About unlearning your native language

In a recent interview with our colleague Simone Roel-Backes, there was plenty of humour. Simone is from Brazil, and is simply enchanting with her sparkling eyes and her warm, life-affirming personality. Simone has for 19 years now, as she puts it, “made herself at home with Krones”. That’ a long time she’s already spent in Germany, and most of it in Neutraubling. And here Simone has a lot of responsibilities as well. Since 2000, she’s been looking after major projects for Grupo Petrópolis, Brazil’s second-largest brewery. And because she’s an expert on this account, she was interviewed about the greenfield project in Alagoinhas.

Everything went like clockwork! Especially the German-language version – flawless and very charming, with a small caveat right at the start: “I come from Brazil. You can tell by my accent, I suppose: I have a Portuguese accent when I speak German …” Everyone involved in the project was very satisfied with the result. So the following decision was taken: an exclusive version with Simone in Portuguese. No sooner said than done! Here, too, everything felt fluent, and went off swimmingly.


A few days later I got a phone call: “I screwed up! We’ll have to alter the video … My Brazilian colleague from the subsidiary said: Simone – you speak Portuguese like a German!” What are you supposed to say? First of all: “Really? No, that can’t be true?!”. But when you start to think about it properly, things become a bit clearer.

We’re all creatures of habit, we adapt to our surroundings and the situational context. And so it’s quite possible that the Portuguese verbs come out in German word order or, of course, vice versa. And when you think of Jürgen Klinsmann and Co., who left Germany for pastures new – well, you aren’t going to be hearing classically pure German from them either.

si2Prof. Anatol Stefanowitsch teaches at the Free University in Berlin, doing linguistic research and posting an internet blog called “Sprachlog”. In answer to the question: “Can you unlearn your native language?”, he says: “When the acquisition of a language is interrupted (by emigration, for example), children may forget again what they’ve already learned. In adulthood, we no longer entirely unlearn a language that we’ve thoroughly mastered. But people can become so out of practice that at some point their mother tongue starts to feel more like a foreign language.”

So that’s what can happen to you … Meanwhile, the relevant scenes in the video have been altered. And looking back, we had a bit of fun there as well. We agreed we should have said, like in the German-language version: “I come from Brazil, and have been living in Germany for 19 years. You can tell from my accent, I suppose: because I speak Portuguese like a German …”.