Since coming back from Japan, my brain has had some rather entertaining struggles with adapting to three different languages living inside it. Since they haven’t really occurred in a high-pressure situations, these struggles haven’t been a problem, but it’s odd to see how my brain is juggling them.
The most extreme occurrence was on the very first day of courses back at OU, when I ran into one of my German professors before class started. I hadn’t really spoken any German in several months, since all of my focus was on Japanese over the summer. He said hello and started a casual conversation about the class, the building we would be in, how hot the weather had been recently. All easy topics, things I would normally be able to chat about with no problem in German, except that every single response I could think of was in Japanese.
I could feel my brain scrambling around trying to find something to respond with and managed to stop myself before I said “soudesuka ” or “hai,” phrases that I used all the time in Japan. I did let out a few Japanese-style pause words, but managed to pull out a couple of stuttering German responses as we walked into the classroom.
I had read about this phenomenon before, but this was my first time experiencing it so severely. Essentially, learning a new language takes up space in your brain. If you’ve started to learn the new language really well, you can not only speak it more fluently, but you might also start to forget how to say things in your native language.
The reason for this is that our brains doesn’t really store words, like a dictionary. They store concepts. Somewhere inside your brain is the understanding of what exactly a book is, and what you do with books, and what books look and feel like. As English speakers, we’ve assigned this concept the title of “book.” When you learn a new language, you take the same knowledge and give it another title, in my case “Buch” in German, and then “本 (hon)” in Japanese. Those three labels are now all associated with the same concept, so when I go to pull one of them out, I might accidentally grab a different one and then wonder how I managed to forget such a simple word.
(For an interesting article on this topic, visit https://www.wired.com/2016/02/being-bilingual-changes-the-architecture-of-your-brain/)
Over the past few months, I’ve gotten back up to speed with German. But sometimes I will still be sitting in one language class and raise my hand to answer a question, and then suddenly feel my brain stall as I worry that the wrong language will come out of my mouth–and to be honest, sometimes I have no idea what language I’m about to say something in. On several occasions I’ve decided to just start talking and see if people give me really confused looks because I’ve ended up in the wrong language. Not the best tactic, but it’s worked okay so far.
There are some words and phrases that I just haven’t been able to keep straight since coming back from Japan. The analogy I like to use is as an old-fashioned switchboard in my head, my language switchboard. When I was in Japan, I unplugged all of my German cords and dedicated them to Japanese. I’ve continued to use the English plugs too, but once I came back to OU my poor little operator had to start juggling three different languages. After a few classes, most of my cords were easy to reconnect to German, but a few are still on the Japanese board. Which ones, you may ask? Pause words, for the most part. Japanese speakers love to use short little filler words, the equivalents of English “um,” “uh,” “hmm,” “really?” and so on. German speakers do not. In Japan, I had a whole cluster of cables being used for these pause words, and now that I’m back, I’ve had no reason to disconnect them for German equivalents, because I don’t really have German equivalents.
This has led to many, many instances where I start a German sentence with “eto . . .” (“um”). I notice that I do it. Some of my German classmates have looked at me confusedly and asked me about it. But I haven’t really been able to get rid of that habit. Today in class a German professor asked a question, and I immediately responded with the Japanese word for “no.” I didn’t think about it at all–it just came out automatically. Which is a good sign, in that it means that I’m becoming more fluent in Japanese. It just also feels like I’ve taken a step sideways in my German skills, since I don’t always speak as smoothly as I know I can.
Overall I’ve enjoyed these minor slip-ups, because it means that I’ve really cemented both German and basic Japanese in my brain, and my brain is ready to flip back and forth between them. I look forward to seeing what other interesting scenarios I might get into as a result of accidentally defaulting to the wrong language.