The other day, I was chatting away to my mom on FaceTime in our usual, rapid mixture of English and Chinese, when suddenly, I faltered: I couldn't remember the Chinese word for "travel". It felt like a rush of cold water down my back as I realized ... I was losing fluency in my first language. I carried on in English, but felt confused and uneasy.
Although I was born and raised in the US, I didn't speak English until I started pre-school (aged three or so) - something I've always been very proud of. Despite growing up in a small town devoid of any native-Chinese speakers, my parents made an effort to speak to me only in Cantonese at home. Unlike my brother, who was far more reluctant to speak in Chinese on a regular basis, I embraced my second language and used it frequently, as much as possible. At the age of four, I was reciting Chinese poetry, my small voice carrying on as my finger traced each verse in my book. I remember my mom squeezing me tight with pride as I did this, and my dad beaming at me from the dinner table.
A home video filmed by my dad shows me playing with a doll I'd named 'Nancy'. "How old is Nancy?" my dad asks me in the video, in English. "She ..." I think. "She is ... cham," I pronounce, after much deliberation, saying what I think is English for "three" but actually twisting the Cantonese pronunciation for the number instead. Of course, by the time I actually went to pre-school, I picked up English quickly, and my parents began to speak to me in a mix of Chinese and English at home.
The morning after the FaceTime conversation with my mom, I laid awake in bed, naming every fruit and vegetable I could outloud, in Chinese. I pictured the fruit in my head before pronouncing, 'heung jiu' for banana or 'ping gor' for apple. But for other fruits, I realized that I was thinking of the word in English before translating it into Chinese - which felt really, really scary.
Before, I never had to think when I spoke in Chinese. It came naturally, easily. Just like eavesdropping on the two little old ladies babbling in Cantonese on the Overground the other day: I didn't have to concentrate on their conversation. I just understood it. Immediately. One had arthritis in her knee. The other asked why she didn't go to the doctor. The first responded that she did, and that they gave her an injection, but it didn't work. See? Easy.
But now, I find myself searching for words when I speak them - my vocabulary slowly shrinking. What is the word for ambulance? For soy milk? What is the word for sign? Or window? I tried to remember the word for "antibiotic" the other day, and got stuck. I regularly mispronounce things to my mom lately, and she corrects me, laughing - not in a mean way, but gently. I'm embarrassed. The fluency I was once so proud of is slowly slipping away.
Recently, I read this article about expats who lost fluency in their native language after years of living in another country. My German colleague and Danish friend have both admitted to me that they too, struggle to grasp for words in their native tongue after living in London for several years. And although English is considered my native language, Chinese was always simultaneously a part of that too. But the less I'm around my family, and the less I watch Cantonese movies or listen to Cantonese music, I feel the language slowly slipping away - and in turn, my Chinese heritage and culture fading from the forefront of my mind.
Which scares me the most.
I've thought about joining Cantonese meet-up groups or searching for a language exchange partner. But time slips away, I have other priorities, and it gets shoved aside for something else. A few years ago, I had a Cantonese-speaking co-worker, so we conversed daily and I'd pop down to buy some fruit from the green grocer around the corner, who had emigrated from Hong Kong. But soon, they moved, and I just stopped speaking Cantonese as frequently as I'd used to. So now, aside from the occasional FaceTime with my mom (my dad never speaks to me in Chinese now for some reason, which is weird! I'll speak to him in Chinese and he'll answer me in English!), my once-fluent language skills remain unused - dormant.
Do you speak another language? Has this ever happened to you? How did it make you feel, and how did you overcome it (if you did)? I'd love to know.