Travelling in German-speaking lands for the first time in 25 years, I'm noticing interesting shapes in the way my German comes back, or doesn't.
I studied German all through high-school and then for a year in college, and a few years after that, in 1982, I visited just the smallest corner of Germany, Aachen to be exact. A few years after that I had my last occasion to pass a test in German, and since then the language has lain fallow, useless to me. (I think I wrongly suspected that the Germans are so practical that they'd all learned English by now. This of course is the old fallacy of judging a country by its overseas travellers -- always an unrepresentative sample.)
But in 1986 I studied French very fast, basically fulltime over one summer, and then spent a quarter in Paris. At the end of that process I was pretty functional in French, though of course there were limits to how much of a conversation I could have with that level of study.
What I find now is that my French appears to have accumulated directly on top of my German, as though it's a more recent archaeological layer. When I want a German word, my mind delivers the French word. Then, if I pick up the French word and firmly put it to one side (always thanking it of course), I find that the German word is there, right under where the French word was.
Clearly, this sort of heavy-lifting can't be done at the pace of a conversation. So what tends to happen is that I grab what German words are handy to convey my meaning, and end up saying, as I did to a nice man at the Leopold Museum store in Vienna: "Gibt`s ein Buch sur Anton Koenig?" -- "Is there a book on Anton Koenig?" -- which is correct German except for sur, which is correct French. There are only so many French words that one can dig up and set aside while talking in real time, so some of them slip through.
Now after a bit, I did progress to the point of saying things like "Dieses Hemd wird es eingehen?" -- which is all German words but in a distinctly French word order -- literally "This shirt will it shrink?"
I worry that my mind seems to have only one place to store foreign languages, and is storing them there in a LIFO (last in, first out) queue -- which is exactly what archaeological strata are. Indeed, the few Spanish words I know, mostly learned for a trip to Chile in 2004, are on top of the French words, and presumably the German is under that. I hope these mixed-language sentences that I utter don't convey that I think all non-English languages are interchangeable, but there's no controlling what people with think. All I can do is struggle on, digging up German while tripping on French, like a 1.5-legged man hobbling over rough terrain toward a rapidly setting sun.