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Losing Your Mother Tongue? Good! Posted by on May 13, 2015 in Archived Posts

Itchy Feet: Diminishing Returns

When I first moved abroad, I’d heard the tales, as I’m sure you have: the stories of foreigners or expats so immersed, so integrated in their new home culture, so saturated by the foreign language that they actually began to forget their native tongue. Now that, I thought, is brilliant! Surely, these talented language learners must be operating on a level beyond mere fluency—their adopted language has actually begun to displace their mother tongue, seeping into every corner of their subconscious brain like a glorious multilingual parasite.

Oh, what I would give to play host to such a parasite myself, but alas! It could never happen to me. I’m an English native speaker, after all, and it’s simply not possible to escape English for long enough to start actually losing proficiency in it—certainly not in Europe, and certainly certainly not in Berlin, where some days I hear more English on the streets than German. I’d have to migrate to small Dorf and rent a Zimmer from an elderly Frau and her dachshund before my English began to suffer.

Or so I thought.

I recently took a C1 course in German, but I never took the test, so I’d say I’m at a comfortable B2 / uncomfortable C1-level. By some definitions, that’s fluent, but I’d call it borderline at best. It’s certainly nowhere near mother tongue-level, which I believed it would have to be to displace my English. I speak plenty of English throughout my day, as a good portion of my friends are either English native speakers or I don’t know their native language, so it’s not like I’m out of practice.

And yet, recently, I’ve been finding myself unable to produce certain English words.

It’s not quite as bad as the comic above, but in several conversations recently I’ve been at a loss. I know the word I’m thinking of exists, and I know I used to know how to use it, but there’s simply a glaring black hole in my brain where this word used to be. It’s as though my English vocabulary occasionally puts up a “Gone Fishin’” sign, and I’m left to grapple with rephrasing it.

It’s an experience I have all the time in the languages I’m learning—I learn a word, then don’t use it for a while and forget it, and I have to relearn it, or at least be reminded of it. But in English? That’s never happened before. This is scary, wonderful new territory for me. My only guess as to the cause is the aforementioned C1 course. I gorged myself on new vocabulary during that course, filling my flashcard app to the brim every evening and drilling them into my brain every morning. I guess my brain can only take so much. Or perhaps it’s temporary, and in a few weeks my German and English vocabulary can learn to peacefully coexist. Wouldn’t that be nice?

How about you? Have you lost bits and pieces of your native tongue as you cram more interesting languages into your noggin?

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


  1. Shouko:

    Some time ago, I used so much English (I’m a native French speaker) I had to ask my mom (Trilingual) how to say in French some English words because… I forgot how to say them in French.

    But it’s worst when it happen with Japanese… My mom don’t speak Japanese. Thankfully, my phone (Japanese…) has an integrated Dictionary (Japanese to English). ← I had to remember how to say ‘Jisho’ in English for this sentence…
    The worst part with Japanese language was the first time I came back from Japan in a French Airline and was answering in Japanese (that HAS to be normal, no?!) that I wanted Green Tea. The stewardess looked at me like I was some alien from another dimension. Don’t they know how hard it is to switch to French when you only spoke in Japanese every day for two weeks?

    With articles like those, I think some English words may be replaced with German words now…

  2. Iso:

    I know what you mean. My mother tongue is Spanish and I only became fluent in English after living in the US for 5 years while attending college. After returning to my home country I found it difficult to express myself specially since I moved to a city where very few people speak English (unlike my hometown where I could use code-switching if needed). Even though things have improved over time (2 years) I still find it difficult to recall words at times.
    Also, it’s worth noting that I learned French during my college years in the US (B2 level) and am currently learning Swedish.

  3. Bjorn Arvidsson:

    I’m actually trilingual; Swedish, German and English. And yes, this happens all the time! I often think of exactly the right word: in one of the languages I’m NOT speaking at any given moment.. I have resorted to “peppering” my speech with words from other languages; it may sound pretentious but it’s the only way that i can always express exactly what I feel. I grew up speaking English and Swedish so they are more or less exempt from this, but in german it happens all the time. I believe that the time you take over learning and when in your life (as an adult or as a child) makes a difference. This spring i taught German Diction at a US University, and it was fun, but somewhat scary: It sometimes takes me a minute to come up with the exact translation of a word; I know the meaning and use, but struggle to find the right translation. Frustrating!

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Bjorn Arvidsson That is frustrating. Luckily Germans pepper their German with so much English that you can totally get away with that.

  4. Hellhound:

    Haha it’s happening to me too… I always stop to think or ask about some of the worlds. Sometimes I accidentally put english words into my speech or simply switch to english in the middle of the sentence. Like: mi a franc (what the hell) is this? 😀 And guess what! Nobody speaks acceptable english around me (at least not with me) and I didn’t even left my country since I’ve started to learn the language.

  5. Egon_Freeman:

    If you strive for perfection in accuracy of communication, this will happen. Some words are much better-suited than others, and to hell that they’re in the wrong language. I find myself struggling with this multiple times, daily. I’m bilingual*, so I switch my thinking process as well as the language.

    This becomes a big issue if I’m trying to either translate a simple-but-concise concept, or when I’m being torn out of context and need to lang-switch really fast. Give me ten minutes and I’m at my usual speed.

    And you don’t really need to go abroad for this – it’s enough to live part of your life on the Internet. If you’re not natively an English speaker, that will be enough. Websites, chat, programming, IT in general – all in English.

    I don’t think it’s a good sign, though. Not that it’s bad per se – it just tells you that you need to practice lang-switching more often. Integrating foreign words as-you-go into Your sentences without thinking about it works as a good indicator of doing it right – assuming you’re not just struggling to find the right word… 😉

    * “bilingual” requires some clarification, I suppose. It doesn’t just mean that I know more than one language – it means that I’ve -acquired- more than one. It’s not learned. I knew English before I went to ground school (I’m a native Pole).

  6. Gabriella:


    Sometimes I feel that I can’t translate some english words to hungary, because there’s no a hungarian words which can describe perfectle that word.
    And sometimes funny when i call my hungarian friends and say hi in the phone instead of the hungarian Szia.

  7. Ivan:

    You want a different perspective? Well, lemme tell ya ’bout small language communities of which (most of) you probably know nothing.

    Like Bulgarian. It has as many speakers as there’re people in New York, or even less. Literally! English has become a necessity. Nothing new you say, but the scale, THE SCALE of it matters. Can you imagine such a small community maintaining a language that is up to date with all the new concepts/ideas of the world and the words that designate them? Heck, there’re vast scientific and philosophic realms of which we don’t have a single specialist let alone words for their subjects. Even in areas where there’s still some Bulgarian literature people would prefer to read the much more up-to-date and much more diverse and comprehensive English literature. We have come to this point that nearly noone publishes serious literature in Bulgarian anymore because serious people would know English anyway so why publish in Bulgarian. Only universities are publishing scientific texts in Bulgarian as it’s part of their job.

    The problem is multifold. On one hand a huge intellectual divide forms as there’s no authoritative literature for those that do not speak English. Which in turn makes it less probable that any of them will develop intellectually. Which decreases the number of intellectuals. And the intellectuals, knowing English and being immersed in this growing scientific void, are much more likely to escape to somewhere else in Europe, especially as the EU has made that very easy and everyone welcomes intellectuals… but not the rest. Heck, France even paid our gypsies to return home. They don’t want them. On the contrary, they would even pay for an entrepreneur to come in their country.

    Yeah, English opens a whole new world. For a small language community it opens a door to an immense scientific world incomparable to the ‘domestic’ science. And once you enter this world you don’t ever want to come back.. to Bulgarian, or even to Bulgaria! There’s this turning point after which, it seems, there’s no turning back. When the intellectual void has grew so much that intellectuals cannot live in it any more. Or even form. Even if there still grows one it will either escape or commit suicide.

    I don’t have anything against English. In fact, probably the only way we could survive intellectually would be to embrace English as a national language. We would lose our language but retain our society. But there’s no way you could convince the masses of that.

    I might have gone a bit off-topic but language is the most important part of a society and for a full picture of its impact other aspects (besides purely linguistic) must be considered too. Forgive me for being so heated but i hope you will understand the pain i feel when a topic like this one reaches my mind.

    • Ally:

      @Ivan Hi Ivan you have described a common problem of a language shrinking in front of a larger stronger language. English is my mother tongue but I would be the first to say Protect your language especially when it starts retreating to be a language only to use in the home. Search on the web for “language revitalisation projects” such as Hawaiian Welsh etc..

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Ivan Thanks for the thoughts, Ivan, I find this sort of thing fascinating. Do you think Bulgarian will always exist on the street and in the homes of local families, but English will be used in larger contexts? That happens a lot in places like Morocco or India where the colonial language is “official,” but there are thousands of local dialects. Sure, no one will publish academic papers in their village language, but that doesn’t mean it’s at all dead – just used in a different context.

  8. Gustavo:

    I’m a native spanish speaker, and have studied italian for a while, I went to Italy for a fue weeks and when I returned home I was speaking a kind of Itañol (italian + español) mixing the words among them. It was kind of funny at the beginning but after a while it become frustrating.
    I still have a problem with the verb prenotare (to book) whenever I have to use the spanish word (reservar) i really have problems to recall the word

  9. Eugene:

    I was forgetting native words when preparing for exams, as far as I remember. You just can’t get all this information in the “RAM” at the same time 🙂

  10. Eugene:

    The other issue I probably begin to face is mixing non-native languages. I know only two of them, but for some reason I answered “yes” to the shop keeper instead of “tak”… There is the place in the brain which is for the forein languages, I assume.

  11. Helen:

    The worst thing is when you’re speaking your non-mother tongue and you think you are! I had a long monologue with someone in French once before I realized my English interlocutor (‘interlocuteur’) hadn’t understood a word! … (and had let me finish before letting me know!)

    • Helen:

      @Helen Sorry, my first sentence may not be clear: ‘The worst thing is when you’re speaking your non-mother tongue and you think you are!’ ie. when you think you are speaking your mother tongue.

      • Malachi Rempen:

        @Helen Wow. That hasn’t happened to me yet…I guess I won’t even know it when it does!

      • Joelle:

        @Helen I’m a native French speaker, at age 17 I went to England and met my ex husband to be , we had 2 children , I spoke French to them while my partner spoke English , therefore they became bilingual , however when they started infant school they stopped speaking French as they felt embarrassed in front of their school mates , i didn’t insist and English became the language spoken at home . My trouble is English had become my first language and forgot my native French . Now I am back home and it took me a while to adapt to French again . The problem I am now experiencing is that being bilingual I cannot translate , When I speak English with someone I can’t translate into French and vice versa Why is that ? Is it a brain issue?
        Can someone explain?

  12. Maya:

    My godmother has this – she’s a native of Dutch but moved to England 30 odd years ago. Her Dutch is adorable now, always grappling for words and jumbling expressions in the funniest ways. Even your mother tongue can suffer from lack of practice I guess. I get that very often now too, have to put English words into my Dutch because I can’t remember how to say them in Dutch. But some words just don’t have a proper translation either, there are a couple of concepts that I struggle to express in Dutch, and some in English. It’s weird.

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Maya Yeah, I get that. I feel it has to do with the contexts in which you use the languages.

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