30 April 2007


The bulk of what I have been doing at my volunteer position is translating text from German into English. *See note below.

Earlier today I was working on a document that had been partially translated by someone else. I noticed some small errors and phrasing issues and corrected them. The slight mistakes didn't make the text unreadable, but it wasn't quite how you would normally say it in English. It didn't flow naturally.

Shortly thereafter I discovered that those sections had been written by a native English speaker. Although the individual was born, raised and educated in an English language country, s/he has lived and taught at university level in Germany for many years. It seems to have impacted his/her English language skills. Some of the phrasing sounded more "germanic." And the grammar and punctuation was not always quite right. Because this individual has achieved a Ph.D. at one of the top universities in the English-Speaking World, I have to assume that s/he was making small mistakes on things s/he once knew.

I had heard of this phenomenon before today -- an individual who has lived and worked in a second language for so long that they start to lose some of their ability to speak and write in their native language. But this is the first I have personally come across it.

I find it rather fascinating. In essence, they are caught in-between the two languages. On the one hand, unless they learned the second language as a child and from a native speaker, they likely do not sound exactly right. There are many levels of fluency, but the most difficult to achieve in a second language is the level of "Mother Tongue."

But on the other hand they are slowly losing their ability to articulate fully in their native language. Perhaps when speaking they occasionally struggle to find the right word. Likely a word they know, but just cannot bring to mind.

I cannot imagine how this must feel.

What is the impact on cultural identity? Are they caught not only between two languages, but between two worlds?

Along a similar vein, what happens with children who are raised bilingual? Do they belong in both worlds and both languages? Or not fully in either?

Odds are its some in-between. But what determines where on this cultural sliding scale you fall?

I must review the research on this topic.

And I would love to hear from individuals who are experiencing it personally.

I know. My German language skills are not great and there are certainly other native English speakers who could translate faster. But my ability to read German is at the intermediate level, so I am not horrendous at translating. And I not only speak English, but I also speak "Librarian." As with most professions, there is a glossary of terms that only someone who is a member of that profession knows. Plus, I work for free. Always a plus!


Impossible Jane said...

I just spent last week with 170 exchange students that have been living in the US since August. It was amazing to watch a group of students, for whom English is not their first language, speaking English to each other. I would mostly notice it with the Germans. There would be 4-5 Germans together and they'd all be speaking English. Some kept telling me that it was almost impossible to speak German at that point in time.

I find this fascinating as well. Jane

Samantha said...

This is just my two cents, but the more time I spend in France, the worse my English gets. Like, sometimes I can't remember if a word exists or not in English, and if it does, does it have the same meaning? (ex: the French word déviation, which means detour...but I keep wanting to say deviation in English because it COULD mean that in English too).

And when I act as an interpreter, it is actually harder for me to translate from French to English than the other way around, because I often have more trouble finding words in my native language than in French.

I'm noticing though that my brain can only handle one language at a time...seven years ago, I was fluent in Finnish and now I can barely string a sentence together. Now I speak fluent French and my English is suffering...I hate to think what it will be like 20 (or even 10) years from now!

Kirk said...

I can't entirely speak for Gretchen, but even though she wasn't quite fluent there were times that she would catch herself saying things in English but with more of a German structure. Basically, if she said something that sounded like Yoda, it was probably because she'd been speaking lots of German recently.

Un-Swiss Miss said...

Thanks for the post! I really enjoyed reading your observations, particularly because it was so very relatable to me. I was raised bilingual with English and Mandarin Chinese, and it happens far too frequently that I'm trying to use one language, and can only come up with the word in the other language. Or, sometimes I'll be writing or speaking, and the word I use simply sounds (or looks) wrong.

With the European languages, it's much worse, because they're not as "embedded" in my brain as my native languages. When I was in high school, I got to the point where I was pretty fluent in French, and as recently as 2001 I went to Paris and was able to get around without any trouble. Now, however, when I speak, German pops out at entirely inopportune times. I certainly know more vocabulary in French, but I've gotten to the point where it's reflexive to speak German. And the German structures have started creeping into my spoken English... thankfully I don't think it's affected my writing yet.

Expat Traveler said...

I found the longer I was in Switzerland, the more I was speaking English the way others were speaking it. It was pretty bad at times. And also I started not remembering words only in French or would go blank...

This happens to many people very often. I think at times, it really matters who you are with and how their English grammer is on how you speak the language itself.

jessica said...

I think it has actually frightened me, the way I have had to stumble to find English words. Usually when it's a more than two syllable word. I am kind of amused by the way I start to lose words in english, and i replace them with a french phrase, directly translated into english, which makes no sense...except to me :)
For example:
J'arrive pas de faire ca! means, "I can't do it" there is a whole verb - Pouvoir - in French which means "can, or to be able to" but they don't use it. in slang they say, basically, "I don't arrive to do it" and now i actually say that in english. yikes.
but to my point - it kind of scares me.

Spyder said...

Good Post!
I was raised in Quebec till I was 18 years old. All my classes were in french but I also spoke English, as it was taught as a second language. When I graduated high school I moved to the USA. Therefore my french has not progressed and has remained at my high school level, and my English has improved. But not as well as I would think an English speaker my age would. My writing & grammar skills are worst than my speaking. Though, I am a pretty good speller. I'm very conscious of my plight. And I would even venture to say that it has affected my choices in education and career. BUT, if given a choice to be perfect in one language or passable in two I would choose the latter.