Does staying away from your country affect your vocabulary?


I think Amy and Mr.Micawber are the best people to answer this question.
I would like to know if staying away from your country for a long, long time affects your spoken English, in particular your command of idioms, vocabulary and proverbs etc? I may understand that your choice of words must be very selected in a place where English is not spoken. Conchita, what about your vocabulary? How do you memorise and utilize new words and expressions? Do you get [color=red]enough opportunities to utilize your English expressions?


PS: Is “enough opportunities” correct?

Quite frankly, I have a feeling that I don’t use new words and expressions to the extent I’d like. Other than in class, there aren’t really many opportunities to put them to use here, especially not in spoken English!

Naturally, the mass and new media play a huge role in improving and boosting language skills. Participating in forums such as this one, for instance, does help to learn, practice and keep a language up-to-date, as we know so well.

Got any other ideas?

Yes, it is.

I spent three years out of my country, and I observed other Americans who worked with me. It appeared to me that everything depended on whether or not you assimilated linguistically and culturally to the host country. The people I worked with never really learned the language of our host country, because they were very cagy about finding other expats to talk to, and finding locals who spoke English well. They read and listened only to English media, and spoke only English. I don’t think these people saw any change in their vocabulary.

When I got to the place, before most of them, there was almost nothing to read in English, and almost the only electronic media we had in English was CNN International, which, besides being a 24-hour propaganda bath, had a lot of non-native English speakers as reporters and announcers. (CNN in the US doesn’t have these people, and other cable news stations are much more popular than CNN anyway.) There was some MTV, but it was MTV Europe, which meant that it had a combination of Dutch, Swedish, Belgian and German announcers who spoke English well, along with some from England who spoke horrible English. I also did not use English as a criterion for choosing my friends, so most of my friends there spoke little or no English.

Anyway, there was little English input for me.

I did not lose my vocabulary, but some of it went dormant. The first things that got put into “storage” were the names of famous people in my home state and country, and the lyrics to songs that I knew by heart. Some puns and funny slang also went dormant, because even the local people who understood English did not understand double meanings or any kind of word play, so some of that stuff also got put back in my mental “warehouse”, and I couldn’t retrieve it when I wanted it. All of this stuff eventually came back, and more, after I got home.

The biggest problem for me was not losing vocabulary, but picking up concepts from the new language that didn’t exist in my own. Czech lacks specific words for huge numbers of everyday American concepts, but it has words for other concepts that we don’t express in English but that I found useful. When I would speak English I would get stuck when I had a concept in my head that English had no word for. I could use a circumlocution, but sometimes people here don’t think about these concept much, and so they don’t really understand them well. English, for example, has no generally used word that describes a personality quirk that’s caused by someone’s job. We have no word for getting pleasure from the misfortunes of other people, so we have to use a German word that is part of English, but that most Americans don’t know. This is cultural, because almost no Americans sit around imagining that their lives will be better if someone else’s life gets worse. It’s a relatively unusual emotion here, but in my host country I encountered it every day.

Another thing that can happen is that your own language can change while you’re away. When I left the United States, the S-word and the F-word were much more obscene than the N-word. By the time I got home, the S-word could be used in magazines, and the N-word had become completely taboo for white people to say (blacks continued to use it among themselves). One time I tried to use the N-word in a university classroom to describe two different classes of slaves before the Civil War. When I was in school, we knew that the expressions I used were bad words, but that they were the standard terms for certain slaves’ jobs in the old South during slavery days, so teachers of all races used them. By the time I got back to the US, the N-word had become so obscene that I could not use it in any classroom even to denounce it and describe an injustice!

Another example of this: Once I had to work in a recording studio as a coach for a Czech man who was doing a voiceover for a video. This man had escaped from Czechoslovakia in 1968, and he hated his homeland so much that he didn’t want to go back even for visits, and even after it became free. The text he had to read in the recording booth contained the Czech word “akcion?r”, which means “shareholder”. He wanted to change the word, because he remembered it as almost an insult that was used under communism to describe capitalists. I had to explain to him that it is now the normal term and was not derogatory or insulting.

All in all, my biggest problems upon returning home were not with language, though. I had “gone native” in my host country, so I had a lot of trouble understanding my own people and culture when I returned home, and 11 years later I sometimes still have problems.

Hi Tom

One of my worries during my 17 years in Germany was that German might “creep into” my English. I met two types of native English speakers in Germany: Those who learned to speak German fluently and those who only learned a handful of German words. Among the people who had learned to speak German fluently, some ended up making lots of “typical German mistakes” when speaking English. In other words, some Americans and Brits made errors in English that native speakers normally never make, but are quite typical for Germans to make in English. These mistakes were mainly in vocabulary. (For example, saying “shadow” instead of “shade”, saying “caution” instead of “security deposit”, using the wrong prepostion, etc.) I understand very well how that can happen – I often felt the same effect trying to take hold. That was one of the reasons I spent long vacations in the US every year. Of course, visiting family and friends was also a reason for my visits, but that wasn’t the only reason.

Like Jamie, I also noticed that there are some things for which German has a perfect word and English doesn’t (or vice versa). In those situations, people tend to simply use the most precise word, regardless of the language.

Like Jamie, I used some of my more “advanced” English vocabulary much less often simply because I often found myself speaking to people whose English wasn’t terribly good. However, there are many Germans whose English is excellent and I also had a few British and American friends in Germany, and I naturally wasn’t cautious with my choice of vocabulary with them. So I don’t think any of my vocabulary actually became “dormant”.


A lot of the time this happens not only because the person has learned to speak the language of the host country fluently, but also because you get very tired of explaining what your correct English means, so you start to make foreigner mistakes on purpose just to save yourself aggravation when talking to people whose English is not good.

If you’re in a teaching situation, or some other situation where correctness counts, sometimes you might limit your vocabulary or idioms just to avoid foreigners’ protests that you have made a mistake. The other day, helping out at a German company in the US, I wrote “fiscal 2006”. This is a perfectly normal, correct way of indicating the fiscal year 2006 – one of many correct ways – but because it didn’t have the word “year” in it, the Germans insisted it was “wrong”. I changed it, not because it was wrong, but because Germans would THINK it was wrong, and appearance was more important than correctness for the person writing the document that I was helping with. So, as I said, it’s very common to limit your range of expression just to keep foreign speakers of English off your back.

Hi Jamie

I wasn’t referring to “intentional mistakes”, though I know that happens, too. The errors I was referring to were definitely unintentional mistakes that some native speakers of English made when talking to other native speakers. I mainly noticed this in conversation – when people don’t have as much time as they do when writing to consider what they’re saying.


Hi Jamie (K),

You wrote:

Do you think that’s the right thing to do? Wouldn’t it be fair to teach your students correct, idiomatic English, regardless of their protests?


With hard-headed students I stick to my guns and insist on correct, idiomatic usage. I make some effort to prove to them that they’re wrong and that I’m not making a mistake.

The problem is not the students, but the colleagues. Sometimes they have been conditioned in university English programs in their home countries that English has only one way to say anything, and that if there are two ways, then one of them is either wrong, or else it means something different. They will also believe that certain wrong pronunciations and expressions are right, such as the way many English teachers in a country where I worked insisted that the proper “British” way to pronounce the word “sweater” was “sweeter”. You could show them dictionaries and dictionaries, and they would still insist that the truly correct pronunciation of “sweater” was wrong. Another one happens with some of them when you teach, “I look forward to seeing you.” Many of them will insist this is wrong, and claim that the common mistake, “I look forward to see you,” is correct. You can document it all you want, and they won’t change their opinion. So sometimes you accommodate their bad English just to keep them from hounding you every day.

Make them sign a waiver to the effect that if they’re ever in the US/UK/Canada/Australia (etc.) and are laughed at for improper use of English, they won’t sue you for malpractice.


“I tried to tell you…”

I agree. There is also sort of an internal “company Denglish” in some German companies. It’s next to impossible to eradicate those sorts of errors.

I had a one-to-one course once, and my student made that mistake one day. I corrected him and he was glad to get the information. The next time we met, however, he told me that his German boss had told him that I’d given him totally wrong information and that he should continue to use “look forward to see”. Go figure. :x


One of the problems I run into as a translator is that people insist their names be preceded by titles that simply aren’t used in English, or are comical, or are not even understood.

I try to explain to them that no one understands what “Ing.” means before their names, and that half the English-speakers who look at it will think it’s the abbreviation of their first name, maybe Ignatz or something like that.

Another favorite of mine is when some Europeans with master’s degrees want me to leave the title “Mgr.” in front of their names. They don’t like it when I say that people with master’s degrees are not given a title in English, and they usually don’t believe me when I explain to them that “Mgr.” before a name in English means “Monsignor”.

Hi Jamie, the cases you are describing show how stubborn and narrow minded people can be. I mean, in all honesty if a native speaker, who is a professor of linguistics and has taught English as a second language for years, tells me that the correct phrase is I’m looking forward to seeing you., all I do is think him for telling me. And I would ask my boss why he thinks that I look forward to see you is correct? Even googling would reveal enough evidence as to what is correct in this case. This is a bit like hiring a professional and experienced architect and if he tells me how to design a house I argue that he is wrong because some of my friends told me so. That’s stubbornness at its highest level.[YSaerTTEW443543]

TOEIC listening, question-response: Have you filed all those documents about the accident?[YSaerTTEW443543]

Funny how Jamie seems to attract all kinds of pig-headed (and big-headed) students. I’ve never had to deal with students questioning my knowledge, although they can be challenging in other aspects. Maybe it’s just that Spanish students already expect English to be so illogical, so different to the language they are used to that they don’t so much as raise an eyebrow at phrases like ‘look forward to + -ing’. Their attitude is a bit like: ‘the weirder it is, the more it sounds like English’.

That doesn’t mean that they don’t comment on it (?qu? raro es el ingl?s!) – their peaceful acceptance of English idiosyncrasies doesn’t go without one or two vivid and colourful pieces of their mind!

Don’t get the impression that that’s the only type of student I get. It’s just that I see that type of student frequently, but most of my students are quite cooperative. Some of the ones who argue with me so bitterly walk away, hear in their environment that what I told them was true, and after about a week they’ve come over to my side.

Part of it may be that people feel free to argue with me, and they don’t feel free to “test” other instructors.

The funny thing is that the students who are on the corporate CEO level – students who have come over to run an entire division of a large company – are never crazy and resistant like that. They’re usually quite humble about their language knowledge and accept what I tell them. It’s little pip-squeaks who give me the trouble.

Oh, c’mon! SPANISH students think ENGLISH is illogical?!

Their native language is a supremely illogical one where people say: [color=blue]“I gave him the book to him.” In Spanish you say, [color=blue]“I saw the house,” but you have to say, [color=blue]“I saw to the man.” And, of course, you can say, [color=blue]“To that man I saw him,” which just means, “I saw that man.” In Spanish, I know a city, but I have to know to a person. Not only that, but do and make are only one word in Spanish, so if someone says, [color=blue]“Lo hace ahora,” you don’t know if he’s making something (producing it) or just doing something that has no result. Spanish uses the same word for “his”, “her”, “your” and “y’all’s”, so sometimes people can’t tell who is being talked about. I’ve seen situations where native Spanish speakers have had to argue about whether “su” referred to a doctor (his) or a patient (your), and you also couldn’t tell from the sentence whether the doctor was a man or a woman, even though in Spanish everything has a gender, including a rock. And last I looked, rocks don’t have genitalia and can’t produce baby rocks.

I could write a whole catalogue of things that are illogical and downright weird in Spanish. It’s much worse than French or Italian, or even Russian. That language is a real torment, in my opinion.

That’s right, Torsten. In the case I described, my student definitely believed me about this point. I reinforced the correct usage when he told me what his boss had said and suggested additional sources that would also confirm it. One of his boss’s comments had been something like “I’ve never seen it that way so using the -ing ending is wrong.” And that probably had an element of truth to it. It’s a mistake that is made so often that his boss had probably seen the incorrect version in countless E-mails written by non-native speakers. So, in his mind, that was the “standard”.

Most of my students weren’t that stubborn, but there were definitely more than one or two. Many people make “habitual errors” – errors that they’ve been making for years. Convincing someone that an error they make habitually is actually an error is sometimes quite an uphill battle for a teacher, especially so when the person is particularly stubborn.


Hi Torsten,

You said:

Well, anyone is capable of making mistakes, and I suppose this extends to lecturers in the field of linguistics and ESL (not to mention native speakers which is quite a heterogeneous group). It is important to question all the information you get.



You say ‘question all the information you get’ - that could be a recipe for chaos in a large class, don’t you think?


That’s a classic, my dear Jamie! Not many people think that their language is illogical or more so than others, do they?

We almost never have to say it like that, for the simple reason that, if we use a pronoun, we already know who we are talking about. Only if, for some reason, we need to emphasise that it was him I gave it to, would we add ‘to him’ – the same goes for French, for instance, since the pronoun ‘lui’ applies to both genders. This also applies to the possessive pronoun ‘su’ you mentioned. It’s probably one of those grammar book examples that are hardly ever used in real life, like all those ever-present, awkwardly sounding passive sentences in English exercises, which nobody really uses (to give but one example).

Another bad example, I’m afraid: we wouldn’t say ‘lo hace ahora’ without any previous context, so when we say or hear this sentence, we know what it means. Since we’re at it, I can’t let the confusing pair ‘do’ and ‘make’ pass – now, don’t tell me there is any logic in the use of those two major hurdles of the English language!

That’s a joke – in fact, I’m sure this comes from one! In a real life situation, there couldn’t possibly be any confusion. Now, that really is far-fetched! By the way, we have ‘doctor’ and ‘doctora’, what could be more logical than that?

Hey, Spanish rocks.

We are not talking about a scientific issue but a commonly used construction (looking forward to + gerund). Can you give me any reason why I should think Jamie (K) or Amy wouldn’t know what is correct? What’s more, if they were uncertain, would they tell me that this is the correct phrase or would they say something like Let me look the information up for you? Also, if for some reason I don’t believe my trainer, I can find the answer somewhere else. At any rate I wouldn’t make a fool of myself by claiming the English trainer who was hired by me or my employer is wrong. If I thought I know it better than them, why should I hire them in the first place? It’s like hiring a tennis trainer and then telling him he can’t play tennis properly let alone teach me.[YSaerTTEW443543]

TOEIC listening, question-response: Do you think anyone can make a living out of simply writing books?[YSaerTTEW443543]