Expats and first language attrition. What are your experiences?
Thread poster: Sybill C

Sybill C
Canada
Local time: 04:15
French to English
+ ...
Feb 17

I know this topic has been discussed before, but it's always good to get other and new input. I'm a German-to-English translator and moved to Germany two years ago, thinking I might stay for good. However, about six months ago I starting noticing that my English is beginning to suffer. At present it's mostly in the verbal communication where I'm noticing a loss. So, since I was feeling that I was starting to play with fire, I decided to - quite simply - move back to North America. I just did the math: I have to work for at least another 15 years before retiring, and if I'm noticing a deterioration in my fluency now, I can't expect it to get better over the years, or to not impact my writing sooner or later. I'm curious to hear other people's experiences on this topic.

 

Anna B.
United States
Local time: 04:15
English to Russian
+ ...
Living in the US for about 12 years Feb 19

Your language fluency depends on how often you use the language. I have more balanced English/Russian environment at the moment, I try to read as much as I can and I watch TV both in English and in Russian.

In the meantime, teaching my 3 y.o. Russian and really envy him since he has a chance of being truly bilingual.

[Edited at 2018-02-19 23:15 GMT]


 

neilmac  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 10:15
Spanish to English
+ ...
Horses for courses... Feb 20

My native language is UK English. I've been living in my main source language country, Spain, for more than two decades. Since the widespread availability of Internet, I find it is much easier to keep up with changing trends in English. I can't really see it ever becoming a big issue for me.
However, I understand that different people have different issues with language, but from my point of view, if someone is noticing deterioration of their L1 within a two-year period, it suggests to me that their native language basis may be rather shaky to begin with, for example, setting out from an initially bilingual situation. Finding oneself in an L2 or L3 environment full-time may lead to one of the initial binomial starting to "takeover" from the other.

However, these are just musings and surmise. I could go on about this for ages, but I've got work to do…icon_smile.gif


 

Dan Lucas  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 09:15
Member (2014)
Japanese to English
Was not an issue for me Feb 20

I lived overseas for a couple of decades, but I used my mother language every working day, and (therefore?) it never became a problem. I did worry about it, but there was no deterioration that I could quantify.

If you don't actively use your English, perhaps that is the issue? Do you talk to other native English speakers? Do you consume much English text and media? If not, what can you do to change that?

It may make a difference, it may not, but moving your household halfway around the planet seems a rather extreme response, unless you have already tried and failed all other strategies. And your written fluency may never be affected.

Regards,
Dan


 

Sarah Lewis-Morgan  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 10:15
Member (2014)
German to English
+ ...
No problems after 11 years in Germany Feb 20

I was born in England and moved here 11 years ago. I am in regular contact with English friends and family over the internet and through annual (at least) visits to England, and I read copiously in English. I admit there have occasions when I have noticed changes in usage (e.g. on one of my visits I had to ask my brother when saying "twenty-eighteen" instead of "two thousand and eighteen" had become the norm), but if I have a question there is always someone who can answer it for me. Sometimes a word fails me, but it is never a major problem - I remember or can look it up. In the days before the internet and such easy communication links it might have been more of an issue, but not nowadays.

 

Chris S  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Swedish to English
+ ...
My English hasn't changed a bit Feb 20

I think not that my English at all affected was when I in Germany lived. And now I'm back by here, everything's tidy, like, fair play. The question is, then, where am I to now?

 

Sheila Wilson  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 09:15
Member (2007)
English
+ ...
My English got a bit "old-fashioned" Feb 20

I lived in the UK for the first 38 years and although I was always 'into languages' I led a pretty much monolingual life until that point. By the time TV satellite packages and the Internet started to have a major impact on my life among the French vineyards a good 10 years later, I found that I was still a fine native speaker (and EFL trainer), but the colloquial side of my language had become a bit stale, stuck in the previous century even! When we arrived in Fuerteventura, where there's a large Brit expat community, it was a dual culture shock - English as well as Spanish. Fellow Brits were using adjectives and verbs I'd never heard of, although the nouns hadn't changed so much. But none of that affected my job as a translator or editor as it wasn't the sort of language you often get paid to translate. Anyway, you absorb it all very quickly once you're exposed to it, if you're open to it - I still have to 'translate' occasionally for my husband icon_wink.gif. A quick refresher course - a.k.a. a holiday 'back home' - would work wonders, I'm sure.

 

Kay Denney  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 10:15
Member (Apr 2018)
French to English
Efforts are required Feb 20

When I first came to France, my aim was to learn French. I refused any interaction with people in English. I would say "I came here to learn French. If you want to learn English you have to go there or pay me for English lessons". Got into teaching English that way!

Later on, I realised I needed an English language community if I wanted my kids to learn English. Just Mummy wasn't enough, for all the French call it your "maternal tongue", it's more a social thing, even if your mother is the first person you learn with. So I cultivated a few friendships with other English-speaking mothers.

We all speak French too so there is a tendency to just use French when you can't think of the English word, especially for France-specific things, but none of us have suffered attrition. It's really easy these days with Internet too.


 

The Misha
Local time: 04:15
Russian to English
+ ...
It's not so much a "loss" as lack of development. Conscious lack. Feb 20

Sheila Wilson wrote:

I found that I was still a fine native speaker (and EFL trainer), but the colloquial side of my language had become a bit stale, stuck in the previous century even!


I can relate to that. Having spent over half my life (25+ years) in a country where what the book says should be my "target" language is still predominantly spoken, I do not feel like my native Russian has deteriorated much. I can still (although not as easily as I would like), translate into or write in beautiful, cultured Russian I have "imported" from the place of my birth. The only problem is that they do not, for the most part, phrase it the same way in the mother country any longer, so my "obsolescence" immediately shows. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that everything I know professionally, in terms of my subject matter specializations, I have learned while in the US, and learned it in English, which makes my "native" Russian hopelessly secondary in these areas (interestingly, things I have learned in school in the old country - such as math and such, for example - do remain primarily "Russian-speaking"). For that reason, I hardly ever translate into my "native" Russian anymore. It takes longer, takes more effort, and I just don't feel comfortable enough doing it. So why bother? On the other hand, I still make for a fine Russian editor since, I gather, the flip side of this "lack of development" over the past quarter century is that I've been spared most of the disgraceful deterioration the language suffered over that period in the mother country.

I think that these days, when anything and everything is readily available in your browser window, maintaining and keeping your mother tongue up to date is no more difficult than saying Good Morning instead of Guten Morgen when you wake up. What I mean here is that you have to WANT it to be Good Morning, i.e. have an interest in remaining Canadian rather than becoming a German, as the case seems to be in the topic starter's situation. In my own case, I never had any burning desire to remain what I was, I am afraid. Looking back, I think the real reason I have come to the US was that I wanted to be an American, so that's what I became. I don't much care about or follow what's going on in the old country. I don't read much in Russian or watch Russian TV (not that there's much new stuff worth reading or watching, and the classics only carry you so far; in all fairness though, I have given up on US television too). My US-born children are definitely not bilingual, and one of them hardly speaks any Russian at all (although she understands it fine, especially when I start screaming:))) I am, and have always been, a prolific writer - in English. The dominant language in my family is, indisputably, English, and even my wife, who is a much less proficient English speaker than I, cannot fathom texting or taking notes in Russian.

On the other hand, where I live, examples abound of folks who have lived in this country way longer than I yet remained every bit as "Russian" as the day they set foot in the New World.

I guess what I am trying to say here is that, to a large extent, it is about choosing to "live" your adopted county rather than your home country. Or the other way around. Where you physically want to live that choice doesn't really matter all that much any longer.


 

Jan Truper
Germany
Local time: 10:15
Member (2016)
English to German
+ ...
... Feb 20

I'm a German native. For 14 years, I lived in Los Angeles, where my slight German accent caused people to assume that I had grown up in South Africa.

After those 14 years, my spoken German was pretty much shot -- I would constantly and inadvertently fall back into English.

For the first few months after I moved back to Germany, my slight English accent caused people to assume that I had grown up in South Africa, because I sounded like Howard Carpendale.icon_smile.gif


 

Mair A-W (PhD)
Germany
Local time: 10:15
Member (2016)
German to English
+ ...
Second language conversations Feb 21

I get a fair amount of English interaction via internet and visitors (and books), and that's fine
And a certain amount of German interaction via local social events, and that's fine

If, however, I start talking English regularly to people using it as a second language (e.g. when I was travelling), I find I modify my own English - simplifying and mimicking their grammatical structures, and that tends to seep into *all* my English usage ...

So now here if my German friends want to practise English, they can speak English to me, and I reply in German, and that works okay!


 

Daniel Frisano
Monaco
Local time: 10:15
Member (2008)
English to Italian
+ ...
There are advantages too Feb 22

Yes, attrition shows up sooner or later, at least in your spoken language (not so much in writing), but there are advantages too.

I left Italy in the mid 2000s and my spoken Italian "froze" and remained unaffected by the rapid changes that can be observed in recent years due to media overexposure.

I have been told that I speak Italian "like a professor" (really? me?!?). Vice versa, everybody in Italy sounds like an overexcited hyperbole-spewing dumb teenager to me.

[Edited at 2018-02-22 01:03 GMT]


 

Sybill C
Canada
Local time: 04:15
French to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Thanks everyone ... Feb 22

Thanks so much everyone for their comments. I should admit now, in all fairness, that I'm a hybrid as far as my mother tongue is concerned, with German being my other, second native tongue if you will. That explains why I'm a bit more vulnerable to attrition than many of you. Before moving to Germany I lived in Montreal for 20 years, a bilingual city. But because French is not anywhere near to being a mother tongue for me, it never competed with, or threatened, the English part of my brain the way German does while living in Germany. I'm also becoming increasingly aware that language is more than just code, it's an identity. Also, as a freelance translator I've prided myself with being ever so location independent, only needing a good internet connection. And now I am realizing that "place" is much more important than I thought, to sustain my livelihood and for my identity. So, for me this has been a challenging yet fascinating experience.

[Edited at 2018-02-22 05:22 GMT]


 


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