The risk of losing our real first language when we live in a foreign-language country for a long time.

February 13, 2012 § 3 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

A few weeks ago I was on an airplane getting ready to take off, it was business as usual, a passenger trying to fit an incredibly large bag above the seat, the smell of fries and burgers, the crying babies, and the safety video where they teach us how to buckle a seatbelt.  I don’t know why, but I found myself watching the video. It was in English with Spanish subtitles. Of course, you know what happened next: I began to interpret the video in my head.

To my surprise, the translated text had some serious mistakes! Instead of using the Spanish word for buckle (hebilla) it used the Spanish word for lapel (solapa). It literally translated into Spanish the term “water landing” despite the fact that there is a word in Spanish for “water landing” (acuatizaje).

I wondered why the largest airline in the world with all its financial resources would pay for this translation. Then it hit me: The airline probably hired a very well-known translator who did what she believed to be an impeccable job. She probably had it proofread and edited, and after that she probably reviewed it ten more times.  The real problem in this case, as it happens a lot with those of us who have been living in a foreign language country for decades, is that we stop thinking in our first language, we adopt grammar, expressions, and bad habits from the foreign language (in this case English) and start translating and interpreting into poor Spanish or any other target language.

It scares me and I try to minimize this tendency by reading newspapers and watching TV and movies from Spanish speaking countries. Never from American publications or networks in “Spanish.” It is not easy. My questions to all of you, regardless of your language pair, are: Do you have this problem? And if you do; Do you have any suggestions to avoid this pollution of the target language?

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§ 3 Responses to The risk of losing our real first language when we live in a foreign-language country for a long time.

  • Carolyn says:

    I have found that it has a lot to do with the person, because the other day I met a Spaniard who had lived in the Dominican Republic for 25 years, and both “Spanishes” are completely different, and she sounded like she had left Madrid the day before.
    She had a theory, the theory was that some people are just born with a very good ear, and that when you have a very good ear, you tend to adopt things more easily. She insisted Spaniards, especially those from Madrid, had a bad ear, referring to herself.
    I kinda liked her theory, because as a Guatemalan, we tend to “copycat” other Spanish speakers quite quickly, apparently having a very good ear. I don’t know, I just thought a theory is better than none at all. But I do hate it when people start talking like they are foreigners, in infinitive verbs and so on. Another example I can think of is “Mi hija está miserable.” or “Yo acabo de realizar que dejé mis llaves en el auto.” Which I have heard all too often from Latinos living in the US.

  • I had the same problem before I started Interpreting, mainly because of the lack of contact with spanish speaking people, and I also did not watch programs in Spanish, when I was training for this job as Interpreter, I had to practice translating in both languages, and I realized what you’ve pointed out, that I had started forgetting a lot of words, and I can atribute that to complacency, or you might say laziness, as an Interpreter though, we have to always strive to learn more and more about the languages we work with, and also keep up with the trends in the languages, what was common usage twenty, or thirty years ago, may be obsolete now, or some terms may be used in different ways.
    The way I keep up with this is by reading newspapers from different countries, watching the news, and of course, like you, I try to translate evreything I hear.
    Another way to study is watching movies at home, turning on the sub-tittles on, and making notes, I also carry a digital voice recorder everywhere I go,

  • Andrew Lynch says:

    This issue is very alive for me as a translator. I recently returned to my native U.S. after living in Italy for a decade. My language ‘confusion’ goes both ways – I forgot some basic English flow, style and vocabulary, and I’m ‘still learning’ a lot of Italian nuances and basic regional variations. My wife is Italian, my son is mixed – at home we speak a language no one else would understand, using the most ‘convenient’ phrases from each language at will. We listen to RadioItalia many hours each day, which is helpful. I try to enjoy the freedom of free-floating linguistics while constantly searching for anchors to keep my Italian and English languages distinct and clean when it matters (for work).
    The most unexpected aspect of returning to the U.S. began with the impact of living among so many non-native speakers of English from all over the world – this is a beautiful melange, but my ‘stickler’ side tended to prickle up whenever I was in work mode, trying to craft proper plain English for hours each day. What I soon began to notice, though, was that many ‘native speakers’ of English also speak and write English very poorly, sometimes worse than many Spanish, Chinese, Russian and other newcomers. Speaking both ‘poorly’ and ‘natively’ at the same time… Hmmm. I had never noticed or thought about this very much, but it seems worthwhile to ponder how it fits in to our transnationalizing world. There is a philosophical level at stake, too… the balance between ‘pushing the limits and straining old rules’ and ‘sloppiness out of laziness or the desire to fit in with the ‘cool kids”. As professionals, of course, our job is to be aware of these issues and our own vulnerabilities, striving to manifest a single language clearly and distinctly from others as we produce it. This is a matter of awareness, finding practical tools for staying tuned to our different languages and professional responsibility. Plus some side-reading in the philosophy of knowledge? Sounds scary, maybe there are some Cliff’s Notes…

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