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How To Re-Connect With Your Mother Tongue

The wrong preposition. That was all it took for me register that I could no longer claim I was fluent in Arabic. To my dormant Arabic mind, I knew something didn’t sound right, but, after laughing at me for a full minute, one of my cousins was there to save the day. Despite my argument that having 3 languages with differing levels of proficiency knocking about in my mind was bound to lead to some mistakes, I found my attempts at redemption paled in comparison to his one line argument: “No excuses - you’re officially a foreigner.”

To be a foreigner in your own language, a language you still switch to when you’re overcome with anger at someone being a slow walker, was a humbling realisation. Although my mind still thought in Arabic, I found my tongue refused to co-operate.

I soon realised very early on that Duolingo was not going to be much help if I understood the language orally but struggled to read it - especially since the Duolingo options for Arabic were meagre compared to those of Spanish or German, for example. My fear of studying cases in German only to be confronted by them in Arabic meant that picking up a grammar book was also not going to be on my to do list any time soon.

I found my attempts at redemption paled in comparison to his one line argument: “No excuses - you’re officially a foreigner.”

I came to the wonderful epiphany that to treat this re-connection as a chore would remove the joy of it completely, and if my Arabic skills were replaced by consuming everything in English, so why shouldn’t the same logic apply to regain my skills? Soon enough, I started watching YouTube with Arabic subtitles and learning the lyrics to Fairuz and Cheb Khaled. Sadly, language learning isn’t as simple as watching Netflix, but I have picked up some key tips along the way.

1. Your Reason Why. Write out a clear list of reasons why you want to re-learn your language. Write it on a piece of fancy paper, with the pen you save for special occasions, and place it somewhere you will always see it. Writing down your reasons will make it more concrete, and the end goal will seem more tangible.

2. The Main Goal. Speaking of goals, set one main goal (e.g. reading in that language) with smaller, realistic check in points (e.g. by the end of one month of learning, you can recognise different tenses).

3. Set a clear routine. Whether it’s sitting at your desk at a specific time, or eating your breakfast with some exercises in your target language by your side, our brains respond best to routines because it removes the friction of simply starting.

4. Speak to yourself in that language. No matter how much we try to deny it, we all speak to ourselves, so why not make it a way of re-learning your mother tongue. The main issue with those who have lost their mother tongue tends to be that we can think in that language, yet our tongues are a bit stiff. Speaking to yourself, even for just 5 minutes a day, sends your tongue to the gym and forces it work in tandem with your mind.

5. Media! Consume media targeted at children that you may have encountered in your own childhood. For example, if you used to listen to children’s songs in your mother tongue, chances are that the lyrics are still in your mind somewhere, and they’ll help you regain an ear for what sounds right. Children’s literature translated into your mother tongue will also prove invaluable - since you’re familiar with the story, you can focus on the written aspect of the story.

6. Finally, have fun with it! The second that language learning becomes a chore should be the moment you reach for your list of reasons. Alternatively, allow yourself a rest for a day or two before re-joining the marathon.

About The Author: Sara is an Olea Ambassador (Team 1.0, March - Sept 2023) and is currently pursuing a BA in English Literature and French at the University of Manchester. She speaks English, Arabic and French!


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