November 19, 2012 by anelim
I’m going to write this post about my first French language class in Berlin in English because my brain is now so confused, as though it has been hanged, drawn, and quartered for an hour and a half. Here I wrote about the four languages that primarily inhabit my brain. Forcing a fifth, francophone cohabitor is either a briliant or a totally stupid idea, and I’m not sure which it is yet.
The thing is, if I may resort once again to the poor and over-exploited but readily available medium of metaphor, German and French sit in the same compartment in my mind.
They fight with each other. My mind does not have a switch button to switch between the two. When I hear either of them, I need to think for a second to discern which of the two language I’m hearing. They are like the duplex users of the same telephone line. If I switch on into German, I understand it (a bit, and getting better in the last 2 months) – but then I don’t understand even a “oui” said to me in French. If I switch into French, I begin to understand a tiny bit (it has got much worse since 2002 when I had my last French lesson), but suddenly my comprehension of written or spoken German slides back into linguistic infanthood.
So imagine my chagrin when, upon entering the first French language class today, I was first greeted with a sprightly ‘Bon jour’ in the most flowery and sunny-skied french imaginable, immediately followed by a stealthy second tsunami wave of ‘Wilkommen, finden Sie sich einen Platz, bitte’ (or something to that effect, uttered in beautiful German). I retorted ‘Good afternoon, sorry I’m a little late’, sat down, processed the situation, and noticed that the teacher was a lady. I haste to add, a very lady-like and charming young lady. I do admit to exaggerating slightly on occasion, but in this instance I swear I’m not! It’s just that my RAM must have been 100% occupied with processing German and French at the same time that it postponed even the most basic elements of social perception (psychology claims sex (I’d say, gender) is the first thing people notice about other people… see e.g. p.1 of Handbook of Gender Research in Psychology, Volume 2 by Chrisler et al.).
So, throughout the lesson my head was ready to explode. As if two colours which had never previously been in the same space at the same time were trying to coexist. In case you wonder, German is autumn-green-and-brown-coloured, while French is velvety purple and maroon sprinkled with lots of loud colourful bits. I’m hoping it’ll get better (my head, at not exploding; and the colours, at coexisting) with time, because the teacher doesn’t speak English, and I don’t want to quit the course.
I noticed something really cool: that I understood almost all of the German, aside from 3-4 words. This is a real boost to my idea of how much German I actually know. And I was very pleased to have understood about 3/4 of the French, (the teacher said not very many things in French and was speaking very clearly).
Perhaps I wasn’t multitasking, but learning to switch codes very quickly. But maybe I was actually multitasking. I also noticed something really intriguing: the teacher switched between the two languages a lot and once I had got going, I had absolutely no clue in which language I had received the information from the previous sentence. This happens with Russian and Bulgarian which also occupy only one compartment within my head. It had never happened to me with any other language combination. I can’t always remember in which of the two I read a certain book or a certain bit of information, whereas I always know if it was in English or German. But because I know both BG and RU very well, I used to assume that this “language transparency” effect was a sign of knowing a language well enough to be able to stop noticing the medium. Or when you only know one language, then it is by definition transparent. I don’t think I was ever in that situation, plus one always speaks different mini-languages to different people or in different social situations, so I’m not sure that monolinguality even exists. Well, today’s experience seems to disprove at least in my experience my conjecture about only native tongues being transparent, and doesn’t offer a new one to replace it. Obviously, then, there are other reasons that can make a language “transparent”. The compartments conjecture still stands, though, as it is a useful metaphor for making sense of the weird and fun sufferings that languages inflict on my brain. French and German are now fighting in their little cell like two estranged spouses who have come to the understanding that they really need a divorce, because both want to get on with their lives and can’t play it quiet and small any more, but still have only one room between them which they must share!