August 29, 2012 by JL Walker
Have you ever told the same story in two different situations? Let’s say one time you’re talking to a group of friends at a party, and later you share the story in a classroom setting. How is it going to be different? Well, the first time you tell the story, there’s going to be slang, maybe some expletives, probably more animation in your voice and gestures to make it more interesting to your peers. To a professor or teacher, though, you’re going to want to use a more refined vocabulary, less slang. In short, a different register. You make a conscious effort to shift your style based on the audience you would like to communicate with.
We all wear different hats throughout our lives – even throughout the span of a week or a day – and most of us are pretty good at adapting the language we use to fit the situation. This happens whether you speak 1 language or five. It’s usually an unconscious effort, a habit, to switch between registers throughout the week or during a day.
But imagine two extremes of this kind of adaptation, involving 2 completely different languages.
During my first years living in Italy, 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 certain point, I realized that the same thing could happen the other way around. The first time this happened, when I had a hard time explaining something in English, it was a little disconcerting.
There is a theory that multilinguals may store some memories in one language or another. When I want to explain a new part of my life to a friend or family member back home, it can be difficult. In my opinion, this proves the theory because I’ve already codified the event or experience in Italian, the language that was used during the event.
I was talking to family members back home about an experience I had with the healthcare system here. Not only was the entire ordeal carried out in Italian, of course, but it was also a uniquely Italian experience since there are differences between the way hospitals are set up in the two countries. So, while I was talking, I kept trying to think of the right word to use, even though I’d never gone through the same thing back home. So everything had to be translated, and it took quite a lot of effort to do so.
Even some aspects of this blog are difficult to express in English. I’m writing in English because it’s so much easier to write in my native language. Writing in Italian would require a lot more effort and would probably result in more mistakes and typos. But the list of documents, for instance, is not all that helpful to me since I have to interact with Italian people using the Italian language. My audience speaks a different language than the one I write in. So, if I rely on a to-do list in English, I’ll have to keep translating everything when I communicate with others.
I think I’ll be making a bilingual list in the very near future, taking into account the target audience here in Italy who will be helping me reach my ultimate goal.
Many people I communicate with speak either English or Italian (and may of course speak other languages too, but – as they say – it’s Greek to me!). There’s a third type of person: people who understand the same two languages I do. When speaking with this specific kind of audience, it’s easy to use both languages to express what you’re thinking. I might be speaking English, but throw in a few Italian words here and there, like aperitivo (happy hour) suoceri (in-laws), schiscetta (Milanese dialect for brown bag lunch) or boh (slang for I don’t know). I recently met a young lady from the US who lives in Milan, but doesn’t speak much Italian. We were talking and she started giving me confused looks. After a few times of code-mixing (that’s the technical term for using more than one language in the same conversation), I remembered to just use English.
Switching between two languages, and even combining the two, are extreme versions of changing registers. It’s the same concept, but probably a little more complicated since the human mind may codify experiences using vocabulary from the language related to that experience.
When you live in two different languages, changing your style can mean either simply changing register or it can mean choosing one language over another. The important thing is to make sure you’re speaking your audience’s language.