Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Third language problems

Over the weekend I went to Liege with some friends who are volunteering on similar projects, and I have some photos for those of you who are wondering what the city might look like. Everywhere is at a severe incline, which means that getting to French classes gives me severe leg ache, but on the plus side, we will all be leaving Belgium with toned calves, so that's nice!









I won't be putting up photos or information about my specific project because working with children necessitates privacy and confidentiality, but you can rest assured that it is all lovely here. From what I understand, everyone is charming, which is a possible side effect from only hearing what they say slow enough for me to understand - people don't need code words, if they don't want me to know something, it's easy enough to just say it quickly. Hopefully my understanding will increase without anybody noticing and I'll actually be able to listen to what they're saying right in front of me!

Anyway, I usually speak to the other volunteers in French, and sometimes in German if they are actually German natives, which gives me a clear notion of what languages are to be used with which people. I suppose you might not be familiar with the idea, if you aren't a linguist yourself, but if you have multiple languages, your brain remembers that you use one with Person A, and another with person B. If, later, this system is brought down, it can be exceptionally confusing.

For example, at school, I always talked French (or English) to the French teachers, and German (or English) to the German teachers. Despite the fact that I knew that most of the teachers were capable in both German and French, actually hearing them speak the 'wrong' language was notably odd, and to be avoided at all costs.

This idea of the 'wrong' language is of course entirely fabricated in the mind, as a result of habit. If you start purposefully with the 'right' language when talking to a specific person, your brain will have less desire to switch. A nice example being another volunteer who speaks German and English, but as we have spoken in French for a month, resorting to explanations in the other languages seems uncomfortable, even though we are both able to speak them both as well as French. This means that we get more time in the target language, instead of taking the 'easy' route.

We actually came across a group of German speakers on Saturday while we were exploring Liege, which meant that us two were speaking French to each other, in German to the other people, and in English to one of the women who seemed quite pleased that I was an opportunity to practise her English! This did result in a bit of difficulty on my part, because mixing of languages like this is fine for comprehension, but actually having to form legitimate sentences in the 3 languages consecutively created language mixing that you might expect from a small child. For example:

Je suis achtzehn Jahre alt

I'm fairly certain I don't need to tell you that that is wrong. More embarrassingly, I did spend my entire school career telling people that doing 2 languages at GCSE and A Level is not at all confusing, which was true at the time, because the two languages happen at different times, with different people, in different rooms, so they remain separated in the mind, but in a scenario like the above, I will admit that it gets a bit confusing.

Languages are, despite this, the best field of study(!) and just the fact that I am in a situation where such linguistic events can occur is a wonder to me.

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