I burst out laughing when a friend texted me this meme. As anyone who’s lived in another country or speaks a foreign language already knows, this actually happens! I guess it’s just another unexpected curveball in the expat experience.
What’s in a name?
Growing up in Canada, my immediate family only ever spoke English to me. And it wasn’t until I became an expat spouse and moved to Europe that I studied my first foreign language. (It was French, oh lala…)
I don’t mind admitting that I had a hard time picking it up at first. Just like everyone else, I struggled with using the correct article (le, la, or les), verb conjugation and general pronunciations. But with time and practice, I eventually became more comfortable with the rules and stopped stumbling over all my words.
And then the fun part began.
Every day I’d ask patient friends (hi Joleen!), my language teachers and Google, “How do you say that in French?” And because of their help, I quickly expanded my vocabulary and incorporated countless new words and phrases into everyday conversation. I loved it because it felt like a constant cycle of discovery.
But then I’d go home and call / FaceTime my English-speaking family back in Canada. And by mid-conversation, I’d realize that I couldn’t remember certain English words familiar to me since I was a child.
For example, I once had a conversation about gardening. It was springtime and my Mum had just planted fresh flowers in her backyard. After discussing the pots, blooms and colour scheme I wanted to ask her how she’d control the inevitable weeds. Yes, I know it’s a weird question to ask. That’s not the point. The point is, no matter what I did I couldn’t remember the English name for the tool / product she’d need.
I mentally dug through the files in my brain searching for the English equivalent of “désherbant” – weed killer. But I just couldn’t find it. What resulted was an awkward pause and me mumbling to myself “What… is.. green bottle… hmm… to control?” At the same time I repeated to myself “…don’t say désherbant, don’t say désherbant, don’t say désherbant!”
I’m telling you, it was a painful experience.
Thankfully, she eventually helped me remember the word and we carried on with our conversation.
Bilingual? More like Byelingual
And, no surprise, the longer I stayed in France (five years) the worse my English memory got.
I had no idea that by saying “hello” to French that I’d also say “au reviour” to English. Oh wait. Sh*t. I mean BYE to English. Do you see what I mean?!
I’ve mentioned before how important it is to stick to your foreign language lessons. But this is a reminder to also keep your mother tongue sharp. Read books, listen to podcasts and write letters (or a blog!) – whatever. Because one day you’ll head back to your home country and you’ll probably need to use it again. Especially if you decide to garden.