Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The trilingual's dilemma, part 2

I spent last weekend in Granada, an ancient Andaluz city that's famous for its mazelike ancient neighborhoods and rollicking nightlife, all watched over by a thousand-year old military/palace complex (the world-famous Alhambra.) I went with my good friend, Hannah, and besides the obligatory overwhelmingly gorgeous Alhambra visit, we spent the weekend exploring the old city's nooks and crannies and taking advantage of Granada's tapas bars, which rival Linares in their scope, diversity, and low prices.

On Saturday night, we were walking along yet another narrow cobblestone alley, from one bar to another, and Hannah asked me a question. I'm not sure what the question was, and really in this context it's unimportant; the important thing is that I didn't know the answer. So, my answer to her was: "Not an idea."

Of course, "Not an idea" is a phrase that could conceivably occur somewhere in the English language. Any given object-- be it table, computer, sneaker, or apple-- is, in fact, "not an idea." One might even use it to say that something is a foolish prospect. "Try to drive on Storrow Drive between 5:30 PM and 6? That is totally not an idea." But as an answer to a question someone asked you? It hardly makes sense.

In Spanish, however, "ni idea" (which actually translates to "not even one idea") is a perfectly acceptable answer to a question you don't know the answer-- and herein lies my current trilingual problem. As I mark 1.5 years living abroad in Spain, I find my languages mixing and melding in an entirely unexpected way. I speak English and Spanish about 40% to 60%, respectively, in my daily life (varying depending on who I'm meeting for tapas, which classes I'm teaching, how many hours I'm at school that day, etc.) But I am finding that after prolonged exposure to Spanish on an every-day basis, my English is altering. I'm not sure if I want to call it thinking in Spanish because I still am aware of English words in my thoughts, but it certainly appears that my mother tongue conversation is being filtered in some way through a Spaniard neighborhood in my brain.

The incident in the Granada alleyway was far from the first time something like this has happen: I've caught myself saying "I hope we have luck tonight!" (which translates directly from the Spanish "tener suerte") or using the phrase "to put yourself in contact with [someone]" (which sounds almost right in English but is still just the tiniest bit off.) And I'm not the only one. I've heard Hannah do it a few times, and about a month ago during a visit to Madrid, my American friend Thomas referred to some future visitors as "coming in car." This is clearly a common, if little-noticed, side effect of linguistic immersion.

Long time readers of this blog have followed my progress in Chinese and my Spanish beginnings. In 2010, I wrote about starting to identify as a "trilingual" as I struggled to rescusitate my middle-school level Spanish skills during six weeks in Guadalajara, Mexico. Last fall, I wrote about the balancing act between the two and the decision I made to put Chinese aside and focus on Spanish. And almost six (!!) years ago I wrote here about the strange melange of Chinese and English our study abroad group developed together, using the word that came to us first, regardless of language-- "Pass me the kuaizi [chopsticks]," for example.

 That last phenomenon of language-mixing comes close to what I'm talking about now, but it's never developed this far before. I've code switched (I wrote here about the first time I couldn't remember the English word for "ski lift," only the Chinese-- lan che), but I've never noticed my mother tongue being filtered by some other force. It feels the strangest because it doesn't feel like anything at all. Only suddenly, I find my words and phrasings (which, as a writer, are not small parts of me) strangely altered-- speaking the way I've always spoken and the way I've never spoken all at once.

It makes me wonder what else is being reconfigured. I've written here before that in anthropology circles, it's a widely accepted idea that culture is language. If the language making my basic linguistic decisions right now is Spanish-- a language that has 10 words for various cuts of pig and types of pork-- what does that say about me as a Jew? Does my power of idiom and wordplay stay the same, and if not why not? Do I have the same sense of humor? Will I write the same way if I don't speak the same way? Basically: does my changed grammar change me?


Anonymous said...

very interesting questions!

I have had these moments and it's so strange...esp when you are an English teacher and you find yourself making the mistakes you students make, like 'I'll invite you' or, always funny, 'it molests me'.
Rhiannon x

Toni said...

As Turks say "Bir dil bir insan; iki dil, iki insan!" (one language one person; two languages, two people)

How many people are you now?

Roger Roffman said...

There is yet another way in which one's life is affected in this way, my dear niece. It comes with one's visa to senior citizenship, in many ways a very sweet time of life, but unfortunately with some costs, i.e., misplacing one's vocabulary. Sigh!