Sunday, September 25, 2005

Multiculturalism in the heartland

This weekend I'm visiting my parents in the town of Manhattan, Kansas, where I spent sixteen years of my childhood. Although it still feels like home in many ways, I always experience a bit of a culture shock when I find myself surrounded so completely by English-speaking Caucasians. The times are changing---I'm even seeing bilingual English-Spanish signs now---but it's quite different from the diversity of California to which I've become accustomed.

It's therefore a bit surprising that here I attended a party which was more satisfying to the language lover part of me than any I've ever been to before. The biggest factor preventing total racial homogeneity in Manhattan is that it is home to Kansas State University, which attracts graduate students from all around the world. My father, a longtime physics professor, has in his research group an Austrian, a Spaniard, and several Chinese, all of whom were invited last night. For the first time in my life, I found myself in a room containing native speakers of every language I speak. I spent a very fulfilling evening conversing joyfully (if not always adeptly) in English, Spanish, German, Mandarin, and Taiwanese.

One observation I made confirmed my experiences related in the comments to this post, namely that it's very difficult for me to switch between my non-native languages. Trying to speak German immediately after speaking Spanish feels like switching from first to third gear without first going through neutral. But with Taiwanese, which I've been speaking my whole life---but in which I would not call myself fluent---the transitions are effortless. For the other languages, which I have all learned formally, there is still a mental mechanism for translation. In the case of Spanish, this machine works very quickly, but the thought processes are still quite different. (I've wondered about something like a Turing test for human language fluency; I'll explore this digression in a future post.) There is definitely something about the two different ways that language is stored in my brain and how that affects my ability to converse rapidly in and between them.

The other observation was that while being able to converse in five different languages simultaneously is a fun party trick, it's not really practical. For I couldn't speak to the Spaniard in her native language without excluding the Austrian sitting next to her, and saying everything twice---once in Spanish, once in German---was not only tiring but rather pointless. Once I felt like I'd taken full advantage of the practice opportunity and wanted just to talk, it was far more effective just to speak English and include everyone in the conversation. Perhaps it's this "everyone speaks English" reality that leads Americans to think foreign language study is unnecessary. I, of course, disagree vehemently with this idea, but that too shall be explored at a later time.

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