Speaking in Tongues

“Was ist deine Muttersprache?” is one of the first sentences my German A1 students learn in class. After all, a person’s mother tongue is a central part of their personality. For me as a teacher, it is especially interesting to know, since their initial strengths and weaknesses in learning German heavily depend on their mother tongue. When a feature doesn’t exist in your own language, it is no surprise that it will be challenging to grasp that concept in a foreign one.

But a person’s mother tongue is not everything. While (Swiss) German is my mother tongue, my students are not the only ones learning from our B2, A2, or even A1 level textbooks. Despite my status as a native speaker, I don’t know everything there is to know about the German language and I can always learn something new. And that’s okay. Nobody is perfect and people always make mistakes when speaking, regardless of whether they are communicating in a foreign language or their native tongue. Outside of scripted movies and TV shows, nobody talks without correcting themselves. Mistakes are part of human nature and—so I tell my students—perfection is never the goal. In language learning, the goal is communication, not perfection.

And the concept of a mother tongue might also not be as simple as one initially assumes: What counts as a mother tongue and what doesn’t? My father grew up exclusively speaking English at home. My grandfather had migrated from the US and he never started speaking German (if he was still alive today, he’d be a perfect candidate for a course at VOX 😉 ). Even with his Swiss mother and brother, my father communicated only in English until the age of 20. He started learning German when he was enrolled into Kindergarten, where, on his first day, he mostly cried because he could not understand anything that was being said around him. So, it would seem natural to say that English is my dad’s mother tongue. And yet, he would disagree. Now, in his fifties, he never considers anything other than (Swiss) German his mother tongue and he doesn’t use English in his daily life. To his children, he speaks German. To his wife, his friends, his colleagues, he speaks German.

When I was born, he had long since decided that speaking English to his children would simply feel ‘wrong’, since it didn’t ‘feel’ like his mother tongue anymore. Only 10 years after stopping to speak English on a day-to- day basis, it had been replaced. A person’s mother tongue, then, might not be such a rigid concept after all.

And no teacher at VOX would deny that it is possible to learn a language to a degree where you sound and maybe feel just like a native speaker—even later in life.

Famed Polish author Joseph Conrad only started learning English in his 20s. Despite this, he has become one of the seminal authors of English literature. The same holds true for Vladimir Nabokov. His first writings were in his mother tongue Russian, but he achieved his greatest fame with novels he wrote in English.

More recently, authors like Yann Martel and Khaled Houssini achieved international success with books they had written in English and not their respective mother tongues. And even English authors such as Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett wrote successful plays in French  (yes, En attendant Godot is originally French, remember that for trivia night).

These authors and countless of our students who leave our school speaking German as well as or even better than the average Swiss person are proof that language learning is possible at any age and there is no set ceiling where non-native speakers have to get ‘stuck’. Of course, there is no denying that is it not a simple process; but remember, it took you years to learn your mother tongue as well. It’s never too late to start learning a new language and to start writing an award-winning novel in a foreign language.

And if you do, I wouldn’t say no to being mentioned in your Man Booker Price acceptance speech.

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