Three Servings of Bilingual Brain-Fry

After a little more than 10 years in California (and now also one year of “lockdown” with limited contact to German friends), the lack of using the German language is beginning to show.

When I’m supposed to speak German, as I was when I met one of my German speaking friends for a desert hike recently (normally we’d carpool, now we drove separate cars, and thus still had plenty to chat about when we met at the trailhead), I need a couple of minutes and sentences before the language begins to flow naturally and normally. There’s also the odd hurdle of using local names, labels and terms for which there is no German: Interstate 8 East remains Interstate 8 East and doesn’t become “Autobahn 8 Richtung Osten” in our conversations. 🙂

Sometime last year, pre-pandemic, I had hailed a “car-sharing” service to take me home after I had dropped off my car for servicing. So I sat in the back of a roomy family van and the driver, “Mary” was a wiry elderly lady of quite clearly middle-eastern origin (the reason why I’m writing her name with quotation marks). Allow me to put the increasing negatives and moral concerns of ride-sharing aside here (hey, that was post AB-5 and pre-Prop 22!) — chatting with the drivers is interesting.

She noticed my accent and asked me where I’m from. After I say “Germany” she replies to me in German, asking “wie geht es Ihnen?” (how are you?). Needless to say, I was perplexed because that was really unexpected! But in addition to requiring the aforementioned minutes & sentences to “arrive” at speaking German again, I’ve learned to be a bit cautious when someone here says something in German to me: I’m never sure if they are actually capable of having a conversation in German, because a lot of people say “wie geht es Ihnen?” and then that’s it. 😉

So my initial responses to Mary were in English still, but she was unfazed (perhaps aware of this struggle) and continued to talk to me, in German. And her German was excellent! Occasionally she struggled with the vocabulary and filled in a word that she couldn’t remember with the English equivalent — I wish I could do that the other way around, in my English conversations! She told me that she had lived in Germany and still has family there, but originally they’re all from Afghanistan. Her sister’s kids, born and raised in Germany, speak neither Afghan nor English! So when Mary calls to chat with her niece and nephew, she’s using German, and that’s how she stayed fluent in the language.

Maybe I need to have more actual voice conversations with my family in Germany, instead of exchanging text messages in our Signal group, because here’s the third, most recent and strangest incident:

A friend called me and asked for help with pronouncing a German last name correctly. Piece of cake… except that, something in my brain switched to German instantly — and then he spelled out the German name, letter by English letter, for me. I couldn’t make sense of it, at all. My brain had somehow switched to “German process”, and now came English letters! I grabbed a piece of paper and asked him to repeat it. He did, and I began to write. After four letters, I was lost. I asked him to repeat spelling it out again — and got lost again. He sent me the name as a text message, and then it was instantly clear, of course. And he probably thinks I’m an idiot, now. xD

6 thoughts on “Three Servings of Bilingual Brain-Fry

  1. I had a friend who explained pretty much the same thing, though he had 2 languages in addition to English he had to regularly use or they’d start to degrade. That said, the effect of increasing age should probably not be immediately discounted as a factor. 😉

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I completely sympathise. Something similar happens to me with Italian. Growing up we used to watch mostly Italian TV, and our family holidays always had at least a long stretch through Italy. So we got to practice often and as a result I could speak fluently enough. Then recently after spending several years in the UK, I pretty much disconnected with the language. At most watching Montalbano in Italian on the BBC. I could still understand it easily, but speaking has become so hard. Even now after several years in Malta again, I still find it almost impossible to keep a proper conversation going with my Italian friends. I just don’t practice enough…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh my. Italian! I used to speak Italian too and it’s been a lifetime (we lived in northern Italy for a while when I was young). I really liked the language. Most of it is gone. 😦


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