I suppose it’s inevitable that when you go years without speaking your native language, you start to forget a few words. Apparently it’s called language attrition and is a well-known phenomenon, particularly if you avoid speaking your native language while learning a new language, or if you rarely come across people who speak your native language. A French friend, who has lived abroad for more than thirty years and now lives in Ireland, tells me that she often forgets French words and it takes her a good couple of weeks to get back into French-speaking mode every summer. An English friend now living in Portugal reports that while she speaks mainly English, she occasionally finds herself slipping a Portuguese word into an otherwise English sentence. (Would this be called Portlish, in the style of Franglais or Spanglish, I wonder?)Obviously, I haven’t really forgotten my native language (British English) since I’m still speaking English, – sort of,- in the US. However, I am constantly surprised at not being able to remember whether a word is British English or American English. When writing on various UK/US subjects, I often have to ask my American children which word they use for the front of the car (hood, as opposed to bonnet) or the bits of wood where the wall meets the floor (baseboard, not skirting board). On some occasions the confusion is forgivable since many phrases are almost the same on either side of the Pond.
Not touching something with a barge pole, becomes a ten foot pole in the US; Americans speak of peaks and valleys as opposed to peaks and troughs; and time-honored nursery rhymes bite the dust after a few decades. The words for “Pop Goes the Weasel” are completely different in the US, and since I’ve only ever had children in this country, they are now the words I sing to that particular tune. All I can remember of the English version is “Half a pound of tuppeny rice.”
Certain British English words and phrases now sound so odd to me that I deliberately avoid them. Perhaps the worst is the past word for “get” – the American gotten versus the British got. I don’t particularly like the word gotten, but it now sounds a lot more educated than got in some situations. (“Things have gotten out of control”, versus “Things have got out of control.”) Incidentally, gotten is not another one of those pesky Americanisms, but is in fact a very old British English word that fell out of favor in the eighteenth century.
I moved to the US before all things wireless and Internet-y, so I use the only words I’ve ever known – American words. Cell phone instead of mobile, flash drive instead of dongle – which I have to say, sounds positively pornographic! Having missed British telly (apart from Masterpiece Theatre and the ever-running Top Gear), I am also behind on my cultural references, often not understanding catch phrases, pop song lyrics and the like. “Anyone fancy a pint?” and “I’ll get me coat”, were practically meaningless to me as I’d completely missed The Fast Show (1994-97). Given that it played before the time of downloading and streaming, there was really no chance for me to keep current on such cultural classics. This missing out on the evolution of British English words, in my case, is known as static vocabulary. Even for Brits in the US who doggedly insist on using British English words, – nappy instead of diaper, zed instead of zee and so on, – this form of language attrition is almost inevitable unless you spend your whole time (and pay check) watching British TV via the various methods available.
While I was completely aware of language attrition in people who live for decades speaking a second language, little did I know how common it would be those of us who are supposed to be speaking the same old language. Fortunately, most Brits get it bashed out of us as soon as we step back onto British soil!
Toni Summers Hargis has a new book – “The Stress-Free Guide to Studying In the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students”. (Summertime). She is also the author of “Rules, Britannia; An Insider’s Guide to Life in the United Kingdom” (St. Martin’s Press) and blogs as Expat Mum.
Read Toni's other Expat Focus articles here.