This morning sitting in my usual booth at Panera enjoying a book and coffee, here they come; I call them the German ladies club. I am not sure whether they are family or just friends that share a common language and culture. I listen to them for a while. It’s good practice for me considering I haven’t spoken German in over 20 years. I understand maybe 30% of the conversation and that’s not bad all things considered.
From amidst all that German there are many words and phrases uttered in English. I hear “tornado watch” and “slight chance” sandwiched between German words. I smile. It’s always interesting to listen (or participate) in conversations between bilingual people. There is something weird about how our “wires” are connected. They often “shorten” and out comes a mash-up of words in different languages. Fascinating how a bilingual person can switch between codes without even thinking about it.
I speak (read and write) a few languages. Some of them have fallen into disuse since I haven’t really had the chance or need to use them in years but there are three in particular I use frequently; Portuguese (my native language), English, and Spanish. I have caught myself often speaking in the “wrong” language; meaning, speaking in Portuguese with English speakers and English with Portuguese speakers for example. In the brain of a true bilingual different languages or dialects become almost one. Because our brains can process all of them in similar, if not the same way, the “wires” get crossed sometimes and the wrong language comes out. One day while talking to the secretary in the school where I work and to a Spanish speaking parent, I caught myself translating what the parent had told me into Portuguese instead of English. The total look of confusion in the secretary’s face was what made me realize what I was doing. My brain didn’t register the difference. We had a good laugh and she still reminds me of this incident once in a while. When I go home to visit my mom, and especially when I bring my kids and husband (who do not speak Portuguese), it’s pretty common for me to start speaking in English to my mom and Portuguese to my kids.
Bilingualism gives you a unique perspective into language. You begin “understanding” languages you know nothing about for instances. When I took a class in linguistics I was amazed on how easy it was for me to make sense of languages I had never learned as long as I knew just a few basic rules. Speaking more than one language is like owning your own Rosetta stone, a code-breaker of sorts that will serve you well throughout a lifetime and foster better understanding of other people and other cultures.
I come from a country where the learning of foreign languages is highly valued and encouraged. Everybody starts learning another language while still in elementary school. It always bewilders me that there are people in the US who are for English-only. Why? Doesn’t that foster cultural isolation? So many cultural strife comes from miscommunication. I always believed that people from different cultures would get along a little better if they could have a basic understanding of each other’s languages. How many times have I heard people be suspicious, sometimes angry, because someone is speaking in a language they don’t understand? The tendency is to immediately assume “they are bad-mouthing” you. I really hope that one day soon everybody in the US will learn a second language starting in elementary school and become, if not bilingual, at least more knowledgeable of how other languages work. We have everything to gain and nothing to lose.