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“I forgot the word for…” How living abroad makes us lose touch with our mother tongue

If Czechlish and Euro-English have crept into your conversation you may be interested to know why
Tip: Visit Expats.cz Education for more education resources, tips and advice for Prague & the Czech Republic!

This article was originally published in 2015 as What’s Happening to My English?

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Living abroad has a ton of benefits – exposure to new ideas, languages, friends, etc. We don’t have to spell out the upsides for those of you living it. But it can be detrimental to a valuable resource for native English speakers – their language.

There’s a technical term for “losing touch” with your mother tongue – it’s called first language attrition and refers to the gradual decline in native language proficiency we experience after having lived abroad for a significant length of time.

In an article on the effects of being bilingual at any level the British Council says, “Both languages are active in the brain of a bilingual person when he or she speaks, and this incurs a processing cost, as the brain needs to do two things at once.”

Can’t remember the English word for that thing you flip pancakes with? Blame your brain’s inability to multi-task at full speed.

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We asked a few English language professionals to share their experiences and advice on maintaining your mother tongue in the face of a whole lot of Euro English.

Losing it

“I’ve heard ‘I think yes’ and ‘I hope yes’ so many times that I’ve become numb to it,” says American teacher Matt Erickson. “I hesitate about prepositions occasionally (just now I had to ask myself, is ‘about’ the right preposition after hesitate?), and I’ve definitely been called out on saying ‘Yeah, no’. Is that a bastardized translation of the Czech ‘No jo’?”

“I use the continuous tense more, particularly the past continuous because my students use it all the time,” says Josalin Saffer, an American teaching English in Liberec. “It always sounds like they’re setting the scene for an epic story.”

Megan LeBoeuf, an English teacher and editor at Bride Publishing House has noticed her pronunciation changing: “If I’m talking to someone whose English isn’t good, I subconsciously slip into a Czech accent to make myself easier to understand. I even stop pronouncing ‘th’ and replace it with ‘d’. It’s quite embarrassing!”

“More significant than the language I do use is the language I don’t use,” notes Lance LaSalle, an American language school owner in Vsetín. “Various idiomatic expressions and words have disappeared from my lexicon. If there are several ways to say something, I tend to use the one that is most likely to be understood.”

Sometimes the influence isn’t even audible. “You start using gestures – for asking for the bill, using the phone, writing something down, asking for the time – to help express certain words,” says Lisa Masters, a British expat who has taught English in Hong Kong and the Czech Republic. “Now l can’t not gesture when l say these things, even when talking to native English speakers – much to their confusion.”

US/UK English: Blurring the Lines

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It’s not only Czechs that are messing with our dialects. When you’re teaching from a textbook that’s written in British English and have international co-workers and drinking buddies, American English can be hard to maintain. Movies quickly become films, university replaces college, and apartments are flats for the ease of conversation.

Grad student Jeanne Dowell remembers, “I was mocked when I came back to the US for using words like ‘spot’ instead of ‘drop’ – as in ‘There isn’t a spot of alcohol in this house.’ You feel like you belong in both places and neither all at the same time.”

The longer you live abroad, the harder the struggle becomes, as American English teacher Ryan Kelley is well aware. “Sometimes my co-workers will ask me, ‘Hey, what would you say in American English?’ and I kind of waver…”

UK natives aren’t immune to this effect, either. British English teacher Michelle Kempster didn’t realize she was softening her t’s in words like “better” until her sister said “When you did start sounding so American?’ Then I heard it and thought, ‘that’s not American. That’s Aleš [her Czech boyfriend]!’”

Maintaining Your Language

Melissa Dedina, an American translator living with her Slovak husband here in Prague, offers one strategy. “I stopped speaking English with anyone but native speakers or as-good-as-native-speakers. Problem solved.”

Dowell decided on a compromise. “I negotiated with myself that I would maintain my Chicago accent with pride and in exchange allow myself certain [British] phrases that were easy to integrate into my natural flow of speaking. It was a way for me to maintain identity while assimilating all at once.”

Can Expats Really Be Called Native Speakers?

“I’m often told by foreigners that I’m the only native speaker they understand,” says James Kirchner a CZ-EN translator and English teacher who spent three years in Mariánské Lázně. “And I have to break the news to them that I’m not speaking to them normally.”

And while we all laugh about language mixing and interference, losing our grip on the mother tongue can mean losing an important part of our personalities, essentially our identities. Experts agree that engaging in your native language daily is the best way to maintain it.

Says American kindergarten teacher Aria Kai, “I’m not sure if there’s a way to fight it off but I do find that I sound most like myself after I have a Skype session with someone back home.”

So go ahead, hole up in your apartment, excuse me, flat and watch that movie, hm…tedafilm.

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Are you guilty of speaking Czechlish?

Tip: Visit Expats.cz Education for more education resources, tips and advice for Prague & the Czech Republic!

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