How Living Abroad Messed Up My English

October 17, 2018


While we were living in Zurich, I did not consider myself a German speaker (because I wasn't!) and I also did not consider myself a person who possessed any knowledge of German whatsoever.

Zurich is so metropolitan that you hear English wherever you go. And Swiss German is so far and away nothing like High German that I never even bothered trying to learn. With French being a national language, if I ever got a sneer or an eye roll when I asked someone if they spoke English (natürlich auf Deutsch!), I would just tilt my head to the side, smile, switch into French and ask, "Oh, so you would prefer French?" and their attitude always stopped right there. And we continued in English.


But even when you don't speak a language, if you're reading all day, every day, it starts to sink in somehow! This became startlingly evident the last time I was in Zurich. I was standing idly, waiting for the train, looking around aimlessly while Theo slept in his buggy. My eyes passed over the billboard above and I was surprised to not just put it together, but to understand it. I did not translate it in my head; I understood it 100%.

Fever after sex without a rubber? Speak with your doctor about HIV.

I would have said condom just there, but that's not what the poster says. Gummi. Can you believe it?! Just like the bears. Wow.

So anyway. I stood there, shocked that I had just ingested German effortlessly, and my first instinct was to Google if in fact HIV would give you a fever because the way I had learned it in school, it was really more of a silent, symptomless, shows-up-later-and-kills-you sort of thing. But, sure enough! It can give you a fever within a few days. Who knew?!

And wait! Since when could I read German?! If you speak another language, then you understand what I'm saying when I specify that I didn't translate it. Although our brains are crazy fast, they're not designed to toggle that way. When we speak a language, we're supposed to be in that language. Our brain actually designates a physical section and devotes it to each language we speak and we occupy that part of the brain while speaking that language, which means that in order to translate, it would have to flash back and forth between two brain areas and it very much does not like to do that. So, it turns out I have a German section and all it took to realize it was a very provocative poster in a train station. Thank you, love life.ch!


Since arriving back in the States after that lovely visit, I notice at least once or twice per week that my brain wants to do some whacky thing as a result of having read so much German. I'll by typing and I'll try to join words together - like rollerskates and footstool - which are each actually two separate words. I literally tried to write eyeroll in the second paragraph above. I couldn't quite accept it was two words and wanted to hyphenate it, but I stopped myself! In German, by contrast, they're not afraid to string together all the words. Until it was removed from use a few years ago, the longest German word had 63 letters in it. Sixty-three! That is more than two alphabets worth of letters.

Another silly German thing I do is try to capitalize everything. In German, all the nouns are capitalized - every single one. After seeing that many caps when you try to read the trashy magazines in the trams, or when you clip coupons, or go to any German language website, you start to think they're necessary. Lots of caps just start to look right.

Finally, when I was subbing and would call roll, I always got corrected in how I pronounced the kids' names. I would pronounce according to German phonetics. I makes the sound "eeee," A makes the sound "ahhh" (like you're opening your mouth for the doctor) so the name Amarisa would be Ah-ma-riza. And then the kid would roll their eyes and be like, "It's A (as in cat) marissa." Okay, check, she's here. And I thought this was surprising because I lived in the US for so long before I ever lived in Switzerland. Yet, as a teacher there with oodles of students with European names (or names that were pronounced the German way) I adapted very quickly. And by adapted very quickly, I mean, I learned to respond to "Leen-say" (rhymes with Green Bay) almost overnight!

Please share your funny Denglish, Franglais, or other linguistic crossover mishaps in the comments! Linguistic immersion is fascinating. I would love to hear your experiences.

Join the conversation!

  1. Haha! We moved to Italy just about a year ago. I've only just begun taking formal lessons with the city now that my daughter has started nido (daycare), but after being immersed for so long and studying on my own, I've definitely picked up quite a bit of Italian. Only recently while speaking english with expat friends have I noticed that I sometimes accidentally roll my "r's" for english words. Oy. We're heading back to the states for a wedding in a couple of weeks, and if that doesn't make me sound like I've become totally pretentious, I'm sure pronouncing "bruschetta" properly -- with a hard "c" -- will do the trick. ;)

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    1. Oh my goodness! You've got it bad if you're rolling r's. ;) Just kidding, but LOL. Hopefully there won't be any bruschetta at the wedding. ;) Have fun and be patient with yourself. The emotional whiplash of a visit can be really jarring! xoxo

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  2. Oh I love this post. This is me to a T! I pronounce so many words the German way, and even catch myself formulating English sentences with the verb at the end, as if it were a German sentence. It is interesting how living in another country can change your use of your mother tongue language. Who would've thought!?

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    1. Language is fascinating! Sometimes I will think of a word in German or French first and I'm so confused because I haven't used/been exposed to either of those languages daily for years. But, we always noticed when I was teaching an English immersion class in Neuchâtel that the children would make leaps over the breaks in the English vocabulary and usage. The brain used the break to file and load and install all of the linguistic pieces properly it seems. I hope you can join a Stammtisch or something like it to keep your German up! Or just ready Friday Magazin. ;) So deliciously juicy!

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  3. I generally have thought of language as an "operating disk" that I switch out in my mind. I was able to fulfill a long term dream and spend most of a week in Paris this month by myself. I was afraid that my bad French would sink me in the 13eme arrondissement, but the French part of my brain came alive and I interacted, chatted with people and even solved problems at the hardware store.

    What did sink me a bit was having my husband join me for the last weekend. Speaking English with him and having to translate was SO HARD! My English was so bad! It now makes sense, based on your explanation.

    I also have the thing where certain objects only have a name in French. I can never think of the word stapler. It's forever une agrafeuse. I have to pantomime what I want at the office, most of the time.

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    1. OMG! Stapler pantomiming made me laugh out loud. Thank you for that. And I love the operating disk analogy. It's just perfect. I can totally relate to how you got into your French groove and then the toggling made you feel bonkers. That would happen when my mom came to visit and I realized how much I did understand.
      The next time I see a baby do that pinchy baby wave, I might think they're asking for a stapler! ;) xoxoxo

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  4. I mean I've been here forever (13 years) so...

    Whenever we go to the states Americans are all "omg! Your English is so good! You hardly have an accent !

    🙈🙈🙈🙈🙈

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    1. LOL! Meaning, you have an accent. Congratulations. That must be some sort of expat badge of honor. We actually came back with very Brit-ified accents, which was puzzling. They seem to mostly have faded, but I did get the "Where is your accent from?" quite often for the first few years.

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  5. Another thing. I was discussing with two expat Americans today whether people would understand the waving your hand in front of your face to indicate that someone is being kooky gesture

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    1. Oh, that gesture --- NO! Americans do not understand that one. They make a spiral by their ear. But since living in Switzerland and working with tons of Germans, J and I do the back and forth in front of the forehead without even thinking about it now. It would never occur to me to do the old corkscrew by the ear anymore. Firmly unlearned that one!!

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  6. When we lived in CH, I heard a lot of people make a statement but turn it into a yes or no question by adding "oder" to the end of it, which I have totally adopted. e.g. "You're coming to the party, or?"

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