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I find bilingualism—the ability to speak two (or more if you include multilingualism) languages fluently—fascinating.

Take last night for an example.

I went to a Cuban restaurant called Coco Loco that is near my office. They followed me on Twitter and their menu sounded tasty, so I decided to give it a try.

I think both waiters must have thought I was in the other's section because it took a while for them to acknowledge that I was there. Which was okay, because it gave me time to read the entire menu.

And to half-listen to the conversation at the next table over from me. :)

Three people were seated there: a man and two women, all in their 20s, if I were forced at gunpoint to guess. They were speaking amongst themselves in Spanish. Then, out of the blue, I hear this exchange, all in English:
Woman #1: Is that her?
Man: I don't know.
And that was it. Then they moved to a bigger table, and another man and woman came in and sat down with them, after much hugging and greeting.

I was now primed that they were at least bi- if not multilingual, so I paid attention. As the new folks came in, all the various greetings were done purely in English ("Hi, how are you, I'm fine..."), but the conversation then settled into Spanish.

As I ate my dinner, their conversation continued in Spanish, except for every once in a while, I'd hear a random phrase all in English. Like "I don't know" or "Could be."

I don't know how many of you guys are bi- or multilingual, but I wonder if there's a rhyme or reason to which phrases get spoken in one language and which another or if it's essentially random.

I mean, I can understand why English borrows words from other languages. Schadenfreude is so much easier to just say in German than translating it into the English phrase "joy derived from another's misfortune." Ennui is much easier to say in French than the English equivalent "extremely bored by the tedium of it all." And we won't even go into ferklempt or weltanschauung.

But "Is that her?" or "I don't know"?

Please enlighten me if you can. As I said, this stuff fascinates me. :)

Two quick little anecdotes from my college days to demonstrate why I think bi- or multilingualism is fascinating:

I had a friend from Puerto Rico named Ramphis. We would all go down to the cafeteria together to eat in one big group, and since it was mostly all guys, the conversations could turn strange and disgusting fairly quickly. After one such exchange that basically caused most of us to put down our forks, we noticed Ramphis was still happily shoveling food into his mouth. We asked how he could possibly still be hungry. He explained that when the conversation took that kind of turn, he just started thinking in Spanish and then he didn't "understand" the rest of us. That is just so cool. :)

There were these two girls who were from some Central American country. I think Panama or Guatemala, but I'm not sure this many years later. As such, they also spoke Spanish natively and English as their second language. Like Ramphis, they were fluent in English. One day, a friend and I were standing behind them in line at the cafeteria (honestly, not all my college stories involve a cafeteria...). There was a lull in our conversation, and we naturally started to "eavesdrop" on the two girls in line in front of us. Who, noticing our increased interest, smoothly switched into Spanish in the middle of an exchange and kept going as though we weren't there. That is just so cool. :) (Of course, having a paranoid, slightly self-obsessed perspective, my friend thought they were talking about him, but "pendejo" never came up, so.... :)


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Jul. 17th, 2009 02:35 am (UTC)
Hmmm! As a loyal Murkin, I'm of course strictly monolingual (also I've forgoten most of my German), but I know that my mother, who has spoken English since 1939, still has to alphebetize in German if she's looking though files.

Jul. 17th, 2009 04:30 am (UTC)
I have no personal experience with this but we do have a Russian piano teacher who has only been speaking English for about five years. She has a baby who is 18 months old now and she speaks to him only in Russian. He responds to her commands in Russian with ease as well as responding to our English commands with ease. (which I think is amazing for 18 months old!) Also, when she gets really excited and starts speaking fast, she launches into Russian without knowing it until she notices the blank looks on our faces. She'll quickly say a frustrated "Oh, I need to speak English here" and repeat what she just told us, this time in English. This happens frequently when we are at piano competitions where there are a lot of Russian speakers. If she has been speaking Russian with them, she forgets to speak English to us a lot more frequently.

As a funny aside, when we started taking piano from her she had only been in the US for six months (she's a mail order bride but that's a story for another day). We communicated with charades and a Russian/English dictionary. She's come a long way!
Jul. 17th, 2009 10:26 pm (UTC)
I'm far from fluent in anything but English, but my family spoke quite a mix of languages when I was growing up, so I often use words in other languages. For example, I was well into my 20's before I discovered that "capisce" is not an English word. I also tend to count in Hebrew, which I suspect has something to do with the morning attendance count at summer camp.

Jul. 18th, 2009 03:16 pm (UTC)
Hmm. Switching to another language in your head to 'not understand' the language being spoken at the moment seems very odd to me. I could never do that. I'd understand no matter what.

Sometimes, though, if you're speaking with another bi/multilingual person, switching languages mid-thought just happens. And sometimes neither party notices it's even happened. Also, occasionally, when I was living in Germany and my dad (who only speaks English) came to visit, I would inadvertently use a German word. I did this when I came back to the US, too, which could be pretty amusing. I'd sometimes get blank stares and then I'd know I said something in German. The extra language(s) sort of become an extension of your first language in many ways. At the very least, any extra languages a person may speak expand that person's manner of thinking. Maybe this is whyfor the leakage now and then.

Knowing German now, I find it hard to understand how I haven't known it my whole life. And how other people get along speaking only one language. It seems so restrictive.

Jul. 18th, 2009 03:39 pm (UTC)
My college minor was in German, but since I don't get to use it much most of it eludes me. However, I do occasionally dream in German and recently I realized I still know some Danish (I studied abroad in Denmark in college and they made us learn basic Danish - I learned more by reading the subtitles on TV since they don't dub them). Occasionally I do find myself thinking in German and on rare occasions I will dream in it, but in my dreams I find myself trying to remember the correct grammatical construction of something so it's a little weird. Someone once told me when you dream in a foreign language, you know you've learned it.

Two of my co-workers speak fluent Portuguese - one's parents are from Portugal, and her parents don't speak English so they only speak Portuguese at home - my other co-worker is from Brazil so he also speaks Portugeuse at home. They always speak in English in the office - unless they get a phone call from a family member, in which they switch languages. I asked them recently why they don't ever speak in Portugeuse to each other, and they said it just doesn't occur to them to do it - although occasionally they will debate what sort of Portugeuse word is appropriate in a given situation if an English word just doesn't fit - it's all the more fascinating because although they're both speaking the same language, naturally the dialects and jargon is different.
Jul. 18th, 2009 08:07 pm (UTC)
I used to work at a placed with a lot of international employees. We were hiring a girl from Japan and our boss told her during the interview that there were a lot of Chinese people in the office, but no other Japanese, so she'd probably end up having to speak English most of the time. She said, "Good. I'd rather speak English because in Japan you have to be so polite all the time."

I found—and still find—that very funny. She told us that, in fact, there was a whole...I guess "dialect" is the word, in Japan strictly for business, and it was almost stultifyingly polite. She'd never learned it, having gone to college in the U.S. and that job being her first.
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