Our “Mother Tongue”: Keeping it Fresh in a Foreign Land

By Helen Eby

Estemed friends,

Old LettersIt seems to make much time that I don’t write to you.—Ramón, in “Ramón Writes,” an Argentine column published by the Buenos Aires Herald every two weeks, as a humorous take on Argentine Spanglish. Ramón had trouble saying such simple things as “It’s been a long time since I’ve written to you.” Today, we laugh at Google Translate instead.

Keeping our mother tongue fresh is a complex issue. My mother is Argentine and spoke Spanish to me as a child. Then, I moved to Argentina when I was eight. Even in Argentina, when I was graduating from college, my teachers sometimes told me that my English had a subtle effect on my Spanish writing!

Those of us who speak more than one language live in an intertidal zone where languages meet. We live where languages are constantly in contact. Sometimes new terms are created because we can’t find a term for something that is hard to say in the other language. When that happens, how do we avoid becoming “Ramón”?

Everyone grows up with a mother tongue. It is an accident of birth. We love it. We speak it at home. We read it, go to school in it, study it, sing in it, live in it. Some people pick up a second language. Then we move. Sometimes our moves are planned, and sometimes they are for reasons beyond our control.. Regardless, we are uprooted and transplanted into another culture. We move into the land of our second language.

I have two mother tongues, and as a translator and interpreter I use them both constantly. With two languages in constant contact, how do I keep them from “corrupting” each other?


If you are uprooted from the land of your mother tongue, take your books! I have met so many people who miss their books! My favorite? Don Segundo Sombra, by Ricardo Güiraldes. It takes me right back to my uncle’s estancia, where I learned how to ride a horse.

Read the newspaper: The paper talks about all kinds of things: politics, science, life, the comics, letters to the editors. In Argentina, it even includes foul language. But I’m using too much Argentine Spanish for a Mexican audience, so I’d better start reading a Mexican paper! Excelsior is on my list.

Read literature: Novels, short stories, poems. Every time I travel I load a small suitcase with books. I can’t find them in the US, so I buy them wherever I go. Literature talks about life. Reading keeps me using the language well. It spills into my conversation and my writing.

Read about the language: There are articles about language in the newspaper. Read them, think about them. Share and discuss them with colleagues. Argue about the use of certain words. Fight about it! It’s OK, it’s a topic about which you both care! And right now, I’m reading grammar books! Gramática didáctica del español, by Leonardo Gómez Torrego. You can’t find my favorites on Amazon. I shop on Iberlibro.com.


I love interpreting! I get to experience both my languages in action! As a medical interpreter who also translates documents for a local hospital, I interpret for patients who read the same documents I translate! This helps me know exactly who my audience is and what will help them understand the material better. The words they are confused by in an interpreting session will confuse them in a translation. It makes my translations come alive in many ways.

Working with a colleague

I work with a partner and we review each other’s work. Just recently I learned that “reintegro,” which I thought meant “reimbursement”, actually has a different meaning in Mexico: it is a “lottery payment for the exact money you paid for your ticket!” My word for reimbursement is now “reembolso.”

I am an interpreter and a translator. I can’t afford to lose my edge on the spoken or the written front in either of my two languages. Then again, these languages are too close to my soul to be able to bear it.

As interpreters and translators, we are expressing a message. We can be like mechanical musicians, like the ones who get all the notes just right, with the right rhythm, and the right intonation, but somehow are just boring. As my daughter’s viola teacher would sometimes tell her, while she played a scale, “You couldn’t pay me enough to listen to that!”

Our goal, however, is to be “real” musicians, like the orchestras people line up to hear because their ensemble is so amazing that they can play the most difficult pieces in a way that speaks to our souls. These orchestras, as they play, transport you to a place of joy, of rest, of discord, of whatever the music is.

What makes these musicians special? They certainly work on their technique! However, they haven’t lost their love for music. They listen to other people’s performances, they play with friends for fun. We should be this way with languages. We should be very particular about our technique, without losing our love for our languages. So, here are my closing tips:

  • Write letters to your friends in both languages.
  • Call your friends on the phone, and just chat with them in both languages.
  • Join a book club. You don’t all have to read the same book. You can even start one!
  • Join a Toastmasters club in the language you don’t get to speak every day.
  • Start a local “language sharpening group” where you critique each other’s writing in each language.

As Ramón might say, “Until Miami, I salute you, hoping always that the things will go well with you.”

“I look forward to seeing you at the ATA conference in November, and trust that all will be well with you.” Translated from “Ramón” to English by David Eby, whose English is uninfluenced by any other language.

About heleneby

Helen Eby grew up in Argentina, the land of the gauchos. She is certified as an English Spanish translator by ATA and as a Spanish interpreter by the Oregon Judicial Department and by the Oregon Health Authority. She co-founded The Savvy Newcomer and the ¡Al rescate del español! blogs, both of which are team efforts to provide resources for other language professionals. She is also a founding board member of the Spanish Editors Association.

11 thoughts on “Our “Mother Tongue”: Keeping it Fresh in a Foreign Land

  1. Thank you Helen, for these lovely insights, plus the numerous tips which I can corroborate. I have been bilingual and bi-cultural from very early childhood and part of me would die if my French died, and ditto with English if the tables were turned and I lived in a French-speaking country.

      • I did the same in Brussels some decades ago, Helen. In fact we performed one of Peter Ustinov’s plays and were able to meet him at the after-party!

  2. Thanks for sharing Helen. My native language is most definitely English, but I have been speaking Spanish since I was five and have had non-stop contact with the language my whole life. I’m currently living in Spain and working as a translator, and as the years go by I find that my Spanish is increasingly corrupting my English. It can be very frustrating for me and hard for my American friends and family to understand that I could ever forget the word for something in my native language…

    • Molly, glad to help! You may want to join an American book club, an expat drama club, or some other kind of group. In Buenos Aires, the Lincoln Library was a great place to go way back when. It was sponsored by the American Consulate. It’s good to immerse yourself in the local culture, but it’s also OK to take a breath of where you grew up and enjoy that on a regular basis. Call it “professional development” if you have to. What’s available in your city? Could you connect with some American expats and start a drama reading club? Maybe read plays for an audience? They’d love it! You get together and practice a few times to get it straight and discuss it, and then you get to set up a basic set, rent a room, and run the play in a very basic format. That could be cool! Just another creative way to keep it real. And you’d be forced to keep the accent, the whole thing real.

      • These all sound like great ideas! I live in a relatively small city here, and most Americans are here for temporary, 1 year stays (study abroad programs and 1 year teaching assistant programs). As for true, real expats, there are about four of us. But, you’re right. I could spark an expat night, even if its just for drinks and a little native English speaking. Sounds like a great idea!

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  4. I am a German native speaker living in the UK. As the 2 countries are not that far away from each other, I visit Germany regularly and bring back books and DVDs. Recently, I started watching recorded German TV on you tube and got through quite a lot of Tatorts (Tatorte?) already.

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