Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Whoops, wrong language

I suspect that every multilingual person has at one time spoken a language other than the one he or she intends to use. There are several manifestations of this phenomenon. One is when a word or phrase from the other language pops into fast, excited speech, as I sometimes hear at work: "So you do this, duì bù duì, and then this..." I also once had a teacher whose (native) Spanish was sprinkled with utterances of the English "you know."

Confusion can also happen when a speaker's audience changes suddenly. I've occasionally spoken Taiwanese to my husband---who understands only English---after conversing with my parents. And I got extremely tongue-tied once at dinner with my Spanish conversation group, when I inadvertently spoke Spanish to the server, corrected myself in English, only to have her respond in Spanish!

Nor does this kind of slip-up occur only when the languages have been mastered. In the beginning of my Spanish studies, I would often struggle to remember a vocabulary word and come up with the German word instead. Now that my Spanish has surpassed my German, the opposite occurs; when I try to speak German, I'll slip into Spanish. I imagine that this is much less likely to happen among dissimilar languages, since I have very rarely used a European language in place of an Asian language or vice versa. But this morning, I was attempting conversation in my very poor Mandarin with a woman who commented that my five-month-old daughter looks a lot like me. In my nervousness I was unable to come up with the translation of "Yes, she does," in Mandarin; what came out of my mouth instead was, "¡Sí!"


Emina said...

Hi! I'm moony from the JB forum! Nice to visit you :)

Alison said...

One German teacher I had was a native English speaker, but his German was good enough to be basically bilingual, and he spoke of not knowing whether his last sentence had been in English or German.

In Russian class, for at least the first two months, I had incredible trouble saying "Da!" instead of "Ja!" and "nyet" instead of "nein." It was, at times, flustering to have German practically bursting out of my mouth instead of the Russian I was struggling to learn. My teacher said that that was common, and that for the first few weeks at least, we'd have a lot of Spanish, French, etc., leaking out in class. :)

Language Lover said...

Hee hee...I can imagine that, since Russian is unlikely to be a person's first foreign language. I also find it extremely difficult to go between my foreign languages (e.g. Spanish to German). It feels like my brain's trying to shift from first to third gear without going through neutral (English). Or like my friend who couldn't drive anywhere in town (say, library to grocery store) without going home in between. :)