The English Police Is Coming!! I Mean, Are Coming! Oh, Crap...
March 19, 2013 7:58 AM   Subscribe

I've been living abroad for several years, and my proficiency in my native language seems to have taken a hit. Is this normal, and what should I do?

First, a bit about myself. I'm female in my late twenties. I've been outside of my native country for four years now. I teach English to kids.

In the past few years, I feel like I've been losing fluency in my native language, and it has got to the point I can no longer ignore what's going on. When I speak, my sentences come to a dead end because I block on words. Sometimes a word in the language I am learning comes to mind instead of the English. Sometimes the word is on the tip of my tongue, but won't come out. In any case, I know this is a problem because people constantly feel the need to finish my sentences for me. My recall of collocations and idioms grow more and more tenuous. Most alarmingly, I feel like I am losing my intuitive grasp of grammar. I often have to think consciously about things like tense, irregular verb forms and conjugating. I think my output is still native, but only because I am extremely cautious when I speak. Also, I used to be quite good at translating back and forth between the two languages, and good at correcting non-native prose. Now, I dread these activities. I now have trouble with extemporaneous speeches. However, I still have no trouble correcting spoken English. In fact, annoyingly, I cannot switch that part of my brain off these days. I have become painfully aware of the fact that even native speakers make mistakes you would expect of non native speakers, and I wonder if I am in fact over-thinking things.

I have a few theories as to why I am struggling:
-I am suffering from the early stages of some illness, such as early-onset dementia. In which case, I should probably see a doctor pronto and get assessed. Problem is, there are very few English-speaking doctors in the country I am in, and I would need to be assessed in English, I imagine.
-Being in a non-native environment is doing a number on my English. Although most days I am surrounded by English, the English is that of non-native speakers. In addition, as I teach children, I have to use speak very simply. Could this be having a deleterious effect on my ability to speak fluent English?
-I am suffering a decline in my ability to use English as a natural consequence of no longer being in an English-speaking environment. That is, I rarely read for pleasure in English, because I am trying to learn the language of the country I live in. I have few ex-pat friends whom I speak with on a regular basis, and the media I am immersed in is not in English. I thought that speaking in your native language is like riding a bike, but perhaps I am wrong.
-I am imagining the decline, or overstating it. I am an anxious person, and prone to depression.

Anyway, AskMeFi, I wonder, is this normal? Has something similar happened to you, and things have turned out fine? What should I do from here to restore my native command of English? Should I just book myself for an assessment as soon as possible?
posted by anonymous to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
All of us anglophones here in Montréal have moments where we forget the English word for dépanneur, or dépôt, or Métro. C'est normal.
posted by musofire at 8:02 AM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Erm yes - English is my second language but I've lived in the UK for seven years now and my native language (Polish) is definitely worse for the wear; I only use it when talking to the family over the phone/Skype and I do find myself struggling occasionally. Judging from friends' experiences, this is fairly typical and nothing to worry about. Not sure what to tell you re: reversing the process and restoring a more native command of your native language, probably won't happen for me unless I live in Poland for a couple of months again which I am not really planning to.
posted by coffee_monster at 8:08 AM on March 19, 2013

I only spent six months in Sweden, but when I came back to the United States and was suddenly surrounded by ambient social English (conversations on the bus, announcements in airports, etc.) instead of ambient social Swedish, I thought my head was going to explode from the sudden overload of input. I had some trouble finding the right English words for common features (train station, for instance) for a few days and that was from coming back from Sweden, where everyone speaks perfect English if you ask them to, not four years abroad in a non-English speaking country.

So in short, yes, I think this is perfectly normal and nothing to freak out about. If you want to stop feeling this way, though, maybe do some relaxing pleasure-reading in English, maybe something like fiction that contains a lot of fun dialogue? That should maybe help refresh your brain to the rhythms and oddities of how we talk to each other in English.
posted by WidgetAlley at 8:09 AM on March 19, 2013

Anecdata: I am a native English speaker, and lived abroad for 8 years with fellow native English speakers. To this day (4+ years after repatriating to my native country) I occasionally forget the words for things in English and have to look up the translation from my previously-adopted country's language. I find it a funny quirk, and consider it an acceptable trade-off for the time I spent immersed in another language.
posted by pammeke at 8:12 AM on March 19, 2013

Since 2005 I spent about 1 1/2 years in the US and the rest in areas where English was not prominent (multiple years in India, a year in Oceania, a year in Africa, etc). When I am out of the US I often adopt a form of English that is simple, stunted and slow: "You like movie?", "No brother, no sister!" or simple English mixed with a local language.

When I find myself among other native English speakers abroad or at home, it takes me a little time to adapt - linguistically and culturally. It always happens, and I suspect it will for you as well. The languages I know best aside from English are Marshallese and Hindi, which always pop up in my head when a word eludes me in ANY language- something pammeke seems to experience too.

You're normal and can expect to adjust well (given a little time!) if you settle again in an English-speaking country!
posted by maya at 8:23 AM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Language is a skill. Even your native language. If you don't use a skill -- any skill, even riding a bike -- you will lose proficiency at it. Not all of your proficiency, but some. It's not evidence of a tumor. You're not getting dumber.

Laugh it off the next time it happens. Even if you drop to 90 percent fluency in English, that's better than most.
posted by Etrigan at 8:24 AM on March 19, 2013

I've always picked up speech patterns from the people I spend most time around. When those people are non-native English speakers (whether they are living abroad in my country, or I am living abroad in theirs--I've had both experiences) I start to make some non-native grammar errors, too. I think it's a really normal thing.

Have you tried switching back to reading for pleasure in English for a little while to see if it helps? Maybe some podcasts or audiobooks? It sounds like this is really bothering you, so it might be worth some time out from language learning to get some comfort back. I think your native language absolutely is like riding a bike, in that if you were forgetting a secondary language you'd have to work hard to get it back, but your native language will become comfortable again quickly.
posted by snorkmaiden at 8:28 AM on March 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm a native English speaker and a professional writer in a non-English-speaking country. For my job, I write in English all day, every day. I work with other native English speakers. At home, I only speak English. I don't consume any media in my adopted country's language. Yet I still experience everything that you describe. It's normal to the point that I thought you were joking about early onset dementia, until I read the rest of your post. In fact, it's a known risk in my profession, and writers in my adopted country are encouraged to actively work to maintain their level of spoken and written English.
posted by neushoorn at 8:34 AM on March 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

just to add another voice - I have only been teaching English in a foreign country for three months and I find myself speaking broken English or "lower-level" English when I come home at the end of the day. my partner thinks it is hilarious how quickly it happened, but spending all day with kids who speak very little English gets very repetitive. I can only imagine how it would affect you after four years.
posted by gursky at 8:41 AM on March 19, 2013

Nthing everyone that this is normal. I had something like this happen to me, and I didn't even go abroad. I just worked in an office for 6 months where I was the only native speaker of English. That was 10 years ago, but to this day I still tend to drop articles from my sentences. It's almost like my subconscious mind decided "I go to store" is just more efficient than "I go to the store".
posted by january at 8:41 AM on March 19, 2013

Absolutely normal. I lived in Belgium many years and long periods of time spoke almost exclusively in French and Flemish (aside from reading in English, watching a small amount of English language television) - just getting on the boat back to the UK did not mean that I could turn a switch to revert to English (Welsh valleys English at that!) so I had no end of embarrassing conversations until I adjusted.

Apart from reading, can you set aside time each day to listen to English language radio? Skype with English speaking friends?

Immersion is a fantastic way of learning a language but I think you do need to maintain your mother tongue in order to be able to not only keep your sense of self but to go forward with the language learned. Knowing that the word for chair is chaise is important but you do need to be able to make the connect back to chair, not "wooden object for sitting on". Does that make sense?
posted by humph at 8:58 AM on March 19, 2013

Yes, this is entirely normal. When I arrived in Taiwan to teach English, I was amused and appalled to find that my fellow teachers—native speakers!—would sidle up to me and ask if such-and-such a sentence or phrase was "correct" or "good English"; within a few months I found I was experiencing similar doubts myself. If you're surrounded by people who speak English poorly or not at all, you're going to start losing the finer points. The only cure is to spend some time in an English-speaking country, I'm afraid.
posted by languagehat at 9:00 AM on March 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Happened to me too. Luckily, where you are now no one will notice. When you return home, it will take about a month but you will regain your fluency.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:08 AM on March 19, 2013

My SIL is Danish, she moved to Australia. One night about 12 months after she arrived I found her in tears and heartbroken because she could not remember the Danish phrase for something. It's perfectly normal. She says she takes about 2 weeks back home in Denmark before she can speak Danish without second guessing herself. Can you find some profiecent speakers of the languages you want to keep up to practice with? Or maybe you can watch some films or tv in the language?

Heck I've moved to the US from Australia, both English speaking countries and I find myself double guessing words Is it boot or trunk in the US? Petrol or gas? Do I want coriander or cilantro? Which way do I write the date? and I'm still dealing with the same damn language I can't even imagine how muddle a persons brain gets when dealing with 2 or more languages.
posted by wwax at 9:21 AM on March 19, 2013

« Older How to get listed in RSS Feed Reader searchers?   |   Recommended reading on religion and natural laws? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.