Speaking of Another Language…
There is ample evidence that in a bilingual’s brain both language systems are active even when he is using only one language, thus creating situations in which one system obstructs the other.”
When last we spoke –well, I typed; you read– I mentioned that practicing languages helps me relive experiences, preserve memories, respect heritage, and represent places close to my heart. But what happens when a brain sends its English department on linguistic shutdown, and kicks the foreign language department into overdrive? Read on.
After coming back from a three-week whirlwind through Spain, Portugal, and Morocco, my brain is slow to switch back to English. How is it so reluctant after a mere three weeks? At the airport too, of all places.
Immigration Officer: Business or pleasure? [Flips through my passport]
Me: [Paralyzed and unresponsive]
My Brain: The nice lady is asking you a question, Carolina.
Immigration Officer: [Holds passport photo page up, level with my face, to make sure it’s me] Were you traveling for business or pleasure?
My Brain: Hola, la entiendes? You’ve answered this question a hundred times. Agora, não fala Inglês?
Me to My Brain: Omg omg I can’t voice a reponse!
My Brain: You can do this. Answer her!
Immigration Officer: Ma’am, the purpose of your trip?
Me: Busin– umm….
My Brain: Wrong answer! Get it together, Caroline. What’s English for vacaciones?
Immigration Officer: Vacation?
Me: Yes!! [Sigh of relief]
Immigration Officer: Welcome home.
With that, the sympathetic airport official lets me through. As I search for the appropriate baggage carousel, I can’t help but laugh at myself. Well, that’s a first.
After coming back from an Italian trip, part of which was spent on an archeological excavation in a sleepy little town that doesn’t speak much English, my burgeoning Italian seeps through in the workplace.
Wendy: Good morning!
Me: Buongior– ma guarda che bella!
Me: You’re dolled up. Hot date tonight?
Me: Ammazza. Di nuovo!?
Wendy: Umm, hi, you’re speaking in Italian again. We speak English here, remember?
In the Philippines, while on sabbatical. On a call with an American friend, this is the most continuous English I’ve spoken in a month, and there’s not much I can do about the language delay.
Zack: Can I point out how ironic it is that a native English speaker is struggling to speak English?
Me: Yes, I know!
Zack: I mean, you have an English degree.
Me: Ha! I know.
Zack: An honors English degree.
Me: Ok, salamat. I know.
Perhaps my English skills are simply running on Pinoy Time, i.e. always late.
I realized this morning that, out of the past 12 months, I’ve been away from home at least half the time. This is not common for me at all, even when I was frequently traveling for business. And when I appeared at work today, one of the engineers jumped and exclaimed “You’re home!”
Well, I’m here. At present, however, I can’t say with certainty that I know where home is anymore.
Because part of my job involves managing localized assets (e.g. the French website, a German whitepaper here, a Japanese slide deck there), exposure to other languages is inevitable on many a day. Compound that with the fact that I’m trying to learn way too many languages at once, and my brain is a puddle of language soup. The English swims around in there. Sometimes, it comes out impressing even me; lately though, it seems my English speech has trouble bringing its A game. I’m not sure if it’s due to the languages swimming in my head or if it’s due to stress. Maybe lack of sleep? Maybe all of the above.
Let’s rewind to 2003. While exploring potential college degrees, I’d briefly settled on Anthropological Linguistics. Alhough I was fascinated by the way culture affects communication styles, I also realized that the evolution of morphology and syntax was far less exciting than transcribing and reciting “The Canterbury Tales” in a rare Middle English class (which, by the way, I quite –nerdily– enjoyed).
Fast forward to today: While I do like being part of the polyglot club (and, dare I say it, I aspire to be part of the even more exclusive hyperpolyglot circle), I sometimes wonder if my enthusiasm for languages is sheer passion for language itself…or if my language learning is a mere component in the pursuit of something more. Could my affinity for languages actually be the bridge I’m using to acquaint myself with other cultures? Possibly. Does that detract at all from my language learning? Not in the least bit.