Everyone who sets out to learn a second language knows it’s no joke. It’s frustrating and hard and despite what those ads promise, it takes a lot of work. There are all kinds of surprises waiting for you too, like how emotional it is or discovering the new ways it’ll make you look like a dummy. One thing that never crossed my mind is that it would affect the way I speak English. 

But it’s true. Speaking a second language for any amount of time will inevitably take a toll on your native language skills. Today I have a few thoughts about how learning Spanish changes the way you speak English. 

Say goodbye to your American slang

A few weeks ago I helped run a summer camp with some U.S. college students. It took me a week to understand what they meant by savage. I’m definitely not on the cutting edge of slang but at least in the U.S., it would cross my path through pop culture. Now when I hear younger Americans speak I’m so out of the loop I feel like a crotchety old man, grumbling about young people these days. One more note on slang: it doesn’t translate. It’s possible that certain English words crossover (the U.S. is a pop culture machine after all) but don’t assume you can return from Madrid and tell people they’re .

The rest of your vocabulary will shrink, too

The old cliché if you don’t use it, you lose it applies to your mother tongue, too. Language experts say we need about 1,000 words to be conversationally fluent. When you use this smaller pool to communicate in a second language, these words and phrases become your verbal comfort zone. When it comes time to switch to English, these pathways are so well-trod it’s likely they’re the first place you’ll go. And unfortunately, this means some of your impressive English vocab will collect dust in the back of your mind. 

But you may pick up some fancy new international English 

Anyone who’s received snickers talking about their pants in England can attest to the fact that not all English is created equal. That said, while you’re forgetting some native words you’ll probably add some international English to your repertoire. Between Spaniards who speak British English and expats from other English-speaking countries, I’ve found myself saying keen, flat and brilliant more than I care to admit.

Your conversational culture will shift 

Conversations have their own culture too. In some places, it’s perfectly acceptable to talk over each other, swear like crazy, or exaggerate (I’m looking at you, Madrid!). Maybe people buffer their opinion with a lot of niceties or thank others profusely. As you adapt to the conversational culture in another language, it’s likely you’ll keep these verbal mannerisms when you switch back to your native one as well. I’ve even noticed this when I speak English with Spanish friends—sometimes I find myself switching words around even though it isn’t right, just because it’s how everyone else is doing it.

Your accent will be hard to drop

I always tell this story about a guy in a San Diego taco shop who gave his order in a run-of-the-mill American accent only to adopt some misplaced Latin flare when he got to the word tacos. It was so weird I had to look away to hold in my chuckle. However. This is kind of a thing. After you work so hard on the muscle memory needed to roll “r” words, you’ll never again be able to gringo-ize Spanish. Just go with it and pretend no one is judging you for the way you say Parque Retiro.

What say you? Have you picked up a new accent or verbal something or other since moving abroad? I’d love to chat about your experiences so please feel free to leave a comment below!

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