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Sunday, November 8, 2009

A language lost

My Grandmother and auntie

Recently I read an article in The Guardian about small languages dying out and what, if anything, could be done to prevent that. I am not a speaker of a language threatened by extinction (although my Serbian vocabulary has been depleted over years like depleted uranium) but there is a language that was once spoken in my family and is now lost--namely, German.

It was the native language of my ancestors on my Mother's side of the family but my Grandmother is the last speaker. At least she was, but now she can hardly put a few sentences together, although she probably understands more than she can speak. I didn't think it was possible to forget your mother tongue but knowing how much my Serbian has deteriorated over the past ten years I can see how it could happpen. After all, she has had no one to talk to in German for almost sixty years. And as she didn't pass it to her children--my mother, aunt and uncle--the knowledge will perish with her.

Now that I am trying to pass my own language to Boris and Andrej--their only tentative link with my homeland, which is not quite theirs--I am thinking more often about that lost link with my ancestors. It is as if a piece of the identity puzzle is missing; a small piece, maybe, but still a door to a completely different world that I never got to know.

Ironically, I have never felt any affinity towards German language or culture--a complete lack of curiosity on my part. Instead, I fell in love with English at the age of nine and I have been firmly entrenched in the Anglo-Saxon way of thinking ever since. But that missed opportunity for an insider glimpse into one of the most important European cultures is something that I now regret.

Although, if you ask my friends they will tell you I am German enough as it is, but that's only because punctuality and (self) discipline tend to be in short supply where I come from. Which tells us far more about the Balkans than it does about the Germans.


B said...

This is one of my biggest fears, that I'll lose my native language or that if I go back to Spain, I'll lose my English (more likely, I guess). I feel they are both part of my personality (or personalities) that the thought of losing them is scary. It must be really sad for your Grandma, not being able to speak her native language any more?

Jelica said...

She doesn't seem too flustered about it--she has been thoroughly assimilated :)

But for myself, I've lived out of Serbia for 12 years now and for the last 6 I haven't had anyone to speak Serbian with on a daily basis and my vocabulary has deteriorated very badly. Not to mention that I translate idioms literally from English (and Bulgarian) very often. I think the only solution against this is to keep reading in your native language as much as you can, and I haven't done that at all.

Delwyn said...

Hi Jelica

do you speak English at home?

How about during the day's activities out of the house? Do you speak Hungarian???

My sister lives in Israel but spoke both English and Hebrew to her children as they grew and now they have a distinct advantage being bilingual...the oldest is 18 and ready for the army but with English she has a greater choice of occupations within the army.

Happy days

Jelica said...

Hi Delwyn,

we don't speak English at home, only at work. At home, I speak Serbian with kids, Ruslan speaks Bulgarian and between the two of us we also speak Bulgarian (in which I am fluent). The kids learn Hungarian in daycare and they speak it perfectly, so they are three-lingual. We envy them :)))

julochka said...

i read this and i think "hallelujah! jelica is coming to blog camp." you're just so smart and thoughtful. and i love that so much. in whatever language!!