“First-Language Attrition” or the act of forgetting your first language is incredibly common with a lot of first-generation or second-generation immigrants or people with migration backgrounds. It’s a struggle that comes with mainly speaking a language other than your first/native language and it can feel painful and isolating, which is why I wanted to talk about that today as well as what it means to find a place you belong to.
A lot of people online may not know this but I’m not a “real German”. I was born and raised in Germany and I lived here all my life but my parents are from Kosovo which means that I’m Albanian, technically. I put “real German” into quotation marks and I say technically because all of that is bullshit. I believe that all US citizens are US citizens even if they have different non-US roots. I believe that people that come to Germany and live here, integrating themselves into the country, essentially are German. As far as I’m concerned, I am German. My “roots” are in Kosovo and I’m hence Albanian but that’s just a technicality and very different from your identity. Today’s post is mainly gonna talk about that identity struggle but also about first-language attrition and how it affects you, especially when you have certain “roots” that you want to keep in touch with.
So, the idea of “identity” is incredibly important, in my opinion. In my teen years, a teacher once asked me something that I just couldn’t answer. We were working on a project and everyone was essentially adding a piece of themselves into this big wall carpet. When I was asked what I did, I responded that I helped with this part and that part and all sorts of other things. That teacher then confronted me about the idea to put something that has to do with yourself in there and she essentially wanted me to answer her “simple question”: “Who are you?” or rather “What’s something that makes you ‘you’?” – It sounds deeply philosophical but I reckon that every single person can probably say what makes them essentially them… I, however, struggled deeply with that. As someone who pretended to be someone they weren’t or someone that wanted to fit in but couldn’t and as someone who struggled to make friends for a long time, I couldn’t answer that question. I didn’t know what the answer to that question is – which my teacher laughed… but we won’t talk about arguably bad teachers today.
That’s kind of the day when I realised that I have no clue “who” I actually am. That got further enhanced when I realised that in my hometown, I was a foreigner even though I was born and raised there. I’d be seen as someone completely different from the “normal” people aka the “actual Germans”. Meanwhile, in my “home country”, I also was a foreigner or what a lot of people there call “jashtit” (pardon my grammar there) which means “someone from the outside” or simply put an outsider. A lot of people over there seem to have that idea that fleeing during the war was bad and staying in the country you fled to because you get a better life is also bad or even worse, possibly. We won’t get too into that. Both of these instances resulted in me not feeling like I belonged anywhere. No matter where I go, I’m the outsider, after all. So who am I and where do I belong to?
Now, I haven’t gone to my “home country” in four years. I sporadically call my grandparents but I don’t really keep in touch with anyone else from my somewhat distant family for a plethora of reasons, including homophobia, racism, and their sense of pride and hypocrisy. There are a lot of instances where they will ask you for money because “Germans” (such as I) apparently are rich and earn a lot and can easily give money away. In that instance, it’s good to be “like the Germans”. When you don’t want to pay for them, especially after they ordered way too much for themselves, expecting you to pay for it, then suddenly you’re “just like the Germans” who are greedy misers. Now, it’s suddenly bad to be “like the Germans”. In my hometown (in Germany), it’s the same. When you’re beneficial to them, your teachers and all sorts of people will leech onto you and say that you’re a “good foreigner” for integrating yourself well into society and for studying well and knowing the language. When you’re not beneficial to them, you’re getting screamed at, insulted, or even punished harshly because you’re “just like the other foreigners”. When you get bullied, you’re at fault for not integrating yourself. When you win at a science fair, they’re proud that you integrated yourself. What I’m getting at is that shitty people exist everywhere, no matter where you are, and depending on the context, you’ll always be just like the X in the eyes of a bigot or douche. Hence, I don’t keep in touch with a lot of my teachers or neighbours anymore either, ever since I moved away from my hometown.
Moving away to a different city – a bigger city – to study at university was probably the best choice I ever made in my life. Here, it doesn’t matter who you are. Nobody cares. I’m one person in 360,000+. In bigger cities, you’ll be one in a million – or more… literally. It doesn’t matter. You are you. And that’s all that matters. And as I lived from day to day, I found interests that I’m passionate about, things I enjoy doing, people I adore, and many new friends. Every stranger I talk to has a different story to tell and it’s refreshing to see that you don’t need to hide away or anything as you’ll never meet the same person again if you embarrass yourself on public transport. At least, it’s less likely. As time went on, I got an idea of who I was back in my hometown but it wasn’t until I moved away from that shithole that I actually found out who I truly was… and I’m still learning. It’s a journey. It’s a struggle.
And language is a big part of that as well. I can choose who I want to converse with and to who I want to talk a lot. I call my parents all the time to make sure that they’re well… and I try my hardest to talk Albanian with them so that I don’t forget my “roots”. At the same time, my whole day-to-day is essentially all about the English language now. Ever since I started studying English Studies, I’ve increased the amount of English I’m talking and it got to the point where I have to try hard to “think in German”. Literally, my thoughts are in English at the moment and I need to translate those into German to get my words out, which… again… is a struggle.
Earlier, I went into some detail about First-Language Attrition and what it means. Your first language is quite important and when you end up talking a lot about your second language, you may find yourself forgetting about your native or first language, meaning that you lose some of the things that kind of coined who you are. And from what I’ve heard from other people with a migration background, it feels isolating and painful at times to them as well. I’m not the only one that keeps forgetting words or how to pronounce certain things. I’m having to learn Albanian again because I lost that skill when I started to go to school. Right now, I’m starting to struggle a little with German – and I’m honestly fine with it. I believe that languages can be learnt again but you can never really lose yourself. You’re still you after all and I just wanted to address that in a post – but I ended up digressing a lot and talking about other matters like identity and the place you belong to. Over the past four years, I learned that I want to stay in this city. I love this city. I believe that the struggle of losing your first language or of not knowing who you are is quite serious in a way as it makes you lose that sense of “where do you belong “… Hence, I believe that it’s important to at times make an effort to learn again and to regain what was lost or forgotten to not lose that sense of community or that “oceanic feeling”. That idea that you can trust in this one place you found, essentially, is more important than one might think, in my opinion. Some people call that place faith or religion. For other people, it’s their home, their family, their roots, their work, their passion, etc. Language takes a big part in finding that place, and conversing with other like-minded individuals is important. But then again, I’m just rambling, so… I just wanted to share my experience a little.
Even though this post has really nothing to do with Roybert’s posts, I kinda got inspired by him talking about his experiences in the past and ended up wanting to write about a more personal topic myself. Check out Roybert’s Blog sometime, if you have the chance! Roybert’s amazing and a very kind soul!