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Monday, July 18, 2011

Having a "bad language day"


Since childhood, I've found that if I devote a certain amount of concentrated effort thinking in one language, there is a transitory period where trying to speak another language is frustratingly difficult. The worst experience I had of this was a few years ago. After a few weeks of only working, reading and dreaming in English, I bumped into a Japanese faculty member at DCU. I sincerely hope she doesn't remember the incident, as it was painfully humiliating for me: practically no Japanese issued from me at the time, but stubborn pride kept me from switching to English. The fact it was a chance encounter definitely exacerbated the situation, but I was no stranger to this phenomenon.

When I entered the Canadian school system, I'd had practically no prior exposure to English. This meant that for a few years initially, I'd answer questions posed to me at school in Japanese, and at home it would take about an hour before I'd revert to Japanese with my parents. Saturday morning language school was never an issue as I'd had the opportunity to transit to the correct mode over Friday evening.

Much to my vexation, I still have trouble once in a while with speaking in teleconferences, if I'd been silent for too long and especially if I'd been reading or hearing a foreign language. Some mental preparation to speak seems necessary to facilitate the mode shift. I also make the effort to cycle through different language content, although lately I've truly let my French lapse: when first arriving in Vienna my stop words (conjunctions mainly, adpositions too) would instinctively come from the French, even when I attempted to use German - now I'd say the reverse is true. It's clearly time to start reading and watching more content in French. However, I keep second-guessing noun genders in German because my knowledge of French genders often - but not always - contradicts the Deutsch. Furthermore, it doesn't help that my manager alerted me to the fact that in some cases, National and Austrian German have contradictory genders.

Actually, the conflation of French and German in my head stems from my high school experience: in tenth grade, I took my one year of National German from a Hamburgian native who also happened to teach French. Due to scheduling, our classes were held consecutively, in the same classroom and same seating arrangements, with only the textbook switching. Come to think of it, there was one more difference, in terms of teaching methods. Our teacher also took diabolical delight in taking my "Compact" dictionary from Langenscheidt, to select lengthy compound terms for random students to attempt to spell out on the chalkboard. She didn't do this en Français.

The struggle to retain languages whilst acquiring new ones will, of course, be life-long.

About Mayo

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Professional: As "Senior Enterprise SEO Strategist" in IBM's Digital Marketing division, I provide consulting and training services for both internal and external clients. Formerly I was involved in Natural Language Processing, software localization, quality assurance and documentation authoring.
Personal: INTJ Nikkei Nisei ex-patriated Canadian who takes photographs and enjoys Baroque through late Classical music. The G+ page shares some of the "best of" photos.