If you speak to friends who have been living in a foreign country for decades, you sometimes notice that they use funny expressions. You do understand what they want to say but it just doesn’t sound right. It sounds more like a literal translation. In these cases, we instinctively ask ourselves whether it is possible to forget your mother tongue.
Forgetting your own language, also called language erosion, is a big deal if you actually make your living off of language services, for instance as a translator or content creator.
This article explores what you can do to prevent forgetting your own language, particularly if you are living in a foreign country.
From personal experience I can say that mostly idiomatic expressions are affected. You want to say something catchy, it’s on the tip of your tongue but it just doesn’t come out.
Examples for idiomatic expressions are “It´s raining cats and dogs”, “The early bird catches the worm” or “It´s a piece of cake”. Translate these three examples and you will realize that it can be difficult, particularly if you are in a verbal conversation with no time to google anything.
I can speak for German and say something about the unconditional love of anglicisms: It´s quite normal the people translate literally as “The early bird catches the worm” as “Der frühe Vogel fängt den Wurm”, which is complete nonsense.
Then again, none of the three examples above is logical. After all, what do cats and dogs have to do with rain, birds aren’t the only animals fighting for food, and why is eating a cake a symbol for easyness?
Language is not static
Language is evolving constantly. It depends on the generation people belong to, their age, their education, sex and occupation. Teenagers use a different language than their grandparents.
This has always been the case, not just today.
You know how hard it is to understand teenagers. Just imagine how hard it is if you live in another country and haven’t heard a teenager speak in years!
10 tips to prevent language attrition
- If there is one for your country, make use of the centers for culture and language, which are present in most major cities. Examples are Goethe Institut für German, Instituto Cervantes for Spanish, or Institut français for French.
They normally have a library – sometimes even digital – where you can check out books, newspapers and magazines for free. They also offer cultural activities and, of course, language classes.
- Read books in the language of your country of origin, even though you are proud you can read literature in a foreign language.
- Get an ebook reader. Buy ebooks in your native language, or download ebooks for free from sites that host books where the copyright has expired, for example Project Gutenberg.
- Listen to podcasts and watch YouTube videos on your commute, but skip the rubbish. Choose quality content.
- Listen to the radio in your native language, for instance using the app Radiogarden. You can scroll the globe and explore thousands of stations for free.
- Join a club where people of your country meet informally. You can find these clubs on Facebook and Meetup for instance.
- Intentionally consume rubbish on the Internet, such as reality shows, memes and certain influencers’ YouTube channels. Read the comments section. Consuming this type of content is important if you translate subtitles for shows that are targeted at younger audiences. And you are right, this contradicts point 4.
- Create content in your mother tongue. Set up a blog, a Twitter account etc. and actually write. Most people only consume social media – join those who create something.
- Teach your language. This could be as easy as looking for a tandem partner. It will definitely be beneficial to your native language skills if you have to explain your language to someone else.
- Last but no least, the obvious: Keep in touch with friends and family in your native country. 🧡
It looks like your native language skills might indeed suffer if you are living abroad. Training your language muscle could be an idea to prevent language erosion.
To use an analogy, athletes train regularly to remain fit – consider if you should follow steps 1-10 to stay fit in your native language, too!