The specter of “losing your English” is something that haunts TEFL teachers living abroad. I’m not sure if it haunts mommies or kindergarten teachers in the same way, but I’ve heard TEFL teachers tyalk about it since I first arrived in Korea, and I, yes, indeed, have even experienced it a little bit too.
The idea is, well, simply put, with language, use it or lose it. We know this is true since we see it in our students. Those who speak English seldom loose it, even when they pratice for an hour a day in a class. When not living immersed in it, students just tend to lose some of what they gained while studying abroad or whatever.
But surely, this cannot happen to an English teacher — one’s mother tongue is not so easily lost, is it? Well, in the sense of struggling to understand what someone is saying on the radio, or being unable to order pizza on the phone in Toronto when one has lived in Asia for ten years, no… you cannot lose your English.
However, you can lose your edge, have it dulled. After all, you spend much of the day, and indeed much of your time, speaking a simplified English; if you are blessed by a big vocabulary in the first place, you must leave most of it at home every day, unused. And no matter how much you try to socialize with people with whom you can use your vocabulary, you’re faced with Westerners who, having been here a long time, have either adjusted to the atrophy in their own vocabulary, or, indeed, never knew most of those words in the first place.(And those who aren’t complete fratboys are usually busy learning Korean, which means their vocabularies are growing, but just not their English vocabularies.)
Worse, your social venues are primarily drinking houses because, as my students frankly complain, the only possible outings one can make in Seoul are going out to eat, to drink, to watch a movie, or to sing karaoke. That’s it. Well, that’s not quite it, but it’s close, and the quality of conversation possible in any social situation — even when one isn’t keeping one’s vocabulary simple there in order not to exclude any Koreans with imperfect English who might be present — varies, but not very widely, only rarely being stellar. Even so, when Westerners do gather, a lot of what’s talked about involves the expat experience; they talk of ajummas and ajeoshis they’ve run across. They say things like, “No, no, I mean the 마을 buses, not the big ones. I always run into crazy 아줌마s on those 마을 buses.” One tends not to use words like obstreporous or chryselephantine when bitching about life in some foreign land.
What is interesting to observe is how people adapt to this situation. Writers, like me, fight the good fight. They read a lot, soaking up new words (or half-forgotten ones) from the novels or poetry from literary sources. They hope it slows the atrophy. I’m not sure how effective it is, though. Sometimes when I look at stuff I wrote ten years ago, I pause at a word I don’t recognize, wondering how I ever knew what it meant back then.
Then there are the psychological defense mechanisms. Some people cuss more. Some people bluster more, playing the bigmouth. Some people consciously cultivate bits of their vocabulary, flashing random words most people here have forgotten as if flexing one or another tiny steroid-injected muscle, as if it hints at a bodybuilder’s frame hidden behind the veil. Some people surrender to it, and blame “losing their English” on life in Korea, or just say it’s inevitable — but do nothing to stem the tide, like reading intellectual books or trying to form some kind of Meetup club where people can talk about intellectual stuff. Reiki, motobiking, and photography-tyep clubs certainly outnumber discussion groups — and for good reason. Discussion clubs seem a bit artificial. But, then, one wonders if it’s not artificial measures that are necessary to slow that language loss so many of us worry about.
As for me, I read. Works alright for me, for now.