Weird but true: Your environment can change your native language

language and thought

Today, in the middle of a conversation, I forgot the word “organic”.  Funny thing is, I could say it effortlessly in my second language, French.

This isn’t an isolated incident. I’ve spent most of my adult life in Paris, and while I do still speak, write, and work in my native English most days, when it comes to words related to everyday life, I have lapses in my native language from time to time.

It seems weird – after all, isn’t your mother tongue supposed to stick with you?  But it turns out I’m not an anomaly.  If you frequently speak a foreign language in your daily or even professional life, you’ll probably find it influencing your native language, too.  In addition to forgetting words, this can mean:

– changed pronunciation.  This is the first way I noticed a native language might be changed by its environment.  If Anglophone expats here speak a lot of French, their accent in English sometimes starts to sound a bit strange, a bit more stilted and deliberate.  It doesn’t always happen – I know it’s not the case with me, for example – but then again, I still speak English regularly. I’m not the only one who’s noticed this phenomenon, though; you can find a few examples of native speakers’ accents or ways of speaking changing, in this comment thread.

– borrowing words, phrases, and popular culture terms. One of the best things about learning a new language is discovering vocabulary that you might think is really cool – maybe even better or more efficient than its equivalent in your native language.  Sometimes, there may not even be an equivalent in your native language.  Saying croquettes is so much easier (and fun!) for me than “dry pet food,” for example.

– knowing specific terminology primarily or only in your foreign language.  If you spend most of your adult life in a foreign country, entire areas of vocabulary might be something you’ve only learned abroad.  I’ve found this to be the case with a lot of DIY words, for example. I know other people who feel like this about cooking, or driving.

–  glitches in your grammatical structure.  This is a little bit harder to spot, maybe, but I’ve heard other expats, as well as myself, do it on occasion.  One example would be applying a certain grammar rule from your foreign language, to your native one, as this Russian blogger explains.

Why do these things happen?  Chalk them up to a combination of human nature, habit, and the multitasking bilingual/multilingual brain, which constantly keeps all of its known languages “turned on,” making it easier to borrow between them.

Of course, even people who aren’t regularly exposed to a foreign language may find their mother tongue changing.  For example, there are almost sure to be terms you learned later in life, like “Text me” or “LOL” that have become a part of your personal lexicon.

Or take “code switching” – that is, adapting speech or language choices based on people around us.  Most of us have done it from time to time.  You probably don’t talk to your friends the same way you talk to your boss.  Some people code switch on the regular. Whether they have a strong accent that might be difficult for the general public to understand or a dialect with complicated historical and socio-economic associations, certain linguistic groups, like Scots speakers and speakers of African American English, often find themselves code switching in order to fit in and be understood and/or respected when they’re dealing with outsiders.

All of this may seem surprising, but when you think about it, it makes sense.  After all, one of the coolest things about language is that it’s so malleable, allowing us to use it to communicate in the way that best suits our current situation.  Juggling a mother tongue and learned languages, or adjusting your way of speaking to fit a time or place may seem complicated or strange, but it’s just another neat thing about being human.

by Alysa Salzberg

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