Teaching English; Forgetting English

It always irks me when Americans, after spending three whole months in Spain, say they’re forgetting English. How adorable! You’ve spent a total of 90 days here, and you’re already losing your native-language skills.

Or not. Because you’re not. No, really, you aren’t.

That’s why I won’t be claiming anything of the sort. Nope, what I want to talk about is overanalyzing the way you say things. You must know what I’m talking about. Have you ever read or said a word over and over again until it seemed like it wasn’t even a word at all, just a jumble of arbitrary letters and sounds? Let’s try an experiment:

Squirrel. Squirrel. Squirrel. Squirrel. Squirrel. Squirrel. Squirrel. Squirrel. Squirrel. I don’t know about you, but that word is weird. I even had to refer to Google to make sure I wasn’t spelling it wrong. And I was a sixth-grade spelling-bee champion! Squirrel. Ugh, is that even right? Okay, yes. Yes, it is.

As an English-language assistant teacher, my fellow teachers like to ask me how to say certain words or phrases. They like to clarify prepositions. The problem is: sometimes, just with a question, they throw me off. I’m unable to give them a succinct answer, and when I do find a reasonable response, it ends up sounding quite strange to my ears. I think it’s because I mull over the answer too much.

‘In the corner’ or ‘At the corner’?

Well, ummm, you see, they both sound okay.

But when do you use ‘at’ and when do you use ‘in’?

Let me think for the next ten minutes: ‘In the corner’ or ‘At the corner’? ‘In the corner’ or ‘At the corner’? Oh gee, which is it? [Five minutes later, as the teacher stares at me, the English-language teacher who doesn’t know how to explain her own language]   … Ah, so it seems we use ‘at’ for ‘at the street corner’ and ‘in’ for ‘in the corner of the room’. I’ve done it! I’ve remembered how my language works.

Another example:

Kaley, how do you say escalera caracol?

Um, what?

You know, the staircases that are circular, that go around a central point?

Oh, yes, yes! Circular staircase? No, no, that’s not right. That sounds so odd, though I suppose it would be understood. No, it’s definitely something else … [Five minutes later] Oh yes! Spiral staircase.


Um, yes, well … yes, I think so. I’m 90% certain.

I’d like to think I’m more than 90% certain of my English-language skills, but perhaps not. Perhaps I need a refresher course. Or perhaps translation is just difficult. One more example:

Kaley, the students were asking how to say perra [female dog] in English? What would you say, “she dog”?

[Laughs] Um, no, definitely not. [I conjure up the word “she man” in my head] Female dog? No, that sounds a bit like an insult, doesn’t it?

Does it?

I dunno. Yes? I know you don’t say bitch; that isn’t really appropriate, unless we’re talking about professional dog breeders or the like. Female dog? I know I’ve heard that used as an insult before, but I suppose it doesn’t have to be. So yes, I’ll go with female dog.

Are you sure?

[Am I?] Yes, yes, of course!

I do know how to speak English. But don’t ask me why you can omit the preposition in some sentences. Don’t ask me what the first conditional is. Please don’t ask me to tell you the order for adjectives. (Sidenote: Did you even know this existed? Why is it okay to say the big, red ball, but not the red, big ball?) I speak English, but sometimes I really don’t understand it.

11 thoughts on “Teaching English; Forgetting English

  1. I don’t know about you but I don’t “forget English” per se, but I do struggle speaking it if I am in France/Spain any extended period of time. When I was studying abroad in France, I struggled speaking English on Skype to my mom and would just code switch to French because that was the state of mind I was in (and luckily Mom speaks French so this wasn’t an issue). When I was in Spain, I struggled speaking French because I wasn’t using it and it felt like Spanish had invaded that part of my brain. Now I’m back in the US and I feel incompetent in both French and Spanish. It all has to do with environment and how frequently you are speaking the language. I don’t forget, but it takes me longer to come up with something in French or Spanish these days.

    And trying to explain the English language and its rules always made me feel like an idiot. Is it “Get off the couch?” or “Get off of the couch?” I don’t know, both seem acceptable!

  2. The same thing happens to me at work ALL the time! I really hope that the teachers I work with don’t secretly think, “What the heck are we paying this auxiliar for?!” Translation is really difficult when you’re on the spot! Or maybe English is just really, really weird. I don’t know how people learn it fluently as a second language, because even as an assistant English teacher I think our language makes absolutely NO sense.


  3. Hello! Long-time reader, first-time commenter here. Great post and one that really hit home. I was in the process of drafting something similar myself, although I can’t obviously post it now cos it’ll look like I’m just jumping on the bandwagon! :P

    But seriously, it p*sses me off when people claim to have forgotten their own language, especially when these people are teachers of said language!

    I definitely don’t believe you forget your language, but teaching it forces you to analyse it more and to REALLY think about what you say. I think it’s also important to educate yourself in the different Englishes (that IS a word, right?!) around the world. Case in point: my first thought when I saw your example of ‘AT the corner’ was that’s wrong, because we Brits would say ‘ON the corner’. Unless of course we were referring to a chair, for example, that was IN the corner of the room!

    BTW adjective order is a thing, although I never knew that until I started teaching! The basic rule is that opinion adjectives come before fact ones. The order (according to British Council) is as follows: general opinion, specific opinion, size, shape, age, colour, nationality, material.

    Briona :)

  4. Hahaha this post is great! I also cringe when I have to explain phrases in British English. For example, “She’s got two brothers.” Ugh.. sounds terrible to me! “She HAS two brothers.” Or “We go to the beach AT the weekend.” Gross! “ON the weekend!” ;)


  5. This happens to me ALL THE TIME and I hate it! It makes me feel so incompetent! Also you just blew my mind with the adjective order thing. I had no idea that existed, and yet I inherently know it! Ahhh languages are so cool.

  6. Something you should be really careful about as a professional translator is the threat of second language interference coming into your translations when living in your second language country. This is very real.

    I also find it very amusing when people say that they are losing their English when they have only been in Europe for a few months.

    A few weeks ago I had a native French speaker check over one of my translations into English. He picked out an instance when I used a verb in English in a way which is quite French. At first I didn’t believe him as what I wrote sounded completely normal to me, but when I really looked into his comment in detail I embarrassing discovered that it was true.

    I never thought I would become one of those people who is losing their English. As a translator, it is of the upmost importance that I maintain the level of my target language and I am horrified at the idea of losing my English. Often these people are so proud of “losing their English”; I am so desperate not to.

  7. I do think there is a certain amount of interference that comes from learning Spanish and being immersed in Spain and it’s a real phenomenon (if you come here with a main goal of learning the language and do it properly), but claiming your English is getting worse after 3 months also strikes me as a bit far fetched. I think what happens is that over time your active vocabulary, the words and expressions you produce without thinking, reduces slightly and they get transferred to your passive vocabulary. You still know the same amount of English. So no, even after 6 years here, I doubt I’ve forgotten a single word or expression that I knew before, but since I use natural English less frequently, I’m slightly less expressive. However, I would hope that the English natives in Spain who say “I arrived TO the airport” are just victims of language interference and thinking about the Spanish structure…. I don’t know why that mistake irks me so much and I hear it a lot from English speakers in Spain.

  8. Yes! One of the most frustrating things for me working as an assistant. Either a word just doesn’t come to me fast enough or I think of a really complicated example instead of something simple. Just yesterday a teacher put me on the spot to explain the difference between contain and involve… ?! I do, however, think that losing your English is possible on a smaller scale at least when you’ve been speaking another language for four or five months. After about four of five months my Spanish boyfriend had to correct me when I started referring to all teachers as professors and told my mom I was “renovating” with the school for another year. There are countless times when the Spanish word comes to me before the English one in conversation as well.

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