How Not to Lose Your First Language While Living Abroad

One day you wake up and realize you have been living abroad for almost a decade. Amazingly, you are spending 85% of your time speaking a language other than your mother tongue. Many nights you find yourself dreaming in this new language.

Can this experience impair your ability to speak or write in your mother tongue? It can, if you let it.

I consider myself fluent in English. My partner is English, and all of my co-workers are either English or from English-speaking countries. You get the picture – I am rooted in an English-speaking environment and because of that, my writing, listening, grammar and pronunciation get better every day. However, I often find myself forgetting words in Portuguese, or even worse, I realize there are some words I only know in English. Living abroad, the rapid rate at which you pick up a new language can be perceived as a blessing – “I’m really fluent!” – or, for translators, a curse.

The first time I forgot a word in my native language I thought it was funny. “I can’t speak my own language,” I said to myself. Then it happened a second and third time. After the 10th time I started to get annoyed and soon devised a way to address this minor but growing issue.

Call Home Often

Although you may be busy creating your new life in some far off corner of the world, you probably have friends and/or family still living in your home country. A 30-minute conversation once or twice a week can help a lot!

Write in Your Native Language

If you are constantly translating, you are working with someone else’s text, not exercising your creative skills. If you take the time to write some descriptive texts – journal entries or poetry – you will force yourself to use more unusual words and tap into a different side of your brain. After some time you’ll see how you can enrich your translations with these newfound (or remembered) words.

Meet up with Other Expats

This almost goes without saying, but just by logging into Meet Up or Facebook and searching for a group in your area, you will soon see that there are many of your fellow countrymen living in the same city as you are (unless you are living in some truly obscure countryside village). Get out there, make friends, and remember to speak in your native language.

Living abroad is a wonderful experience. You get to know a new culture, understand its nuances and traditions, try new foods, and learn or perfect a new language. Sometimes, though, you’re so caught up in this pursuit, you put aside your own culture temporarily.

You just need to keep an eye out for the signs, small mistakes, and situations in which you feel slightly uncomfortable. If you still feel like you’re losing your first language, I believe adopting some of these tactics might help.