Can You Forget How To Speak In Your Native Language?

Spanglish billboard by Marci

If two years ago you asked me if I thought it was possible to forget how to speak in your native language, I would have told you that no way.

But if you ask me now, I would say, “yes, it happened to me.”

I don’t mean forget the language completely, but I definitely have a harder time getting the words out now.

I lived in Mexico City for 19 years straight. For many years still, that will be most of my life. Then I lived in London for a year, and I have lived in the US for over 4 years now.

Here in the US, I don’t use Spanish. My husband is American and failed Spanish twice many years ago, and I don’t have any Hispanic friends here. The only time I speak Spanish is during Christmas and birthday phone calls, and the occasional email and chat with friends and family. But the latter doesn’t even count as it is not technically “speaking.”

Bad translation. source

The last few times I have visited Mexico, my brain has been confused and has a hard time speaking normal Spanish. My friends make fun of me, but they also jokingly but seriously say that I was never good at speaking in general. And it’s true. It has always been quite hard for me to put my thoughts into words, often causing me to say nonsense.

My randomness and nonsensical-ness might come across in my writing, I am not sure, but I am a way better writer than speaker. I always got good grades in my essays, got the highest mark in my Advanced Placement Literature class exam, and even was often asked to proofread my friend’s essays (shameless bragging).

Anyway, I am here to tell you the surprising fact that it is possible to forget how to speak in your native language because it happened to me. I find myself speaking “Spanglish” way more than ever when I visit Mexico, and I find myself saying the completely wrong word in a sentence. Examples:

When I meant to say: “tensión en mis músculos,” which literally translates to “tension in my muscles“, I said: “tensión en mis muslos,” which translates to “tension in my thighs“.

Also, when I was having dinner with a couple of friends on a recent trip, we were reminiscing about our days in elementary school when I sometimes skipped classes and hung out at the bleachers. When I meant to say: “en las gradas” (in the bleachers), I said: “en las granadas” (in the grenades). This one unleashed big laughs at the table.

You can see how my brain is getting confused. It is telling me to use similar sounding words but with completely different meaning.

I also noticed that the first couple of days when I visit Mexico, speaking in Spanish is harder the first couple of days and then gets easier after about a week (by the time I have to leave), when my brain has started to get accustomed to the language it first learned. And the first couple of days back in the US, I find myself throwing words in Spanish when I totally meant to speak in English.

It is all a very weird experience. And funny at times.

Have you ever experienced anything like this? How many languages do you know?

10 Comments

  1. Hola! Soy Frances, nací en Pakistan, me crié en Africa and I went to Grad school in the US. Llevo 25 años viviendo en México. (Like the other way around of your personal journey!) No creo que se le pueda olvidar todo a uno, pero por ejemplo en la casa hablamos una mezcla de español y frances. A veces con inglés.
    Pero sí se acaba mezclando todo. (De hecho mi blog tiene posts en inglés y en español)
    Don’t worry, se te quita when you speak over 5 languages (x q ya se mezcla todo!) Y me encantó el “Donkey” para planchar! Increíble.
    Take care. Cuídense.
    Brian

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  2. You’re not the only one! This happened to me when I went back to the UK last Christmas – I found myself using phrases that make perfect sense here in DF but no native English person would ever say. Day 1 of the trip, the translation of cuanto me vas a cobrar / how much are you going to cover me? blurted its way out! So strange!

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  3. I can relate to this even though I speak my mothertounge Norwegian every day. I do on the other hand read more books in English ( because it is cheaper) than in Norwegian and sometimes I forget normal phrases and come up with the English phrase instead of the Norwegian.

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  4. I haven’t gotten to the point of forgetting much English yet, but my Belgian ex-girlfriend used to get caught in that one. We’d go back to Belgium and her family and friends would roast her for sneaking English words into her sentences. She’d blush and admit that she’d forgotten the Dutch words.

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  5. The same thing happens with my boyfriend. It is hilarious watching him switch between Nepali and English. His Nepali (native language) is always better though so he often just speaks in Nepali too much as he doesn’t realise what language he is speaking! 😀 Definitely keeps me entertained.

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  6. Hi! Yes, I definitely agree that you can forget your native language. I’ve been living in Spain for about 11 or 12 years now, and I really have to work at not losing my native English! I have a few other English speaker friends, but they’re pretty integrated here and so we often speak a lazy Spanglish. Not good for the kids though – I try and keep it pure in front of them!

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