In order to prepare for my upcoming 3-month stay in Berlin, I have started brushing up on my terminally rusty German: buying a couple books and checking out online newspapers somewhat regularly (more than just once every three months when I am curious to know the Frankfurter Allgemeine‘s position on some European issue).
Much to my surprise, I not only still remember a sizable chunk of German despite over 10 years with zero practice, but my level has in fact improved since then. That is to say, I am nowhere near fluent, nor able to remember half the vocabulary I once knew. However: turns of phrases and idiomatic expressions that I know would have me staring painfully for minutes on end back in high school, now seem perfectly natural to me… Most phrases hit the comprehension part of my brain directly, without going through the lengthy “decoding word-by-word and digging up through memory for idiomatic equivalent” phase. In some way I have magically become more “fluent” than I was, when last I studied ten years ago.
At first, I just assumed my memories were being overly modest and that, maybe, I was not the teutonic classroom failure I remembered being. Then I thought back of the long evenings laboriously spent stringing together 20 lines of homework, endless hours of classroom procrastination, barely coasting by, year after year, and the extremely mediocre A-level — or French equivalent thereof — grade that ensued. There is ample objective evidence that I really sucked as a high school student of German and it appears that I suck ever so slightly less, now that I am resuming ten years later… Which goes squarely against the widely accepted notion that foreign language acquisition skills decrease with age.
In proper logic-obsessed OCD fashion, I tortured my brain for days, trying to come up with a rational explanation for this, which did not involve being abducted, probed and experimented on, by German-speaking aliens.
And I think I found it…
The better half of the years spent studying German, were when I lived in Paris. I therefore studied in French. Grammar explanations, bilingual vocabulary lists, chatting with classmates, thinking about the ongoing lesson, were all done in French.
Nowadays: I live in Kyoto and there is very little French language in my life. Lots of Japanese, of course, but I would venture that well over 90% of my thoughts and interactions occur in English. When I read up a text in German, that voice in the back of my head, trying to make sense of what I am reading, is speaking English, not French.
If you have spent any time looking at all three languages, you have noticed how close English and German are, especially compared to French: English is essentially a Germanic language (with lots of Romance language forms subsequently introduced by the Norman French conquests), whereas French is, well, as Romance a language as you can get. Linguistically speaking, there is practically no bridge between French and German (the closest common ancestor being Indo-European, which takes us way back), whereas English is German’s twin brotha’ from another motha’.
Closing the pedantic aside: what I find really cool, is that this does not have to do with knowing one language or the other, but with which language you are more-or-less consciously using while learning another one.
The pathetic part is that, over the course of my entire senior high school years, it never occurred to me to make that switch myself: I was taught in French and never suspected that it might be easier, thinking about it in English. That’s what you get for being a lazy teenager.