Apparently, there are words I still don’t know in English. Like apron.

Vyertolyet - or wooden helicopter toy - a word I often forget in English

I forgot the word for helicopter the other day. For the rotor, actually. And I didn’t forget so much as remember it in the wrong language. My brain froze up and then offered me nothing but a very Russian “vyertolyot“.

The end result is that I have a toddler who will never know what those non-airplane things in the sky are called.

I actually have a few words that I repeatedly forget in English. Brain blank, frozen, empty. The words just vanish. I literally have to translate in my head, because my brain is stuck on a repeat loop: “vyertolyot-vyertolyot-vyertolyot“.

Let me be clear – I’m not talking about some wonderfully Russian insult that just doesn’t translate properly into English. I’m talking about basic nouns.

The most common words I consistently forget in English?


And teddy bear.

And apparently now helicopter.

I should point out that I have the Russian of a 10-year-old. A 12-year-old on a good day. People laugh at my Russian accent, if that tells you anything. Since I was about six, I’ve spoken English almost exclusively, even with my parents. So it’s a lot strange to find my brain hijacked by words. Or a lack thereof.

When I was 15, I worked at the local JCC day camp. It was just after the Soviet collapse, so we had lots of confused, new Russian kids. Someone remembered that I knew Russian, and I was called in to translate for a parent whose child was being kicked out. I explained everything until I got to the why – he’d been kicking and punching other kids. That time, it was my Russian that had failed me – those weren’t words that I’d ever learned at home. We ended up miming it out.

These days, I actually can understand a lot more – most of my interviews on the immigration are in Russian – but you get the idea. I don’t exactly consider myself anything like a native speaker. And yet, still subject to sneak attacks from some language nether regions of my brain. At least I know that when I’m old and doddering, aprons and teddy bears will be the first part of my vocabulary to go.

I know everyone has their own weird language moments – the leftovers of youth or childhood, that pop up on occasion, long after even your dreams have switched languages. Or perhaps ones that crop up to remind you that you knew some other language first before English.

So, today I’m asking you to please share – what are your language tongue twisters and stumbling blocks?

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  1. Annie on March 13, 2012 at 12:06 am

    When I was younger, I would also speak in a mix of Mandarin and English. My parents would tease me and it was a bit embarrassing. Since I speak in mainly English and think in mostly English, I always think of the Mandarin words for “fan” and “garlic” first. Not sure why, but interesting nevertheless.

    • Lea Zeltserman on March 13, 2012 at 10:03 pm

      It must be some remnants of childhood that we’ve got going on – because when else do we learn such words. Incidentally, in my first few days at a Canadian daycare, I came home speaking Mandarin, because that’s what the other kids were speaking!

  2. Rachel on March 13, 2012 at 1:49 pm

    The older I get, the harder it is for me to unearth those latent Russian words in my vocabulary. The scary thing? I’m only 26. Yet, I think, read, write and mainly speak English. What do you do to get a language “back?” What are your thoughts on this?

  3. Anna Tarkov on March 13, 2012 at 2:48 pm

    The same exact thing happens to me though I can’t think of specific words now. It’s totally inexplicable because my English is definitely stronger than my Russian (I was 8 when we left and am 31 now). I bet a neuroscientist could explain this to us.

    • Lea Zeltserman on March 13, 2012 at 10:06 pm

      Or a linguist. I was even younger than you – not even two – but still the same issues. I also wonder if it would be harder now to maintain an all-Russian (or any non-English language) environment for a child b/c we have so much more of the external world, and external media, coming into our homes now.

  4. thebookmistress on March 13, 2012 at 3:43 pm

    It *is* weird. I think maybe other people just blank on certain words and leave it at that. We have another language to fall back on. I forgot the word for “paperclip” the other day and my brain went straight to “trombone”, which is French and a language I can no longer reliably order a coffee in.

    • Lea Zeltserman on March 13, 2012 at 10:08 pm

      I hadn’t thought of it that way. But now I’m remembering how I used to get my Russian and Hebrew mixed up when I was in Israel, so makes some sense that our mind just supplies whatever is available to it to fill in the blanks.

  5. slim's tuna provider on April 18, 2012 at 5:56 pm

    i don’t have word lapses, by i have a lot of trouble with english in an accent i am not used to. it usually takes me till the middle of a movie with irish, british, or australian speakers to start fully understanding, whereas my girlfriend takes seconds to adjust. the only exception is really snooty british (think emma thompson), but even then if it’s too plummy i struggle.

  6. kc on July 12, 2012 at 12:04 am

    In moving from the prairies to Quebec City, where the “falaise” is the defining landmark in town, I now experience a total blank whenever I want to say “cliff” in English. We laugh that it’s because I never once had to use that word growing up in Alberta.

    • Lea Zeltserman on July 12, 2012 at 8:58 am

      Yep, not many cliffs at all! Very funny!