Languages Slipping

I’ve mentioned in this blog a number of times that I am—or at least used to be—comfortable in seven languages, other than English, that I have worked in. But as I get older, I’m finding that my grasp of the languages is less and less reliable. All too often these days, I reach for a word in, say, French, but come up with one in German. Other times, I simply can’t remember the word at all.

My best foreign language is Vietnamese. I spoke it constantly during the thirteen years I spent more time in Vietnam than I did in the U.S, that is, between 1962 and the fall of Saigon in 1975. The language became so natural to me that sometimes native Vietnamese talking with me on the telephone mistook me for a native of North Vietnam—all my professors at the Army Language School in Monterey were northerners, so I learned the northern dialect, generally accepted back then as the preferred dialect. Vietnamese became so ordinary for me that I thought in it and even dreamt in it.

But nowadays even my Vietnamese is slipping away. Too often, I can’t remember a word and have to look it up. I find myself substituting Chinese words for their Vietnamese equivalent. It’s worse with other languages. I’m finding that when speaking in similar languages, like French, Spanish, or Italian, I mix them up and choose words from one language to use in another.

Some of the problem is that when one doesn’t use a language, memory of the grammar and vocabulary fades. I haven’t spoken any of my languages during the more than a year that the pandemic lockdown was in force. And I have fewer opportunities now than I did earlier in life to visit locations where the languages are spoken.

More next time.

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