, were not in such bad shape. I could understand German, I could answer in simple words – I could communicate! Waiting for my plane in an airport cafeteria, I ordered two pieces of cake. I said: ‘Due Kuchen, bitte’. Only when I saw the waiter’s surprised look, did I realize that I switched between Italian and German.

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