When I went to England as an Au Pair, I didn’t have to think about whether I would be speaking too much French or not. I was going to live in a British family so English would be what I would hear and speak everyday.
When I went to Japan however, the question came to mind pretty quickly. In the plane from Shanghai to Okinawa, I met three other French students that where going to the same school. Two other joined in the following week.
My first reaction was to think « I didn’t come here to only hang out with French people and speak French all day long. I came here to improve my Japanese! ». And so did the others. We all thought we wouldn’t go out together and only make Japanese friends and improve this way. How wrong we all were back then.
Fast forward 8 months.
The other French and I were planning on eating out and we decided to invite the two new French students. One of them didn’t even answer, and from this day on, he would never answer any of our invitations or even messages. I thought it was weird because I was the one charged of the translation when he arrived, and he seemed nice and talkative. We had a good chat for the two days it lasted.
Later, he told one of my friends that he was willingly « ignoring » all the French speaking people of the school, because he wanted to improve fast. It reminded me of my naive past self who would think the same thing (it didn’t last long!).
The thing is, he was right and wrong at the same time.
Immersion is one of the most effective ways to improve, if not the best one. I could totally see where he was coming from because it made perfect sense to me – I had experienced the same thoughts.
But putting aside your mother tongue so drastically is not a good idea. At all.
See, in language learning, your mother tongue is very very very important.
Your brain needs a base, something to refer to when you learn new things and the first base, the strongest one, will always be your mother tongue. By « neglecting » it, you’re doing yourself no good.
Yes! It is possible to « forget » your mother tongue. It doesn’t happen overnight, it will never disappear completely and will always come back when you start again. but words are harder to find, your expression isn’t that smooth anymore, you tend to rely on very basic words all the time… My German teacher who’s lived in France for 30 years or so told me once that she had to force herself to watch German TV because she realized while talking to her relatives how her level had lowered throughout the years.
How does your brain use your mother tongue to learn a new one ?
It makes connections. It compares everything you learn with things you already know. It works as an anchor. I was told one day that I had a good ear for languages but that it would not always help me – and it is right. Has anyone ever asked you something about your mother tongue that you couldn’t explain ? You just thought or answered « I don’t know, that’s just the way it is ». We all did. Except almost everything has a reason. You still get around without knowing them but consider this :
Not understanding the reason/rule/pattern/grammar behind what you are saying in your target language guarantees you will eventually make mistakes or that you will reach a point where you won’t be able to improve anymore. To properly use and understand all this background knowledge, you must know how it works in your mother tongue, or at least be familiar. Because that is how your brain will understand it easier. Understanding is better than learning by heart.
Sometimes, you will meet some concepts that don’t exist in your mother tongue so you won’t be able to make the connections, but they will seem so much more daunting if you already used up all your energy trying to understand a concept you should know in your first language. If you spend your energy trying to understand something instead of just linking it to the equivalent in your mother tongue, when you stumble across grammar rules or concepts that are specific to other languages, you’re going to struggle more and, who knows, maybe it will be the one thing that makes you give up. (Good news for polyglots though, if you happen to stumble across something like this : speaking other foreign languages helps you learning now ones faster, and a blogpost about this is coming).
You could learn a new language like babies learn their mother tongue and be fluent. But that would take years, and years. I assume if you are reading this blog, then that is not your purpose. Also, if you are going to learn like this in a foreign country, your everyday life as a grown up will be so much more difficult. Learning intuitively has its benefits though, and I believe the Assimil methods use it to help learn faster.
Now the amazing thing is it works both ways. The more you learn a new language, the deeper you understand your own. It is hard to explain until you experience it yourself, until you have that « aha » moment.
But until then, do yourself a favor and do not neglect your mother tongue !
« Okay okay, but how do I do that? ». I’ll go over methods to cultivate and improve your mother tongue in the next blog post !
For now, remember to learn with your brain, think with your mind, and speak with your heart.
Good luck !