Bursting the language bubble: maintaining the native language proficiency

I love my sister in law, Dorota. I have known her for many years as we came to Australia around the same time, in the late 1980s. What drives me insane about her, though, is the way she uses English expressions and grammatical structure when speaking Polish. Here is an example of something she might say: “W supermarket nie bylo plastic bags i bylam angry ale shop assistant mi dala bag, bo byla kolo cash register.” Woman! We have all of these equivalent words in Polish. Use them, for goodness’ sake, I feel like saying. But of course, I do not, having put up with this Ponglish of hers for years now. Luckily, she is aware of it and regularly makes fun of it herself, also coming up with doozies such as Macedonia nuts for Macadamia nuts and sour crowd for sauerkraut.

That all languages change over time is an obvious statement. Phonetics, morphological, semantic, syntactic and other features undergo constant change as they are born, die and reinvent themselves. Some of us subscribe to the idea that language should remain pure, frozen in time and protected from the influence of other languages, fashion, inventions, migration and social trends. This state, of course, is not possible to maintain unless we’re talking Ancient Greek or High Arabic, and those of us that are bilingual are only too aware of the constant rebirth of our language, as we live between cultures and continents. 

So on the one hand, our mother tongue skills and fluency decrease as we are surrounded by English coming at us from all angles, including the media, our families and the community at large. Despite the internet and faster communication, we do not get exposed to the ever changing language that is used “back home” as much as the people actually living there. We adopt not just the English words but also the sentence structure and the way of expression. After a while, many of us just sound quaint to the native language speakers. And whenever we visit our native countries, we feel out of place and it takes a few days to get used to the changes that seem to happen overnight.

On the other hand, English tends to infiltrate our native language anyway and I am sure many of you have experienced terms borrowed from the English language that sound very awkward to us, whose mother tongue is somewhat frozen in time. There is the Polish fejs (facebook) and lajkowac (to like), the French zapping (channel hopping), the German auschecken (checking out), Italian scrollare (to scroll) and chattare (to chat) or Japanese kii horuda (key holder) or koin randorii (coin laundry). 

For linguists, ethnic broadcasters, multicultural workers and professional translators and interpreters there is a more legitimate reason why English words might be used amongst another language. Our audiences get to know various expressions in the health, social services, aged care and technology domains here, in Australia, and only know them by their English equivalents. Common expressions such as palliative care, hostel, dementia, social worker, mental illness seem to be taken up by local communities in English, despite the fact that perfectly acceptable equivalents exist in other languages. The challenge of maintaining purity of language and tailoring our message to our audiences is ever present. It’s about educating oneself as well as the listeners, readers and the community. Here are some painless, common sense tips on how to do it:

  1. 1. Read, read and read. In your native language, as well as English and try not to mix the two up. Nowadays, there are many platforms that are easily available and include books, on-line newspapers and social media forums. This is the only way to ensure that you sound natural and not like an archaic relic from the past.
  2. 2. Hang around young people as they usually have the newest lingo, jargon and expressions down pat. And yes, you do need to embrace it. Fighting the language change is a losing battle.
  3. 3. Travel to your country of origins often, if possible. In-country immersion corrects the language very quickly. International travel is important for your professional development.
  4. 4. Network with other people who speak the language in question. Attend conferences, join community organisation, volunteer. 
  5. 5. Watch movies and listen to music – these activities can be done on the go, aren’t expensive and can help you immerse in the language. Turn the subtitles on so that you can see the language being written, as well as spoken. 
  6. 6. Be creative – change the language settings on your facebook and twitter account. This may seem like a very simple thing to do but it will ensure you are immersed in the written form of the language. 
  7. 7. Be conscious of your target audience – remember who you are talking to and why. You may need to adjust your message depending on 
  8. 8. Monitor and contribute to relevant available resources – nowadays, you can find many discussion and chat groups on line. A lot of informal learning can be done here!

Hopefully these tips inspire you to spice up language skills. Making small changes and challenging yourself builds up your motivation and feels less exhausting than lessons and course book exercises. Good luck and share your experiences and tips with others.