Does learning a second language diminish your skills in your mother tongue?
October 27, 2007 6:56 PM   Subscribe

When learning a second language, did you lose skills in your mother tongue?

I've been learning German for two years and am now pseudo-fluent (though not in the sense that I speak as well as a German). It seems like my English skills are diminishing horribly. I'm forgetting words and phrases that I have known my whole life. For instance, the other day, I said "They're trying to put the bar up," as I stumbled to remember the phrase "They're trying to raise the bar." I use both languages every day, so there is no lack of practice.

So what I want to know is if this is normal or if it's something I should be worried about. Did anyone else experience this?
posted by giggleknickers to Writing & Language (31 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Sometimes I can only remember a word or phrase in one language but not the other. One time I was trying to think of "wood" and all that came to me was the Spanish word for wood (madera), so it can be the simplest of words or phrases.

I don't feel like my general ability in English is eroded though, even though Spanish is my second language and one that's been refined through education and effort.
posted by cmgonzalez at 7:03 PM on October 27, 2007

short answer: no.

long answer: Dein Englisch wird nicht schlechter, du bist nur aus der Uebung. Ich hatte das gleiche Symptom, als ich in Amerika zu leben begann. Binnen zwei Wochen fing ich auf englisch zu traeumen an und wenn ich mit Verwandten in Deutschland sprach, verwandte ich englische grammatik und musste immer erst ueberlegen, was dieses oder jenes Wort nun wieder auf deutsch war. Das ist normal. Wenn Du ein paar Stunden wieder englisch sprichst, kommt das sofort wieder zurueck. Ich habe dieses Phaenomaen laufend - mit vier Sprachen. Vergessen habe ich keine.
posted by krautland at 7:03 PM on October 27, 2007 [2 favorites]

also: you'll often know what a word describes in one language without ever actually having looked up the precise translation. then, when prompted, you lack it. this happens when you are fluent enough to 'feel' your way around a language.
posted by krautland at 7:05 PM on October 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

I speak English as a first language and French as a second language. I do notice that I have trouble spelling words that are very similar but slightly different between the two languages, such as independent/independant. It's only in such areas of overlap between the two that I get confused.
posted by ITheCosmos at 7:13 PM on October 27, 2007

When I'm getting used to a new language, sometimes I end up having things kind of jump around grammatically -- that's not the best way to put it, but sometimes I will end up using the wrong construction in the wrong language, until it finally clicks, and then it seems to be in its own proper compartment and I don't get as much bleed-over.

On the other hand, this is also good, because it ends up helping you think of your first language in a new light, sometimes, and then you might start thinking about your sentence construction differently.

Don't be worried. After learning French and Japanese, I still sometimes feel the lack of an agreement particle/phrase in American English (like "ne?" or "n'est pas?" or Canadian "eh?" which I try to avoid in the US), but I think it's just a neat perspective on the borders and limits of a language.
posted by blacklite at 7:24 PM on October 27, 2007

No, but I specifically chose to study languages that complimented each other. I wanted to go into a writing-based field, so I studied Latin and French in high school and college (English is my primary language). Since these languages are related I'm able to make a lot of educated leaps and guesses between the three — cognates are your friends!
posted by Brittanie at 7:29 PM on October 27, 2007

When I got to the point where I was fluent in french and was speaking it 24/7, I couldn't talk english at all. I could barely form coherent sentances when I talked to someone in English. This eventually went away, and now I can switched back and forth and don't have those kinds of problems any more. I think it's normal, but i am not a linguistical neurologist.
posted by blue_beetle at 7:36 PM on October 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Not in my experience. I do feel my spoken Spanish (mother tongue) will occassionally get a bit rusty when I'm abroad for an extended period of time, especially if I don't get to use it that much in my workplace, but that's pretty much it.

It's as cmgonzalez described: sometimes you may struggle to remember a particular expresion, or remember it in the wrong language, but in any case the trend is quickly reversed as soon as you spend a couple weeks back in your home country, raiding the pub with your mates on a regular basis. :)
posted by doctorpiorno at 7:36 PM on October 27, 2007

I found that when I was studying German, I understood concepts and rules of the English language better since I had something to compare it to. I also dreamed in German occasionally. I think what happened is you probably started to think of how to say the phrase literally in German, and just got confused.

It's also possible you were just totally distracted and lost your train of thought. That happens every day to people who only speak one language. You know, when you spend an hour trying to think of a word or a name for something and you KNOW you know it, but it just won't come?
posted by jesirose at 7:53 PM on October 27, 2007

It works just fine the other way too. When I was living in Austria I was completely immersed and very fluent in German. Then I came home and spoke almost no German for maybe 15 years. Next time I went back to a German-speaking country I stepped off the plane and it was right there. My kids were amazed. (and so was I)

There is, however, a huge bunch of knowledge that I know only in German-- I studied Farbchemie (color chemistry? don't know this in English) and artists' anatomy in Austria, and never in America and to this day, despite being a native English speaker, I can only talk about those subjects in German. I literally never learned the English for them.

Yo, freyli, I have an Austrian accent.
posted by nax at 8:02 PM on October 27, 2007

I found that when I was speaking German every day (I lived in Germany for a year), speaking English got much harder, and I had to think about words more. I also would sometimes have to think a lot more about sentence structure and whatnot. For me it was just matter of not ever speaking it, except on the phone with my parents.

It got better when I came back to the States though.
posted by !Jim at 8:02 PM on October 27, 2007

Best answer: You are in Germany, right? So I guess you are in 'total immersion' in German and I wonder how much English you speak during the day. I do not mean the amount of English but the quality. Do you practice your extended vocabulary for example?

I will be in the US for 15 years this August and I can tell you honestly, that since I came here in my mid-20s, I spoke Greek pretty well. I already knew textbook English too. I became totally immersed in English and without speaking Greek for several years I started loosing some of the versatility in it. Or at least it felt like that. Every time I went back for several weeks it would return gradually, but often I would be thinking the English word first even for everyday concepts, translate expressions literally or someone here and there would notice some vague accent in my Greek. Now I am not fluent in any language, heh.

Not to discourage you, I find that depending a lot on a person and the extend to which they practice each language beyond the superficial.
posted by carmina at 8:12 PM on October 27, 2007

I feel that my writing in English has gotten worse in the past few years; oftentimes I'll write something only to notice later some peculiarities in my word order or choice of words. It's not that I make outright mistakes, but similar to your example about putting the bar up, my English has sometimes gotten more awkward than usual. I can't help but think that studying Chinese, Russian, and German over the years has had something to do with it.
posted by pravit at 8:30 PM on October 27, 2007

My mother tongue is french, i live and work in japan and almost every book i read and every movie i watch is in english.
I'm definitely losing vocabulary in french and it's becoming harder to write well. It's not that i make more grammatical mistakes. It's just that it doesn't sound as smooth as it used too.
So now i sound like shit in three languages.
Multiculturalism is teh funny.
posted by SageLeVoid at 8:31 PM on October 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

The first time I lived abroad was a year of university exchange during which I was heavily immersed in the local language and interactions with English speakers accounted for only, oh, maybe 5 percent of my daily life. There were definitely times when it was hard to find a particular word in my native English.

Now, 10 years later, I'm once again living in another country (it'll be 2 years as of Monday). I find I rarely if ever experience that phenomenon, and attribute it largely to the fact that both my work and social lives include much more of an equilibrium between Spanish and English interactions than before. I'd say how often you're forced to use your original tongue is absolutely key to the whole equation.

(The downside is that I haven't experienced the same meteoric progression in the 2nd language that I did the first time. But hell, I'm also 10 years older now.)
posted by donpedro at 8:40 PM on October 27, 2007

my mother spoke only ukranian until she was 6 (though she was born and raised in vancouver). now she barely understands.

my french teacher in highschool was a native speaker of italian, but had forgotten it after having switched to french and english.

use it or lose it!
posted by klanawa at 10:29 PM on October 27, 2007

I think it helps your understanding of a lot of concepts in your native language overall, but there can be some glitches here and there with remembering phrases correctly, etc. I took 2 years of spanish and a year of french in high school, have almost completed my german minor, and have been studying norwegian on my own for about 5-6 years. I talk to my norwegian boyfriend every day (mostly in english), and at other times have found myself occasionally making the kind of mistakes a norwegian would, or forgetting the english word for something.
posted by flod logic at 11:36 PM on October 27, 2007

I've found myself stumbling in spoken and written English nowadays when only a few years ago I had no difficulty in constructing fluent prose. I assume(d) this had something to do with having learned French for six years, which is a truly terrifying discovery. I'm now making a conscientious effort to become more fluent in my native tongue once again and though it may be hard work, I'm getting there.

The worst part is that I'm not even very good at French.
posted by PuGZ at 11:54 PM on October 27, 2007

It's not the fluency in a second language that is degrading your first-language skills, but the lack of practice. Studies have shown* that learning new languages in a situation where the primary language is still spoken has no ill-effects, and in fact children who are still learning their primary language when they begin a second language are often more articulate than kids who only speak one language IFF they have the chance to speak both with fully fluent speakers (adults). It is perfectly possible to be absolutely fluent in multiple languages, if you use each language regularly.

*I haven't a clue what they were exactly or who by, but they were in books filed under 'second language acquisition' at my university library if you're interested.
posted by jacalata at 1:24 AM on October 28, 2007

I'm a native English speaker living in Germany (not yet truly fluent in German, though I've learned enough to pass the Goethe Institut's Zentraleoberstufen Prüfung.) While I have been more aware of my mistakes and lapses in English, I've generally attributed that to the fact that I'm hyperaware of all my mistakes in German. When I think back to being in the US, I certainly had tip-of-the-tongue moments and moments where I went briefly stupid and screwed up a well-known phrase. For that matter, I was already convinced that my ability to write well had been declining - but I attributed this to overexposure to the internet, and blogs/forums in particular! And, as krautland says, with a little practice, everything does come back. Transitions between languages tend to be rough - I can almost feel my brain trying to switch gears - but once I'm in the middle of a conversation, I start feeling comfortable in the language again.

Like cmgonzalez, I also tend to have moments where I can only remember a word or phrase in one language. While English and German are my primary languages, I have studied varying amounts of French, Latin, and Spanish. I end up being immensely frustrated, knowing that I want to say "truth" in German, but coming up with "la verdad" instead of "die Wahrheit"...

(For what it's worth: while my daily work and life are all in German, and I primarily read German newspapers and books even at home, I do write talk over Skype and write letters to family and friends (mostly in English), and I often read something in English to relax before going to bed. )
posted by ubersturm at 1:49 AM on October 28, 2007

Just finished "Der die was? Ein Amerikaner im Sprachlabyrinth" by David Bergmann. I think it's an interesting read for native English speakers who are learning German.
posted by booksprite at 1:10 AM on October 28, 2007

I spent several years speaking only French, and my English went to hell. I would fumble around for words and use badly-translated phrases, just like you. I would start sentences with a French structure, and get all tangled up trying to make them work in English. Then I moved to London, and it took me about a year before I felt like my old fluency had come back.

Then I started speaking Spanish and Catalan, and now I'm losing my French. Like SageLeVoid, I often feel like I speak four languages badly. The first word that comes into my mind can be from any one of the four, regardless of which one I'm speaking at the time.

If you stay for a long time in Germany, there's another problem you'll run into: you may be able to get back up to speed in English, but the slang expressions you use will be stale and outdated. I tend to speak a pretty stiff and formal English these days, because the slang that comes naturally to me is hopelessly stuck in 1989, the year I left the US.
posted by fuzz at 2:53 AM on October 28, 2007

I have lived in the UK for 10 years now, I rarely speak German and I don't read any German either...When I go back now (once a year maybe) it takes a few days before I start thinking in German again. When I come back to the UK after a week or so I think in German. But because I am more immersed in an Englsih speaking world the switch is almost instantaneous although people tell me I have more of an accent for a few days...

Any topics I only ever encountered in English I struggle to discuss in German at all - I read some German papers for my dissertation and they took more than twice as long to get through than English ones. And I could not discuss anything work related in German because that vocabulary of technical terms was built up entirely in English.
posted by koahiatamadl at 3:20 AM on October 28, 2007

I'm bilingual. Both my English and Finnish were very good when I lived in Finland while studying in English and dating an American girl. I moved to the UK and my Finnish became a bit slow and awkward, especially if was suddenly confronted by it. I tend to get back my fluency if I spend about a day or two surrounded by Finnish people (and subsequently lose some of my English). It's not lost forever, simply misplaced momentarily.

(I am currently learning Spanish while living in Spain and working in an American company with British people. I feel like my language-skills are all going to collapse any day now and I'll be reduced to grunting.)
posted by slimepuppy at 7:58 AM on October 28, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for the replies. Looks like nobody else has problems with their mother tongue unless they get out of practice. It appears that my word recollection problems are a symptom of something else. Not what I wanted to hear, but certainly something I need to know.
posted by giggleknickers at 6:03 PM on October 28, 2007

My uncle spent several years in Germany, and consequently his written English went to pot.

To read his letters, written ostensibly in English, you had in order them to decipher German word order to consider.

He spoke the same way too. But when he could see your brow furrow, he would make an effort to get it right.
posted by blue_wardrobe at 6:40 PM on October 28, 2007

Best answer: My friends and I (who are English speakers in Japan) all have the problem with word recollection too. Yesterday we were at a botanical museum looking at a pond, and my companion asked me 'What`s the name of that thing there, you know, the leaf that frogs sit on?' It took me a few seconds to go through leafy words and come up with 'Lilypad.'

It's a common problem with most of my English speaking acquaintances - we make jokes about it all the time. I think it's because we're exposed to a fairly limited vocabulary here, restricted to a core set of topics, and we're just not hearing words on a wide range of subjects like we would be back home.
posted by Sar at 10:48 PM on October 28, 2007

I've been speaking about 50% Japanese 50% English daily for the last 7 years. I have a hard time always getting words/phrases correct when I go home. It seems that when I'm at home with friends and family and speaking faster than I normally would, my brain doesn't keep up. Also, people ask me (when at home in Detroit) where I'm from because I have an interesting accent. Weird.
posted by m3thod4 at 12:33 AM on October 29, 2007

After a month or so in Germany, I noticed that I and others were unable to recall English words for certain things, and would end up saying things like "yeah, you go to Hauptwache, and then you umsteig to the S-Bahn..."
posted by oaf at 7:19 AM on October 29, 2007

One thing that's tough when living in a country where English is not the first language is that you'll find yourself speaking a form of simplified "pidgin" English with the natives.

It just happens - you cull back your vocabulary some and simplify / modify your grammar so that non-native English speakers will have an easier time understanding you.

Make sure you spend some time speaking English with native speakers, and that you read high quality English texts when you get a chance. English movies with decent dialog can also help out.

I've been in Austria for 7 years now. My English suffered quite a lot the first 2 or 3 years after I arrived, but I feel like it improved again, after that initial period.
posted by syzygy at 9:26 AM on October 29, 2007

OMG! The first time I forgot the word Butter in English I was so embarrassed!
All I could say was Mantequilo, bu no-one understood. I felt like an idiot. It's completely nomal in total immersion
posted by Wilder at 1:06 PM on October 29, 2007

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