Losing Your English

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.

5 thoughts on “Losing Your English

  1. Yup, mommies do experience it too. In a big way. Living abroad, yes, I’ve felt it there too, but there’s nothing quite like taking one year off, and then going back to work to slap you in the face with your regressing vocabulary. I spent so much time in those first months back at work just taking very long, frustrated, confused pauses, stammering, “what’s that word again?” -ing. I think that hormones also cloud your head in a way too, but you’re totally right — it’s a use it or lose it thing.

    And by the way, up above, you said “those who speak english seldom LOOSE it” Yeah, you’re right there with me. Mommy brain, or ESL teacher brain, or whatever you wanna call it.

  2. Oh man, special English. Just one year of special English artophied my brain. But Gord, when you were in the US last time, you seemed to handle the situation like, well, a native with a big vocabulary. So the reading seems to be working.

  3. Hey, Gord~_~
    interesting article

    For me, I felt some losing my mothertongue, not in a way that I lose vocabulrry, but in a way that I speak non-Korean after 11months in US.

    I would say it was just an ’11-month-stay’ in the States, but some folks asks me if I am born from abroad even it’s been already 1year after I had been in the States.

    No, before US, I’ve never been asked that way.

    I also experience this when I speak Korean, which is that I try to compose phrases and sentenses out of words or grammar points even in Korean like I do in English.

    That is, I feel confused when I speak Korean.

    Feel shame on me though, it’s what I have experienced so far after a 11-month-stay-in-US.

    Yeah, I know, I have to Korean as well as English through more intellectual study.

  4. I’m experiencing a version of that. I think my writing is still OK, but my speaking ability has gotten duller since I came back to Korea in 1997. The most serious symptom is that I’ve become more verbose and rambling. I seem to be losing my ability to talk concisely. (Though perhaps that may just be due to old age …)

    1. Isabella,

      Yeah, I can imagine returning to a jargon-heavy workplace especially would be hard. (I don’t know if yours is, but I imagined returning to a PhD program straight out of time in Korea and it was an interesting mess that bloomed in my mind.)

      I scrape for words, in a way I never used to. As for typos, though, that’s just fast fingers. I was replying to an email from a guy who’s new in Korea, and had a few minutes before class, so I ended up posting my response to his question as quickly as I could. I remain a pretty impeccable speller, but only when I bother to proofread stuff… which, on the blog, isn’t worth the time so often.


      Ha, I’ve never heard it called Special English, but that’s a great term. I’m going to use it from now on. :) You’re very kind, and your observation cheers me. I am going to take it for granted some loss has occurred, though, so that means at least some of it comes down to effective mechanisms for compensation. Like cussing a lot! :)

      I’m also probably lucky to be teaching students in a department where a relatively much higher level of English ability is common. I can have conversations like the one I just posted about a moment ago, where words like “discourse” and “sexism” are used, without much confusion or need to define.


      I’ve heard of people who have this kind of thing happen. It hasn’t happened to me, though that’s probably because my Korean hasn’t gotten good enough to start messing with my English. Or… maybe it’s that I haven’t internalized enough of Korean culture (as embodied in the language) to impact the way I think too deeply. When I’m using Korean, I do think in at least some Korean categories — ie. age differences between me and a listener sometimes becomes important for how I speak. I’ll tell off a Korean teenager for addressing me in 반말, for example, but I am not sure I’d tell off a Western teenager just for speaking relatively informally to me — it’d probably take outright cussing before I’d be offended.

      I wonder if the grammatical “code-shifting” or “code sliding” you’re experiencing has anything to do with the subject of what you’re talking about? Or maybe it’s just a part of language acquisition? I don’t know enough to say, but I’d bet some of my readers do! I can say, that shame has no place in this issue. Human brains are weird, and languages are weird. Put ’em together, especially cramming two or more languages into one brain, and weird things just happen.


      Well, I haven’t seen your academic writing, of course, but what you write here is absolutely as good as any native speaker writes on blog comments. Ha, high standards, I know.

      For what it’s worth, I’ve never been able to speak concisely, so… oh, man, what awaits me when old age strikes? Aaaaaaaack! And you’re not even that old! Oh me, oh my…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *