Living in a foreign language

3

July 27, 2012 by JL Walker

Black and white door in MilanA day in the life: Wake up, fall out of bed, drag a comb across my head. I read the news online and drink a cup (of espresso). At a certain point I usually look up at the clock, notice I’m running late, find my coat, grab my purse and make the tram in seconds flat. (The Beatles always gets stuck in my head whenever I think about my morning routine, so I couldn’t resist doing a little paraphrasing.)

Every once in awhile, I’ll run into a co-worker on the tram, who says “Buongiorno” to me. I’m usually reading my ereader (something in English) and have to think a second before I can respond, “Buongiorno, come va?” A few years ago when I was a student, I even responded to classmate who doesn’t speak English, “Gotta get to class!”

Why would I do this? Why is it so hard to communicate?

My husband and I have conflicting work schedules, which means I’m usually alone in the mornings doing my own thing. So I start the day thinking and reading in English and don’t start using Italian until I get into the office. That’s why I get caught off-guard when I see someone before I’ve made the linguistic transition.

Is this switching back and forth between languages normal? Is it inevitable? Or can it be overcome? Do children who grow up bilingual experience the same thing I do?

One of the most common questions when discussing bilingualism is: Can someone learning a foreign language as an adult really ever be considered bilingual? Linguists have been debating this one for decades, and this issue is called “the critical period hypothesis.” The theory is that humans have a critical period in which they have the ability to learn a language, but after a certain cut-off date they will no longer be able to be able to speak like a native speaker. This deadline is usually somewhere during or right after adolescence. The counterargument maintains that the brain can continue to learn and create new neural pathways, including language skills, into adulthood and even adults learning a foreign language can acheive native-like proficiency.

Many people learning a language as an adult will always speak the second language with a foreign accent, even with lots of exposure to it (for example, by living in a country where that language is spoken). I know a lot of people who would fall into this category. I also know quite a few people who are able to speak a second language almost perfectly. Really focusing on grammar and pronunciation, along with prolonged exposure can result in excellent skills.

In my own personal experience, however, when I’m nervous (as discussed in a previous post) or alone in my own morning routine world, my true linguistic origins shine through. I might speak with a bad foreign accent or it might take a moment to switch from one language to another. This is just part of a day in my life. living, working and speaking in a foreign language.

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3 thoughts on “Living in a foreign language

  1. Betsy says:

    We need to start doing skype Italian lessons with Liam and Lydia. Are you in?

  2. […] switching between languages was an everyday experience and it wasn’t easy (and I still get caught off guard sometimes). I would have the feeling that I was translating my life into a foreign language. Then, at a […]

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