Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Mixed Messages

Natalie Hunter is not Keith, but rather a guest blogger. She grew up wanting to be a teacher, and is addicted to learning and research. As a result she is grateful for the invention of the Internet because it allows her to spend some time outside, rather than just poring through books in a library. She is fascinated by the different methodologies for education at large today, and particularly by the advent of online education. She also loves to travel and learn via interaction with other people and cultures.

I've been learning new languages all my life. English is supposedly my native language, but it took me years to learn it well enough to speak it. In the years after becoming better at English I took many other languages in the hopes that I would find one I could more easily express myself in. Several of these languages I took very seriously, never really bothering with things like online school but instead traveling to places where they were the dominant language with hardly a word in my memory bank to assist me once I got there. It took me three months in Taiwan to learn how to ask where the bathroom is!

switching circuits by Ryan Somma
One side effect of this sort of learning I'm sure many people have experienced is mixing up my languages. I have terrible dreams where I'm speaking a mixture of Japanese and Chinese to try and interact with someone speaking some unintelligible mishmash of gibberish interspersed with Mongolian. In daily life I will often catch myself before using the wrong term in whatever language I am speaking, and then spend an awkward moment fumbling for the correct word, even in English. Very rarely I won't catch myself among my monolingual friends, which can be embarrassing although they all say they enjoy learning from me.

This sort of mixed speech, when deliberately done, is called code-switching when spoken and macaronic language when written.

These are both often used for an intentional effect, like humor (if you've ever listened to Carmina Burana or read a translation, you'll know what I'm talking about), but more often code-switching happens because of context, such as speaking German at home with your family or speaking English in the workplace. The term implies that each language exists in its own separate code, and that to use one or another of them some sort of switch must be flipped. Most studies of code-switching work from this assumption, but from my own experience (and stories of being raised bilingual that I have read) I wonder if there isn't something else at work.

Especially when you're doing something like the TV method or other forms of intensive language learning, words in other languages just become a part of one's vocabulary, much as loanwords might. There are analogues in one's native language of course, but there is a subtle difference in meaning in words from a non-native language that may be preferable in certain situations. For example, there are times I'd much rather say 萬 than plethora, mum instead of 母, or glubere instead of... well, you can look that one up yourself, it's from a famous poem of Caelius'.

It's all a matter of context and inherent meaning. Maybe this is just me, but even the onomatopoetic quality of a word is important for me to decide what word I am most drawn to using to express something in particular. Like in the case of mum versus 母, I feel like the sound of the word mum is a little more respectful when I'm talking about my own mother than saying “haha.” Of course the influence of a sound on a words meaning is almost entirely subjective, and this may be evidenced by the fact that I think using the word 母親 is the most respectful way there is to talk about your mother, and that almost certainly relies solely on the context in which I learnt that word.

In any case, I do not think that the issue at hand is one of having separate boxes for the languages one learns. Perhaps that is true in the case of people who do not do such intensive learning, but for folks like me it is more of a matter of having a much, much larger vocabulary to choose from. If we aren't looking up words in a dictionary and are instead learning them in context, then they just become part of how we think and express ourselves. With so many words to choose from, we have a lot more finely tuned control over that expression, although with my memory I sometimes prioritize remembering one term over another regardless of language.

This is just an observation of how I interact with language, however. I was told once by a teacher that if I started dreaming in a language I had become fluent, but I don't think that's the case if I'm speaking Chinese to people I think are speaking Mongolian! So I know I'm different in some cases. I'd be curious to know if other people have similar experiences, or better ways of interpreting my own experience.

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