Sticky Notes of Thoughts

…because some thoughts are worth remembering

On Native Fluency


When you are fluent at native level in more than one language, being asked “what is your mother tongue/first language?” can be a tricky thing.

It wasn’t a simple question for my multilingual Lithuanian friend whose father was Russian, and mother, Polish. Having born and educated in Lithuania, he spoke these three languages perfectly (not to mention English, the language of choice for his Master’s degree thesis when he was doing graduate work in Denmark). When I asked him to pick one, he was stumped, “I speak them equally well,” he said, “I can’t choose one over others”.

I felt at home studying Danish with classmates who felt that the question of their first language didn’t even seem to be that significant. It’s clear to me that my first language is Japanese, in that it is the first language I learned. While some immigrants lose the fluency in adulthood, due to societal (and even parental) pressure to fit into the new country or to deemphasize one’s upbringing, I was encouraged to keep communicating in Japanese, because it was the only language my family spoke and they continued to live in Japan. I continue to speak and write Japanese to my parents and to my Japanese speaking friends and relatives. I read books in both English and Japanese. I have dreamed and sleeptalked in English and Japanese.  I think in English when English is being spoken, and in Japanese, when Japanese is being spoken.

In other areas, my aptitude seems lopsided. For the longest time, I studied subjects in high school and introduction courses in college in both languages, but at some point, it got too to be too much. My Japanese vocabulary stopped increasing as a result. Except for some Japanese clients I served, my business language of choice is English, not Japanese. Thank goodness for that, because Japanese business language is much more complex than English, where one must master the honorifics as well as business terms specific to the industry.

However, the Japanese side continue to dominate in few areas. Despite taking many mathematics and physics courses in English, I have to revert to Japanese to multiply numbers (the Japanese multiplication table has more of a rhythm to it when you recite it, and I can’t seem to find any tone or meter that rolls off the tongue in English).  I still have difficulties counting in English (I would lose track keeping count in English while exercising but not in Japanese) and knowing what letter comes which order in the English alphabet (where I would have to recite the alphabet song to figure out if the letter k came before or after the letter j). When I am tired, I seem to not be able to concentrate in English to follow rapid and involved dialog on TV (e.g., anything that Aaron Sorkin writes) but switch the channel to some Japanese show with multiple hosts and guests talking simultaneously and quickly (e.g., think Kansai dialect and rhythm), I can understand all of it without any effort.

And the biggest difference between English and Japanese? When I feel a surge of emotion, I can most definitely say that I feel in Japanese.

It may sound odd to someone who doesn’t speak multiple languages at native fluency to talk about “feeling” in a particular language. But my Lithuanian friend understood it right away. When I rephrased the question from what is your mother tongue to what language does he feel in, he said, “Polish” without hesitation.

Photo: A Danish flag in Valletta, Malta? Turns out the Dannebrog (the name given to the Danish flag) that the Danes are so proud of, isn’t Danish at all, but was originally the flag of the Knights of Malta (the Order of St. John)…go figure.

3 comments on “On Native Fluency

  1. Moose and Michelle
    November 9, 2015

    Very fascinating. I can only speak English with ative fluency, but I grew up in a Chinese household, so there’s some hold over with my Mandarin. I can understand almost perfectly when my family speaks in MandarinMandarin, so while I speak it with an atrocious American accent, it’s still a solid part of my identity.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mikel Maine
    January 19, 2016

    What a terrific way of divining the language in which a person feels most comfortable.

    I’m not even close to being fluent in Chinese, but sometimes when having a conversation I feel like I could be more precise if I could just express a sentiment in Chinese, with its efficiently image-painting words.


    • lavayoda
      January 19, 2016

      “image-painting words”…that’s so wonderful.

      Liked by 1 person

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This entry was posted on November 9, 2015 by in Culture, Identity, language, Linguistics and tagged , , , .
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