Do I still speak English?

Maybe it’s a good thing that I don’t plan on teaching English much longer because I have been forgetting my own language. In my vocabulary classes, the students basically work for 90 minutes straight on learning new words and how to use them properly. They have to answer questions and write paragraphs and record themselves talking spontaneously while I listen, read and correct constantly. Except sometimes I don’t remember what we say in English because I’ve gotten so used to my students’ mistakes that I tend to just translate literally from French into English just like them.

Now I have doubts about what people actually say in my native language. When describing a picture, is it normal to start with We can see instead of just saying There is/are? I know French loves to use on all the time, so whenever I hear my students start a sentence with we, I wonder if it’s correct. Like when they say We are five instead of there are five of us when talking about how many people are present in a group. We are five is still awkward in English, right? And how about firstly? Is it normal to say that instead of just first?


Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: mdid

Just this past week, almost everyone began their sentences about household chores with It’s my mother who… or It’s my father who + verb. In English,we’d simply say My mother or father + verb… Are there any cases in English where this weird it’s my [person] who is possible?  I’m thinking this is just a literal translation mistake, but perhaps other native speakers who aren’t losing their language can verify it?

And for British English speakers, is to take a decision really possible? In American English that is so wrong and of course my students want to use the verb take since it’s prendre une décision in French. I think I’ve heard that take a decision is possible in formal British English, but not so common in everyday speech. How about to take breakfast? Once again it’s prendre with meals or food in French, so I think  it’s just a mistake that all of my students make, but with the British English differences, I’m not so sure…

I’d really like to know why every single student says come back at home instead of come home or practice sport instead of play sports when they’ve been learning English for 7 or 8 years already. Do middle and high school classes just not teach proper phrase constructions? Or do students really think they can just translate word for word and it will work perfectly in another language?

I’d say that I’m 50% angry that students constantly make the same mistakes over and over and I have no idea how to make them learn the correct constructions, and 50% angry that they are making me doubt my ability to speak English. I actually said practice a sport the other day and I was so mad at myself for letting their mistakes influence me.

At least when pronunciation is concerned it’s a different story. I may have trouble with grammar sometimes, but I know without a doubt when a word is pronounced wrong. I almost laughed out loud when a student said “I don’t like to sleep in dirty sheets” but she pronounced sheets with the short [ɪ] vowel. I don’t think anyone would like sleeping in that.

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  • http://chaunoise.blogspot.com/ Shannon

    I think “practice sport” is correct in British English or at least something along those lines. I hear sport more often in the singular than the plural when listening to the BBC and such. I had asked Roxy about “to take a decision” and she said that didn't work. Though as she's Northern Irish, it's still not pure British English.

    I currently speak and write a very weird English contaminated by French, British, and my students and Claude.

  • http://www.gwannelsandiego.blogspot.com/ Gwan

    I used to roll my eyes a bit when my ex-flatmate (who was living in NZ but with her French bf amongst others) would complain about losing her English and while I do kinda think she was exaggerating for effect (I mean, she lived in an English-speaking country and spoke it every day), I think it's normal to get a little bit shaky on some things. I have a prepa class that's all about translating basically, and they're constantly asking 'can you say this or that' and I often hesitate, not so much from the French influence I think but because the moment I start thinking about it I lose the 'natural' response.
    Just today I had a student pronounce 'cheat' just like the s word (or at least how French people say it), in a sentence where it would have kinda made sense (e.g. he's a cheat or something like that) so I just looked at her for a second with my mouth open before we both realised what had happened! Probably an effective way to learn the correct pronunciation!

  • http://nzgirl-infrance.blogspot.com/ Kim

    In the Lycée where I teach there are only French English teachers and I notice in most classes that the teachers themselves are making mistakes when teaching the students. Is this why they make these mistakes? My friends are PhD students in the sciences and have really good English but still make the same mistakes you are discribing. All of my students say “we can see..” when describing a cartoon or a picture which makes me wonder is this how they are taught or is this direct translation from French? It seems very practiced when they describe these pictures.

    I've become immune to the way my friends speak and rarely correct them anymore, I understand and we move on. But, I do notice that now I speak english like them, my sentences are constructed the same and it sounds weird to my british boy. My accent is definitely not as strong and I struggle to find words when speaking to other English speakers. A Welsh friend comments that I speak to him in English as if he is stupid! And as for your questions on what sounds right, I'm having trouble remembering now, students ask me if this is right and I struggle to remember.

  • kayers

    First of all, “firstly” never sounds right to me either! I've also heard people say “in the first time” or “in the first one.” Where in the world does that come from?

    I'm in primary schools and my most recent English crisis was “my favorite food is…” because it sounds okay with chicken, but not with banana. Do we make it “My favorite food are bananas?” Or just never say that and just say “I love bananas?”

  • http://pandainparis.wordpress.com/ Amanda

    In other describe-the-cartoon-for-the-bac-is-this-actually-right observations (along with 'we can see…') is using “first ground” instead of “foreground” and “second ground” to mean…the middle? The teachers do this too and I've never heard it in my life.

  • Emmy

    us brits use to make a decision and to have breakfast. yuck to firstly but I have started saying it too. I grieve for the loss of my English but I know I'm not alaone!!

  • http://www.gwannelsandiego.blogspot.com/ Gwan

    Really? Firstly is completely normal as far as I'm concerned! I never noticed 'we can see' as being unusual before, but you're right they do all say it and I think they must be taught it, because they ALWAYS say “So. Zees document is a _____ taken from a quality British newspaper. We can see_____”

  • http://www.boeingbleudemer.com/ Cynthia

    From what I've gathered from my classmates, English classes, even in universities are very poor.

    I know that for my part I've taken the French accent when speaking English but oddly not when speaking French. Fortunately, I'll be spending a month in the US so I'm hoping I'll return to speaking “normal” English.

  • Francis

    Lol@the last two sentences.

    As a Brit, personally I'd never say 'take a decision', in formal or informal circumstances. *shrugs* It sounds wrong, so it probably is.

    And what's wrong with 'firstly'?!

  • dedene

    I wind up saying “obliged” all of the time instead of “have to” or “must”. Arghh! I would probably not say “firstly”. I'm not sure about the “it's my mom who”.

    One of the beauties of YouTube and the Internet is to stay up to date on current US terms.

  • http://ausoleillevant.blogspot.com/ Soleil

    “We can see” makes me think of an art history class where you're looking at slides of statues and paintings. Makes sense there but not so much in other contexts.

    The only other one that makes a little sense to me is “take breakfast.” I can imagine someone from one of Jane Austen's novels saying “shall we take breakfast?” but that would make it an antiquated form. Kind of like when I saw another elementary school English teacher's dialog slides and he had one of the characters saying “good morning my boy!” I always like to start my English lessons with a trip back in time to the days of Dickens, don't you?

    I think the quality of English education in France is just that poor that the teachers don't know enough to teach the students the correct sentence construction. Or they are too lazy.

  • Anne

    Je suis déçue par ce que je lis ici ! Quel mépris, quelle prétention chez certains! Quelle manque d'ouverture et de générosité ! Vous savez, quand nous entendons certains anglophones parler français, nous trouvons aussi tout un tas de fautes que vous êtes les seuls à faire, derrière lesquelles on discerne votre anglais… Ce qui me peine, c'est de penser que vous êtes censés faire aimer votre langue, la partager avec le pays qui vous accueille et qu'au fond, on a l'impression que certains d'entre vous n'aiment ni la France, ni les Français et n'expriment que de la frustration… Apprendre et enseigner une langue, ce n'est pas avoir cet état d'esprit à mon humble avis !

  • http://www.correresmidestino.com/ Zhu

    I feel the same – I'm losing my French!

    Even anglophones in Ottawa say “to take a decision' because of the French influence. I can't tell whether I'm doing a bad translation or whether something is the true French idiom. I keep on saying “je suis une traductrice” instead of “je suis traductrice”.

  • L

    Yay for changing your server! I can finally come back to your site and leave comments! I just had 404 errors, even though the RSS worked for 6 or 9 months.

    As for losing your native language, I think it's “normal”. My husband even sometimes makes mistakes in French because he's so used to hearing me say something in a particular (incorrect) way. Language is so much repeating what you hear around you, that if you hear mistakes often enough, they'll start sounding normal to you. After all, what you consider “correct” English is what you've heard often from native speakers, so through time that changes as people hear other people around them saying things differently.

    And for the repeated mistakes, I think it's a mix of students not being as dedicated to memorizing corrections as they would be if they were living in an Anglophone country where not making mistakes is more important (for the sake of being understood), and the lack of correct feedback from teachers in middle and high school. My husband talks about his high school English classes that had 30 students, and it's pretty to have time for everyone to talk and also get feedback for their mistakes. The students probably haven't been in a stressful situation where they had to be sure the other person understood what they were saying and also had to be sure they understood the other person. When you have a direct consequence for your language skills (ie lack of understanding) you start studying some more.

  • L

    Food is uncountable, so no “are”. My favorite food is bananas is probably the most correct.

  • http://nzgirl-infrance.blogspot.com/ Kim

    haha, I always say “obliged” too! and I also say “propose” when asking friends to meet up for a drink later. I think that “firstly” sounds ok, I think I say it. Also I've never heard “moreover” said so much as in France.

  • kathy

    I think that 'we can see' would make sense in a way. For example, in school when the teachers were teaching lessons and explaining something they would say, 'we can see that so and so happened because of this' but in the case of your students it does sound a bit… off. If someone said, 'We are five' I would assume I was talking to a group of five year olds telling me their age. I can probably make room for one instance in where my [person] who is possible. For example, if I were in an argument with my dad I could say, 'It is my mom who does all of the chores around here!'. Or perhaps that sentence is wrong as well and I only said because Spanish also uses the whole who thing instead of going straight to the verb. Oh, I am so confused now. As for firstly, it sounds completely wrong to me. Most teachers will say it is unacceptable grammar but it has actually been deemed as acceptable by some references. I think it is a case of style in this instance since there is no language academy and everybody disagrees with each other. I however, would avoid using the term and stick to first but then again, I haven't even gone to university yet and don't have a degree to back up my claims.

  • Nancy

    I've only just found this site, but am happy to hear others are having the same problems. I've been here for 13 years and do questions my command of my own language. However, I'm very clear on the “we can see” issue: it can be used looking at paintings or in scientific experiments. In other words, very rarely. We see (if “we” absolutely must say that) should be the norm. And yes, sadly, they are taught it, it's part of the bac. Firstly, no, unless one wants to impress others with one's pompousness, although secondly is OK. Yes, we make decisions, we don't take them. We don't say “it's” anything besides “it's mine!”. Practice is OK if you're actually practicing, like for a meet or a competition or a concert, but we do say “I've got practice this afternoon” if it's on the football team or something…right? And I must say I think that Anne is off-base and doesn't understand. Quite possibly Americans and Brits teach antiquated or just plain wrong French phrases (I learned “n'est ce pas?” which no EVER says, and “Quelle heure est-il?” which had people looking at me as if I was a martian when I first got here), but we aren't snobs about it and insist that the native speaker doesn't know the proper language, as the Education Nationale obviously does. Anyway, we all make mistakes.

  • Laura

    Hi Jennie.  I work for an EFL textbook publishing company and have had to “Americanize”  and “British-ize” books.  I’ve come across this dilemma with sports before and my British colleagues say that “practise sport” is the correct form in British English.  We print our American English editions with “play sports.”  There are many other differences that surprised me at first, but now seem normal, like “I live in Green Street”, “What are you doing at the weekend?”, and “I’m going to have a shower.” 

    About the language thing–after living abroad and having friends with a variety of mother tongues–I can only call my English “International” now that I’ve picked up (unintentionally) so many British ways of speaking, including my question-asking intonation.  This is not to mention all EFL phrases I catch myself blurting out including: “Make me a call” and “Close the light.”  

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mary-W-Lukens-Goodson/100000194585042 Mary W. Lukens Goodson

    Wow dude, you need to chill out! I’ve actually heard native English speakers use ALL of those phrases, and recently. Not just from books, and never from non-native speakers.

    There are regional variations as well as country variations. My New Zealand relatives say “play sport” too, so that’s ok. We know what is meant by the term.

    The whole point of learning a language is to be able to communicate. If someone says they play sport, I can figure it out. Really, I can. Get a grip. Have a glass (or 10) of wine and go get a massage or something.

  • alice

    I can very much identify with this, having been an expat in several countries, and at times suffered deterioration in my native English. In answer to your questions, they are all wrong. You have breakfast, make a decision, there are five of us, etc, etc. No-one says firstly, maybe first of all. Much as it is nice to learn other languages, your mother tongue is your most important language. (I have met people who by force of unfortunate circumstance, no longer have any language in which they feel completely comfortable.) And not only has my language been affected by other languages, especially Japanese and French, but it has also been Americanised. My solution has been to watch some quality British TV (aka Inspector Morse).

    My favourite bugbear regarding the American language, is that they don’t use the word neither, but say, “both of us don’t know”, when it should be “neither of us know”. Can anyone explain what’s up with that? And so many American talkbackers write “your” instead of “you’re” that I’m beginning to think that they really don’t know the difference. Ditto for “should of” instead of “should have”.

Why is Jennie no longer in France?

I created this blog in September 2006 when I moved to France from Michigan to teach English. Many of the earlier posts are about my personal life in France, dealing with culture shock, traveling in Europe and becoming fluent in French. In July 2011, I relocated to Australia to start my PhD in Applied Linguistics. Although I am no longer living in France, my research is on foreign language pedagogy and I teach French at a university so these themes appear most often on the blog. I also continue to post about traveling and being an American abroad.

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