Today in the grocery store I ran into Madame L., a French woman who married an American GI and moved to our town decades ago. When I was a child, I would see her in a five-and-dime store, where she managed a department. Her accent was as thick as curd, her demeanor unusually precise and calm. Today was the first time I had seen her in many years. I greeted her in French, and began speaking French to her.
She answered me in English, and seemed to struggle to understand what I was saying. I switched to English, and when I was sure that she knew who I was, I returned to French. She insisted on English.
“I have been in this country for more than 40 years,” she said, sweetly. And then I realized that she was having trouble understanding what I was saying to her in French. The language in which she was raised. Her first language. The language that, aside from rare occasions, she hasn’t heard spoken around her in over four decades.
How do you lose your native language? I know it happens, but … wow. I can’t imagine not being able to speak English easily. Can you imagine losing your native language? If I forgot how to speak English, it would be like forgetting myself.