Mother Tongue

A while ago I wrote a bit about the importance of learning Icelandic in Iceland, and some of my experiences in that area. Now I'm going to write a little about the importance of one's mother tongue, especially if you want to be a translator.

This was triggered by my encountering someone (naming no names and linking no links) who had written the most astonishingly arrogant and so obviously affected thing about their language learning experience that I have ever heard. This was that they not only tried to avoid speaking English with Icelanders (surely a good idea) but that they had somehow forged such close links with the Icelandic language, that they could no longer process English when spoken to them by a fellow native English speaker who also spoke Icelandic. Even my ill-fated plan to give up English for Lent back in 2011 did not entail a blanket ban, but only speaking English to Icelanders. Two people, both learning Icelandic, but both having English as a mother tongue, might choose to chat a little in Icelandic for the sake of practice, but to entirely avoid communication in the language that both of you understand and speak best? That is mental. Of course, I don't actually believe this person for one second. That is, I believe they stringently avoid using English. However, any pretence of not processing English directed towards them or of no longer being able to produce instantaneous, fluent English is clearly feigned.

So that is nonsense, we're all agreed, yes? But what would be the motivation for making such a claim, for the apparent shame associated with speaking one's mother tongue rather than Icelandic, as an immigrant in Iceland? It can only be an over-extension of the idea that immigrants who speak Icelandic are accorded more value/respect than those who do not, and that immigrants have a certain responsibility to integrate by learning the language. If you take this to extremes I suppose it could end in a desire to reject one's own "foreign" identity entirely. You could decide that you didn't want to be an integrated foreigner and that you'd actually rather not be a foreigner at all. I think that's a little sad. I don't want to stop being English just because I don't live in England. Not that I actually have a choice in the matter. Even if I wanted it really, really hard and I tried to forget my English and speak only Icelandic and just be an Icelander, it wouldn't work. I moved here far too late in my life to actually become an Icelander. 

This all reminded me of something which was pointed out in one of my translation lectures - that the Icelandic students must take pains to always keep reading in Icelandic, and that those of us who are foreign (actually I think it's just me in that module...) must do the same in our languages. The final product of the translation process is not in the 'foreign language', but in the translator's mother tongue. Of course. So it logically follows that, although a good understanding of the source language is important, what is paramount is the ability to express ideas fluently in your native language. If you spend too little time using your own language, it's going to get rusty. Not to the extent that you stop being able to speak it, as I think we've established, but it could well lead to poor phrasing, a harder time finding the right word, a narrower range of words used, etc. Also, if you're not reading new material in your native language, your native vocabulary is going nowhere; you're not going to be learning any new words, and you can keep learning words your whole life long if you care to.

Considering the amount of English I use in my life, reading, writing and speaking, this is extremely unlikely to happen to me. If anything I should probably be using a little less English and a little more Icelandic. But still, I reminded myself the other day that I must not stop reading literature in English. It's probably more important at this stage that I keep reading a lot in Icelandic, but it would definitely be good to throw in the occasional novel in English. Maybe a trip to the library is in order.

Whether you're a translator or not, though, I don't understand how you could reject (or pretend to reject) your mother tongue like that. I love the English language, I love it far more than Icelandic. It's a part of me and I understand it infinitely better, with all its subtleties and nuances. How could anyone with the passion to learn another language not have the same level of passion for their own tongue?


  1. When I lived in other countries, even though I spoke mostly English, whenever I returned to the UK I was always surprised by how limited my vocabulary had become; how many slang words and 'big' words I'd forgotten existed just because I no longer heard or used them regularly. Although my fluency wasn't affected, my articulacy definitely was. I can see why it's recommended to keep reading and speaking in your own language if you want to be a translator. At the same time, I really don't understand how this other person you mention can claim to no longer really understand their own language. You never forget it to that degree. Sounds like a case of pretentiousness to me.

  2. The other person probably already has some issues with their own sense of identity. I guess (just guess) the link you are talking about is either an article from the Reykjavik Grapevine or the Iceland Weather Report. If it is then this confirms what I said above. I think it depends upon personal circumstances. Some people just want a complete life change and if this entails no longer speaking one's mother tongue so it'd be (after all who knows what happened in their lives to be able to judge_no matter how sad this seems to us).
    You, on the other hand, as a translation student must not, as you rightly said, forget your language. I've been living in the UK for a few years now and I no longer speak my mother tongue on a daily basis (in fact not at all)and last time I came back to my country some people asked me where I came from?! This is despite finishing high school there. I struggle to find my words, to build them in the correct way, I am no longer sure how to spell some words... So if I considered a career in translation I would certainly need to brush up the language I grew up speaking.

  3. You might want to look up first-language attrition. There are some cases where a person forgets their mother tongue (it is most thoroughly forgotten if attrition occurs at an early age). It requires years of not using the mother tongue, even in thought. Remnants may still survive in an interlanguage (anglicized French, Japonified Gaelic, or Hispanisized Mandarin).

  4. Yes, thankyou. I am aware of this. The person I was referring to had then lived in Iceland for less than a year, and was in their adult years.