Saturday, May 7, 2016

Help! I'm Losing My (Mother) Tongue!

They say the best way to learn a language is total immersion, and this week I was happily drowning in a sea of English.

You see, after living abroad for a decade or two, your mother tongue starts to decay. When speaking in English, I reach for words—and sometimes it's the French mot that first comes to my tête. Or the odd phrase in the Pittsburghese dialect of my youth like “jeet jet.”

Losing your linguistic mind is a bummer when you're playing Scrabble or doing the New York Times mini puzzle, my favorite way to spend the morning commute. It's even worse when you're talking with your British boss and mangle idioms: “Yes, that sank  like a lead balloon.” At least I got a laugh!

I've found the only way to combat “language death,” and it is a thing, is language boot camp.

It doesn't have to be painful. The program this week consisted of seeing plays in English, finishing the book Joy Inc., and reading 44 short stories by middle schoolers as a judge for the Young Authors Fiction Festival.

Joy Inc. is about a high-tech company that became hugely successful by getting people to—get ready for the big discovery--talk to one another. No more email. Instead, staff use High-Speed Voice Technology, aka the human voice.

And what a joy to watch the San Francisco troupe Word for Word, which stays 100% true to the texts they perform. The actors staged the stories “Night Vision” by Emma Donoghue, and “Silence,” by Colm Toibin.

I was truly inspired reading the short stories. Every entry was original and creative. The only thing that varied was technique--and the number of misspelled words. I'm not a stickler, but times I didn understood wat the riter ment.

As I write this, I'm totally knackered (and have just slipped into the word for exhausted in British English, which is what most of my European colleagues speak). Learning a native language is hard work! 

But there's no rest for the word weary. Tonight marks the end of boot camp, the final exam. Dinner with two real American natives from Wisconsin on vacation in Paris. I'll be testing out High-Speed Voice Technology, and hanging on their every word. I hope I don't go down like a lead balloon, or sink fast like a rock.

Rose Marie Burke, an editor and journalist, writes the blog Paris, Pittsburgh, And More about her personal insights into life in Paris. After 20 years in the City of Light, she still calls her native Pittsburgh "home." Want to follow this blog? Find me on LinkedIn, email me at rose.burke89 "at", or follow me on Google+.


  1. When I read 'went down like a lead balloon' I wondered why that was wrong!! Had to look up the 'correct' (US) version.😆 But then, I used to say things like 'once in a rare moon' and other such inanities long before moving to France!😜I do get your point. It's great to innundate oneself in English from time to time and open the floodgates to formerly familiar words and expressions.👍

    1. Now I realized I mangled the mangled idiom! Actually what I said was “Yes, that sank like a lead balloon.” And I've uncorrected the post for that! The correct idiom is "went down like a lead balloon." Right? Now I'm learning that it's actually a U.K. English idiom? What's the U.S. version?