Buenos dias. Kumusta ka? Sehr gut, danke.

December 7, 2011 – 9:52 am

A few friends and I have a reading group that meets every other week to try out cool topics and random stuff. Our current miniproject is learning Spanish (everyone else has at least some Spanish language background; I’m the only one starting from scratch), with the intent of coming back together to analyze what sorts of resources and techniques worked well for us, and what sorts of strategies different people used. The intent is not to learn Spanish particularly well; two weeks isn’t enough for that, but it is long enough to get a window into how you learn it.

We are supposed to try to do something towards language-learning every day. Today is Day 3. I have been extremely unsuccessful, mostly because something interesting has come up: it seems that my brain lumps languages into a couple categories.

  1. English
  2. Fookien (my family’s Chinese dialect)
  3. ASL
  4. Everything else

It’s pretty obvious why – English is my native tongue, and I learned rudimentary Fookien from birth to toddlerhood (when my parents decided they should stop speaking everything but English to me so that I would “learn English properly”). I still hear Fookien frequently today when I’m with family, so I’m used to sorting between English – which I’m used to hearing and understanding – and Fookien, which I’m used to hearing and not understanding. Not a problem there.

I learned ASL in middle childhood, and it’s physical rather than verbal, and thus easily separable. But the rest – Japanese, Mandarin, Tagalog, German, Spanish – they get tagged with OH HEY LOOK A FOREIGN LANGUAGE. Meaning I produce exchanges like this when attempting to talk to myself while walking down the street (for practice):

“Buenos dias. Kumusta ka? Sehr gut, danke.” (Which is “Good day” in Spanish, followed by “How are you?” in Tagalog and a reply of “Very good, thanks” in German.)

This was not intentional; it came out almost without me realizing it, and then I went “wait WHAT?” and slapped my forehead. I was actually trying to speak Spanish the entire time. But some words come more easily to me in some languages than others, so I think my brain goes “oh, you’re trying to speak Some Other Language!” and out comes the first word in something-that-isn’t-English-or-Fookien it finds.

This has happened before – I baffled my Mandarin teacher by occasionally reading the Japanese pronunciations of the characters in the text I was reciting, and now I do the opposite (I’ll look at Japanese text and hear the occasional character in Mandarin). Sometimes, at Kaffeestunde (German Coffee Hour) at Purdue, I need to bite my tongue to keep from inserting a Japanese word into a German sentence — because I know the word in Japanese, but not in German.

I’m absolutely nowhere near fluent in any of these other languages. At best, I’m beginning-to-intermediate in ASL, somewhere around mid-second-semester college-level in German, and able to converse brokenly with my relatives in Mandarin. But I’m far better at all of them than in Spanish, so when I try to say something in Spanish, it’s way easier to say it in something else that isn’t English, so I do.

Not sure how to get past this problem yet; I think that working on processing Spanish input for a while (say, this week) rather than producing output might help — listening and reading first, not speaking and writing. So… we’ll see if that helps. In the meantime, this is terribly amusing.

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  1. 4 Responses to “Buenos dias. Kumusta ka? Sehr gut, danke.”

  2. I know the feeling- I’ve been going to Spanish meetups lately, but every time I try to say a word I can’t recall/don’t know, it’ll come out in Chinese, Korean, or Japanese. I had one time that I forgot the word “perro” and I said three Japanese words for dog before finally remembering the right word.

    It also doesn’t help that my foreign language experience is mostly with Asian languages (subject-object-verb grammar in particular), so I’ll speak Spanish in the wrong order, even though it’s the same as English.

    I have no idea if this ever goes away, but I can say that I don’t mix other languages in my Japanese. So I guess once you get good enough at a language, you hit a point where you know what belongs and what doesn’t?

    By David N on Dec 7, 2011

  3. Also, something that I stumbled upon today that you might be interested in: translations of “Japanese That Japanese People Don’t Know”. Cool little comic book on quirks of Japanese and the author’s experiences teaching Japanese as a second language. http://goo.gl/Q5mjm

    By David N on Dec 7, 2011

  4. a few months after I got to China I ran into a Spaniard and promptly convinced him that I…could only speak Chinese with a ludicrous Spanish accent. The Texan next to him, who knew both Spanish and Chinese, knew exactly what was happening and cracked up.

    I’ve found the best way to deal with it is to have dedicated periods of time dedicated to each language, and make sure I read, write, and speak in each.

    By ErinD on Dec 7, 2011

  5. (Saw your link to this on facebook, and I just can’t resist a foreign language-y looking post!)

    It’s actually really really common! Some call it “interference” and it can happen from your L1 (English for you) or L2 or L3 or so on… My best advice: embrace it! Compare all the languages you know, and look at when they say something similar, and when they don’t. Actively use ALL your linguistic resources. It’s best not to look at these all as separate languages that need to stay away from each other, but rather as one big language mess in your brain. “Translanguaging,” as they say, is one of my favorite things in the world and can really help you to work out why you’re saying what you’re saying, or why what you’re saying just isn’t getting your point across. And besides, it’s way more fun that way!

    By Becky B. on Dec 8, 2011

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