Even more lost for words

Living in a multilingual environment

Harlequin Beate wrote a while ago of her trials and tribulations with language attrition. I am sure many of our readers will recognize the struggle we have maintaining our command of our first language when spending long periods abroad. And the longer we stay, the Wurst it gets!

My family is perhaps typical of the internationalization we have witnessed in the last decades. I am English, my mother was German, I spent a year in France and Germany as part of my studies, I lived in the Netherlands for 12 years, my daughter has married a Belgian and two years ago I discovered I had a Canadian half-brother with roots in Belgium and Holland. Language confusion is inevitable when elements of our family meet. My poor Belgian son-in-law, otherwise proficient in Dutch, English and German was initially traumatised into helpless silence trying to adjust to constantly changing languages at the dinner-table!

Despite my mother’s talent for languages, learning English from scratch working for the Allies, she still managed to produce a number of howlers coming from direct translations from German even after 20+ years in Britain. Seeing a number of bulldozers at work, she remarked “I see they’re buggering up the road again.” She also once complained that the unreliable local bus service was very “erotic” (instead of “erratic”).

My father’s brother also brought a German wife back after the War. Though fluent, she never lost her Cologne accent in English, but her German deteriorated with the years so that it eventually turned into a kind of pidgin that only German and English speakers could follow. We knew other expatriate Germans who had completely lost their first language after only 10 years!

And that is the problem. Once you’ve been away for years, the borders between languages erode so you reach a state where you have no idea what language a word belongs to. For years my (German) wife and I, while living in Friesland, were convinced “langzamerhand” (gradually) was a German word, and avoided using it in Dutch! And the process is all so sneaky and subversive! Foreign expressions creep unnoticed by yourself into the middle of a sentence in your native tongue, and only natives notice and presume you are having some kind of temporary fit. So “for the rest” (Dutch) crept into my English while goodness knows what linguistic sins I committed in Dutch. Those two languages, unfortunately, are so similar at times that it is so easy to slip into doublespeak.

But is the situation described so unique? According to a past study, there are approximately eight thousand ethnic groups living in 160 nation states (Merker, 2009). It is estimated that these people are capable of communicating in at least 5000 distinct languages.With increasing waves of migration across the world, it is common for many people to speak one language at home and another outside. For years that has been the case for dialect speakers who adapted to their school or work environment by using the “standard”. Academics used to speak of this ability as “diglossia”, but the word itself implies just two languages, while many people speak several languages and/or dialects. It is hardly surprising, that many of us struggle with mastering several languages. Especially when we notice that some politicians can’t even manage one.

On a personal level, it can be quite devastating to search for words in your first language, especially if the expression in another one teasingly pops up in your head. Thanks to various studies we now at least know that the phenomenon has nothing to do with senility. Sounds convincing, doesn’t it?

 1  “Diglossia, language maintenance, language shift and reversing language shift” by Difrine Madara


  • Pink Bus: UTO

One thought on “Even more lost for words”

  1. how true this is, thanks for bringing this topic to light.
    on another note sort of related a friend moved into their new office and i asked how do you like your new digs and she asked me where did that term come from “new digs” how could I answer that one

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