Language confusion

language-love-wallI have lived about 2.5 years in Italy, more specific in Siena. And till today I have many good friends there. During my time in Italy I learned quite a bit of Italian, or better Sienese dialect, reaching a level where I could fluently write – and of course read all kind of books and magazines, including the famous Vernacoliere.

Recently I was travelling to Siena with my Japanese wife, and I had to face a severe confusion of languages. I guess most of those having learned several foreign languages and tried to translate between several of them had similar experiences. Translating between my friends Italian and Japanese turned my brain into a washing machine spitting out crazy and incomprehensible words and combinations. One I was uttering without even thinking found all of us laughing out loud:

ho 間違to (ho machigato)

when I wanted to say that I said something wrong. Well, those capable of Italian and Japanese will see the point.

4 Responses

  1. Gildas Hamel says:

    First, thanks for your work on open source tools. Second, a story about how this kind of confusion hit me hard once. I’m used to switch from Breton to French and vice-versa (childhood), English to French and vice-versa (high school and university days), Hebrew to English and vice-versa, or Hebrew to French and vice versa (a little harder), but not at all Breton to English. I entered once a café here in Santa Cruz, speaking English with a friend. Two visitors were there, speaking Breton, and I began to talk with them, of course. It’s such a rarity to hear and speak Breton abroad and even in Brittany! When it came to introduce my English-speaking friend and do switches between Breton and English, I was completely paralyzed. This is when I realized this was the first time my poor brain had been tasked with this switch, and all of this was a matter of training and experience.

    • Hi Gildas,
      thanks for your story. Indeed, the feeling of being paralyzed is very much my personal experience, too. I usually stand with my mouth half open, banging my head in the hope that I can find the switch of languages. I guess only lots of training allows us to due the switch more easily.

  2. Hi Norbert,

    I can relate so well to this…

    Family meetings tend to be most challenging, as sometimes I need to switch between up to three unrelated languages non-stop (Polish, Japanese, but also sometimes English). And apart from me, there is sometimes nobody else to fall back on, so I cannot really take a break or switch off. And of course everybody wants to say so much and be polite. And if a bit of alcohol is involved, people get even more talkative.

    Regarding pros, I’ve heard that simultaneous interpreters, say, in political bodies get a break every 40 mins or so, otherwise their brains would overheat. Don’t know if this is true. Training surely helps, but all of us have natural limits. Go easy on your interpreters, dear people!

    I’ve also found that even without attempts at simultaneous interpreting, there are funny interferences whenever I’m trying a lively conversation in a language I’m less proficient in, like German or Russian. In German, somehow Japanese words creep in (although it’s getting better as I’m getting more fluent) and Russian is worst of all, as there are Polish interferences too. Never know if my brain would pop up with something in Japanese, German, English or Polish whenever I start a Russian sentence and I’m pressed for words. No wonder Russians switch to another language with me as soon as possible. But it’s also true that Russians, just like the Dutch for example, tend to be reluctant to speak their language with anybody who is less than pitch-perfect. At least in my experience.

    It is most funny when I’m shopping with Yoko here in Nürnberg, translate between her and merchants and then we all realize something flipped and I started speaking German to Yoko and Japanese to the poor sales(wo)man.

    I have a vague feeling, unsupported by any hard neurological knowledge (which I don’t have) that before proficiency in a language progresses to the point where enough processing is done automatically and unconsciously, they all scramble in another, more consciously controlled part of brain, which grapples with grammar etc. as if with – say – mathematical puzzles. And of course, the capacities of this area should be much more limited. As Whitehead noticed:

    >>It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle — they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.<<

    Perhaps attempts at simultaneous interpreting cause even those languages we've normally grown to be instinctive with to regress to the point where performing even reasonably basic grammatical operations is again like attempting a "cavalry charge in a battle". For the simple reason we have to think consciously of them again. Grammatical structures, phrasal verbs, metaphors etc. do not match 1-1 between languages and creativity is needed with each sentence.

    Something else: didn't know you got married to your Japanese lady! Belated congratulations!

    • Hi Tadeusz,
      thanks for your comments, and great to hear from you, it has been a long time! Yes, I know what you are talking about. Some months ago I had to translate on the fly the Japanese teachings of the head monk of the Daijoji temple from Japanese into Italian for visiting monks. After two hours I felt like a wrung out towel, completely tired. (But that might have also been a consequence of the 4am Zen meditation, followed by cleaning the temple, and breakfast in Zen style, i.e., high speed, which happened before the teachings!)

      Also the unconscious switch between languages I can relate to: Phoning to my Yoko (not yours 😉 ) from Italy I started talking in Japanese, and apparently (I didn’t realize) I changed into Italian in the middle of the sentence and continued in Italian.

      It is true that proficiency is the key to handling this item, but on the other hand I was surprised that after now nearly 5 years here, and practically only speaking Japanese, the moment I went back to Italy I completely switched to Italian, and even now after being back some phrases still come out in Italian.

      Anyway, I hope you two are doing well in Germany, with lots of sausages and beers and all the nice Christmas markets you had in December. Hope also that Yoko is settling in in Nürnberg.

      Looking forward to meet you two, the sooner the better.


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