Maintaining your native language

Tips For Maintaining Your Native Language As An Expat Translator

Hang on, did you say your native language?

You mean your second language, right? I mean, how could you possibly forget your mother tongue?

Much as the thought might sound, well, foreign, to anyone who’s never experienced it, I’m sure lots of you linguists out there will know exactly what I’m talking about here.

If you live your life in a different country, totally immersed in that country’s language, then your native language can start to suffer without you even realising it.

It’s a bit of a paradox, really.

I mean, I spent years of my life doing everything I could to focus on learning other languages, never once thinking that the learning process would ever have any effect on my English.

Okay, but why does maintaining your native language matter so much when you’re a translator?

Those that haven’t ever explored the world of translation are often under the impression that what really matters is being awesome at your second or third language, not your native one.

I often get contacted about translating from English to Spanish or Portuguese, when I only ever translate into my native language.

There are, of course, translators out there who were raised with two native languages and translate in both directions, but a professional will normally only translate one way.

After all, as good as my Spanish might get and as long as I might spend living in Spain, I’m never going to acquire the depth of understanding of the culture and language that I’d need to translate into Spanish, because I wasn’t born, raised and educated here.

As I’m only translating into English, then it makes sense that to be a good translator I have to be a bloody good writer.

Whilst this doesn’t apply as much in the case of more technical translators (legal, medical), who have to be experts on relevant vocabulary and don’t have to craft beautiful sentences, creative translators trade on their way with words in their native language.

That’s one of the main reasons why copywriting and translating go so beautifully together.

Maintaining your native language - Katie in Spain

How can you tell if it’s slipping?

In 2018 I was speaking very little English, and it got to a point where I was noticing that when I had a visitor from home or was on the phone to someone, my English wasn’t flowing like it normally does.

I was getting tongue-tied, and confusing Spanish idioms with English ones, and literally translating Spanish phrases into my English speech.

It was also starting to slip into my work.

Whilst my copywriting skills stayed the same as I was flexing that muscle every day, when it came to translation, I was finding that I’d occasionally literally translate words or phrases that would make perfect sense in my head.

I’d only pick up on them when I got Word to read my work back to me out loud.

That was when I realised that, if I was going to live abroad long term, I’d have to make a conscious effort to work on my English skills.

If you’ve ever had the same problem, read on for a few of the tips and tricks I’ve adopted to help.

Easy tips for keeping up your native language

  • Never stop reading

I spent years trying to force myself to read in Spanish and Portuguese, but there have been few books that have really been able to capture my imagination. (Apart from Dime Quien Soy by Julia Navarra, if you’re interested!).

Now I’m living out here, I make a point of reading in English. Read a wide variety of books, from classics to today’s zeitgeisty best sellers.

There’s a second-hand book shop in Granada, but I also stock up on plenty of books in charity shops when I’m back in the UK.

Whether you’re working your way through the classics or just reading Penny Vicenzi’s back catalogue, it really doesn’t matter. Just read.

  • Keep up with the news

I have a terrible tendency to hole up in my cave and ignore the outside world, but I try and read the news both for the sake of my English and to be a functioning member of society.

Make a point of seeking out good news, as well as the inevitable bad stuff.

  • Keep up with pop culture

The low brow stuff is just as important as the high brow. If you want to write well in your native language and really know your market, you need to know what’s going on culturally and keep up emerging cultural references.

Don’t be ashamed about indulging in a bit of Love Island or the latest Netflix series everyone’s talking about. If anyone asks, call it market research.

  • Podcasts

If you haven’t discovered the joys of podcasts yet, then it’s about time. I’ve literally been living in a cave and I have, so you have no excuse.

I listen to podcasts whenever I’m cooking, cleaning, walking or even doing mindless translation work or admin.

A few of my favourites are The High Low, Griefcast, The Modern Mann, The Guilty Feminist and Being Freelance, but check out the ‘Listening’ highlight on my Instagram page if you’d like any more recommendations, and ask your friends.

  • Audiobooks

When you’ve run out of podcasts to listen to, there’s nothing better than a 15-hour audiobook (Becoming by Michelle Obama – couldn’t recommend it more highly) to get stuck into.

I prefer to read my fiction and listen to my non-fiction, as it doesn’t matter so much if you zone in and out of a non-fiction book.

I’ve got an Audible monthly subscription, which makes audiobook listening a lot more affordable.

  • Journalling

Use your words. Write something down every day, or every week. Make sure you still know how to use a pen, what with all that screen time. Express yourself. Get creative. Write a poem.

  • Ring your friends

Skype your best friend from school. Ring your friend from university. Talk to your mum.

Maintaining your native language is a very small part of why you should be making an effort with all the people who are special to you back home, but if you need a push to be better about keeping in touch, consider this it.

  • Go home

The beauty of working as freelance translators is (in case you hadn’t noticed) that we can work from absolutely anywhere. So go home, as often as you can.

If it’s at all feasible (for example, if you’re from one European country and live in another, you don’t have any little people or furry coworkers relying on you, etc etc), then take advantage of the fact that you can work as you travel to take the train or the ferry, rather than flying, so your trips home don’t do too much damage to the planet.

Have I missed anything? As a translator, do you consciously work on your skills in your native language, as well as your foreign languages? I’d love to hear from you.

4 thoughts on “Tips For Maintaining Your Native Language As An Expat Translator

  1. Reply

    […] As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big believer that keeping up with pop culture is a massive part of studying or maintaining a language. […]

  2. Reply

    […] two years so my Spanish takes care of itself, but I currently need to make a conscious effort to maintain my native English, as I’ve talked about […]

  3. Reply

    […] I see the same issues cropping up again and again, both in native speakers of English and those who speak incredible English, but not as their mother tongue. […]

  4. Reply

    […] native language isn’t decided by your name, or your passport, or even where you were […]

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