Can Learning a Second Language Destroy Your Native Tongue?

Bilingual German English Language Learning
“I dunno. Tastes pretty good to me.” — (Image Credit: An Affair with Chocolate [Modified from original], by Sarah Robinson [https://www.flickr.com/photos/sarahdeephotography/] Subject to CC 2.0 License.)
I’m an American citizen from Portland, Oregon, and I’ve been living in Germany since 2012. Obviously I’m a native English speaker, but what you might not know is I started learning the German language a year or two before I moved to Hannover to be with my German wife. (And yet, strangely enough, my proficiency level is stuck halfway between “Inebriated Preschooler” and “Lobotomized Soccer Hooligan.”)

Yeah, German is a difficult language to learn; every noun is assigned one of three gender-based articles — der (masculine), die (feminine), or das (neutral) — and these genders have absolutely nothing to do with titties and testicles. For example, “das Mädchen” means “the little girl,” and yet the article it uses is neither masculine nor feminine; it’s goddamn neutral. Or how about, “der Eierstock,” which means, “the ovary,” — a reproductive organ I’m pretty sure is reserved just for the ladies — inexplicably uses the masculine article. Oh, and then we’ve got “die Prostata,” meaning, “the prostate,” — again, a sex organ pretty much restricted to dudes — which uses the feminine article. I mean, what the fuck, Germany?

In my personal opinion, these articles were designed to make the language sound prettier when used in sentences, which, in the case of German, is kind of like smearing sexy red lipstick on a big fat warthog. But whatever, I’m not here to judge. I’m just saying learning German is hard, but probably not as hard as, say, Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, or whatever the hell it is they speak down in Shitsville, Tennessee.

Hillbilly-Shitsville-Tennessee
“We talk ENGLISH, bitch.” — (Image Credit: Das Wedding, [Edited from original] by Aaron Muszalski [https://www.flickr.com/photos/sfslim/] Subject to CC 2.0 License.)
What bothers me though, is the fact that my efforts to become bilingual seem to come at the cost of my own native language; as if each piece of foreign grammar to enter my brain proportionately erodes the native one already in place. For example, German does not use verbs in the two forms which end in “-ing,” better known as present participles and gerunds. This alone pushes me right out of my warm, linguistic comfort zone and into a cold, dark alley full of brain molesters where I must passively accept the fact that “running away” is not an option, but I can sure as hell try and, “away to run” from those word-fondling sex offenders.

And don’t even get me started on German prepositions. They were clearly designed by a fingerpainting nincompoop to both anger and confound foreign language learners. (To be fair, however, prepositions make absolutely no sense in any language other than to those people who speak it as their native tongue.) But seriously, I could complain about German all day long, and nothing will change the fact that I still have to learn it — and simply should learn it — because I live in Germany. Also, whenever I successfully memorize a new word or phrase, it does feel really good. Kind of like a mini orgasm in one of the language centers of my brain. (Wait, would that make it a Braingasm? Lobespasm? Cerebral Coresex? Basal Banglia? Full Frontal Ejacotomy?)

Anyway, to be perfectly honest with you, I think learning a second language — any second language — is actually really good for your brain. Being bilingual makes for good mental exercise because you’re essentially switching back and forth between two different ways of structuring your thoughts and then communicating them successfully. (Or failing spectacularly. Either way, it’s still good practice.)

Healthy Brain Scan
“Here’s a scan of your brain, Sir. We’ve indicated the healthy parts in red, and the retarded parts in blue.” — (Image Credit: digital-drugs-binaural-beats, by digitalbob8 [https://www.flickr.com/photos/44568283@N02/] Subject to CC 2.0 License.)
That said, language learning is a bumpy road full of frustrations — especially when you start confusing grammar rules. For example, I have actually said, out loud, for my wife, friends and the entire English-speaking world to hear:

  • “I get my glasses,” instead of, “I am getting my glasses.” (German: “Ich hole meine Brille.”)
  • “I am in the airplane,” instead of, “I am on the airplane.” (German: “Ich bin im Flugzeug.”)
  • “I go upstairs,” instead of, “I am going upstairs.” (German: “Ich gehe nach oben.”)
  • “I am on the beach,” instead of, “I am at the beach.” (German: “Ich bin am Strand.”)
  • “I make a picture,” instead of, “I am taking a picture.” (German: “Ich mache ein Bild.”)

And then there’s the vocabulary you might start to lose because you’re using one language more than the other. I mean, I’ve lost a ton of English vocabulary since becoming an expat. (That, or alcohol-related dementia — coupled with the concrete nose-dive I took off my scooter when I has nine — are finally turning me into a basketweaver at the local laughing academy.) For example, here are a few words I’ve just straight up forgotten because I’ve been living in Germany too long:

  • The Baltic Sea (German: die Ostsee)
  • Umbilical chord (German: die Nabelschnur)
  • Organic (German: Bio or Organisch)
  • Carousel (German: das Karussell)
  • Pacifier — like, for a baby (German: der Schnuller)
  • Optometrist (German: der Optiker)
  • Wifebeater / Tank Top — whatever, a sleeveless undershirt (German: das Unterhemd)
  • Erosion (German: die Erosion, but how was I supposed to know it’s the same stupid word? Kiss my ass.)
  • Refugee (German: der Flüchtling)
  • Garbage disposal machine — like in your sink (German: die Müllabfuhrmaschine, I guess, but they don’t really have these in Germany because they’re considered “wasteful.”)
  • Carseat — like, for kids (German: der Kindersitz)
  • Imitation (German: die Nachahmung)
  • Gall bladder (German: die Gallenblase)
  • Defense mechanism (German: der Verteidigungsmechanismus — one word, not kidding.)
  • Prostate (German: die Prostata — See? Feminine article.)

Thank you for reading and have an awesome day!

— OGM

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36 thoughts

  1. I came to the states with my parents when I was less than one year old. Since my parents were learning english I learned German at home first. But I was learning both languages and did not realize it. this came to a head in grammer scholl where my mixed speaking caused problems. Made fun of often. I did not realize that I was mixing German and English in the same sentence. Things are different no since I learned to think both in german without translating in my head and can switch to English the same way. when i speak to my german relative i kind of ignore the die, dir, das stuff.

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  2. When I started to learn German, I always got the numbers backwards (saying zweiunddreißig for 23). But now, after many years of practice, I get them wrong in German AND English. Before ANY NUMBER, in German OR English, I have to stop and think twice before speaking it.

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  3. too funny….yes you will lose your native language a little.
    But wait till when that moment comes when you not sure if you just spoke German or English.
    Or you watch some English TV for a while and switch to another channel just to be surprised cause they speak German…why do they speak German….well maybe cause you are in Germany??
    All those things happen when you will become quite comfortable in a second language. I have lived in London for 11 years been back in Germany for 7 and these things still happen to me :-D

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  4. I’m fast approaching a stage in my language “learning” where I fear I may become totally non-verbal — because I’m forgetting English words for things BEFORE I’ve learned the German words for them

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  5. I live in DE and am British. I speak their language but have kept my language, via the web. I think it is important as you lose your identity.

    We renovated a property in France and were befriended by a Brit married to a French lady. he had rejected English and was really struggling to speak to us, he had been in France that long.

    You can lose your soul if you adapt too much to a foreign land.

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  6. Funny !!!! .I had the same issue when I learned English in the USA; losing some of my German language agility along the way. Convinced my American Husband (from Texas) to move to Europe with me in 2012 (Prague), and to Germany in 2014. I am now having issues with German too. Fancy that. Hubby chuckled when I read him your blog entry. He says: “I have made attempts at learning Czech, Bulgarian, French & German, and find the rules of “der, die das” to be as screwed up as a football bat”. He has much fun with the language, to the distress of my Germanic anal-retentiveness. We shall survive the linguistically uneven cobblestone streets of Germany, and I wish you all the best of luck in yours.

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  7. So much to relate to. In French, you say you have money on your accoun (not in) and that you’re in a plane or train not on it. Totally feel your pain!

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  8. I agree with you…. When I speak Urdu now, I have this slightly American pronunciation which my cousins make fun of and they don’t believe me when I tell them that I just can’t help it. They call it ‘Mehreen ki Amreeki Urdu’ (Mehreen’s American Urdu).

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  9. I remember when I first started learning Spanish, and not just any Spanish but Castillian Spanish that the definite masculine and feminine stuff drove me nuts. See, here in the U.S. we invariably name our cars female names but in Spanish it’s preceded by the masculine el. Drove me nuts for awhile.

    And recall too that English is a German root language.

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  10. You will not forget any language you know, as long you are able to use it all parallel. English is a very popular language, so it’s hard to forget it at all. Any new language,which have been learned is easiest to forget when you stop using it. I haven’t using english for long time, this is why it’s not how it should be. It’s about anything what is not using by the organism, doesn’t matter is it about knowledge or muscles, when you are not using it, you losing it.
    Anyway, I like your post.
    Take care.

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  11. I moved to Denmark 2 1/² years ago and started to learn the local language, of course, but since Danish is my 6th language, after Italian (my mother tongue), English, German, French and a pinch of Spanish, you can imagine the mess that is my head 😂 Danish grammar is a breeze compared to the German one, but its pronunciation is vile and it has one of the craziest numerical systems I’ve ever encountered. I get also what you say about losing pieces of your mother tongue: some days I cannot find even the simplest words in Italian. Some days I wonder if it’s really just the effects of being a polyglot of it’s the start of dementia 😑. Sorry for the long comment, but this post really resonated in me. I love your blog!

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  12. You hit it on the head. Having been in Germany for 15 years now, I still cant get on top of the cursed die/der/das so I’ve come to this point where I’ve stopped trying. I use whatever I think fits and cant be bothered if that’s right or wrong much to the consternation of my teutonic wife. The other trap is where to use uppercase and where to use lower case in a sentence – absolutely confounding.
    Every now and then I catch myself struggling to find the English word for something and that’s when evil thoughts of moving back to an english speaking country re-emerge only to be squashed by wife/beer/dont-want-to-go-to-Trump-country :-)

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  13. I suspect learning more than one language would either accelerate the loss, or would inoculate against it. Having only 2 kid of makes it an either-or problem.

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  14. I can totally relate to that!
    My native longuage is German, the second one (as for most Germans, I guess) is English. Since about a year, I’m living in Japan and am learning Japanese.
    With my classmates, teachers and all the people in everyday life I speak Japanese (or at least the parts of it I know). On the internet i read, write and listen to English for the most parts. My mother tongue only comes into use when skyping home to my family or chatting with them on the phone.
    This said, I find my self ovten desperatly trying to find a word in German, that I know in English or Japanese. Since my lessons are in Japanese and the grammar explanations are in English, I try to write everything down in German, to make my own compendium. And therefor oftentimes struggle to find the german words!
    It seems that there realy is just so much capacity in ones brain to store vocabs, grammar and stuff. And the more languages you leran, the more space gets used up, until the oldest ones (e.g. your native language) get thrown out.

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  15. I have this feeling that I’m losing my native English tongue too – and that’s not a great thing since I make my money by writing in English all the time! According to British friends I now sound German when I speak English with them, much to their amusement and my distress. I thought they were just messing with me until I had to explain to a new British person I met that I was actually from England…. sigh.

    The thing that drives me nuts is when I notice that I’ve made silly spelling mistakes I wouldn’t usually make or typed the wrong version of “here” or “hear” or “your” and “you’re” (worryingly, it happens a lot more often than it should/used to)

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  16. Love the mental gymnastics, saying phrases all backwards in your native tongue. It’s even better when you’re not fluent in your second language, yet it still messes with your every day talking skills. Loved this post! Rang so true.

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  17. I am from India. Here, we have the concept of something called a first, second and third language. And the first language used to be the medium of instruction in school [which in my case was English. It was also the medium of instruction in almost all universities]. The second language [which generally is the mother tongue] is taught from the very beginning till the final school leaving examinations [~12 years]. We needed to read complex texts in the second language, as well as write 500 words of essays. The third language used to be taught for a shorter duration [in most cases its four years].
    I am now learning Dutch as I will be going to Belgium for my masters.
    Learning languages really does not erode other languages, as long as you keep reading and writing in other languages!

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  18. Definitely learning a second language can screw up your native tongue. Me and my sister experience it all the time – our mix is hilarious – but any grammar teacher would cringe.
    (Whatever they speak in Tennessee ain’t THAT bad… when you’re used to it. *grin*)

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