Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Note to self

Do not attempt to speak anything but English and Hebrew if you want your Hebrew to be intelligible at any point later in the day.

I don't know about anyone else who attempts to be multilingual, but I? have a REALLY hard time with more than one second language at once. I speak, or should speak, Hungarian, Russian, and French with a reasonable degree of facility (although my Russian is currently in the tank, I can do pretty well when I need to). My Hebrew is not great, but is B"H improving rapidly. What is not improving is my ability to speak anything but Hebrew and English without completely torpedoing my Hebrew.

So this morning, when I stopped in at Supersol/Shufersal for MORE CHEESE (eat your heart out, Shanna), and overheard the cheese counter lady speaking Russian to someone else, it was really a mistake to start speaking Russian to her. But I couldn't help it, because listening in on a few minutes of Russian conversation ratcheted my brain over from its "Hebrew" to its "Russian" setting and my Hebrew was, in a word, gone. I ordered my cheese in Russian, discussed the cheese in Russian, discussed Russian and Hebrew and immigrating in general, also in Russian, and then went to the cashier with my cheese and couldn't get out a word of Hebrew. Then! I went back to Barak's school, where I had some business to deal with in the office, and likewise couldn't get out a word of Hebrew. It was really bad. Like, three months' Hebrew regression in a day.

I don't know why but my brain just does not process more than one second language at a time. It's like I've got the hard drive space, but not the RAM, you know? My father never had a problem with this. I remember being so impressed as a kid when we would cross the border and he'd speak German with the Austrian border guards, Hungarian with the Hungarian border guards, and English with us, all without missing a beat. The translators at work, holy moley, some of them switch between four or five European languages--and similar ones--without any problem. I just can't do this. If I'm in Hungary, I can speak Hungarian and English. If I'm here, I can, more or less, speak Hebrew and English. Last Pesach, when we were in Boston staying with French friends, by the end of the week my French was as good as it's been since I left Montreal in 1992. But if you'd asked me while I was in Boston to speak Russian, forget it. My French here? In the toilet, completely. I can barely get a sentence out. And when I ran into that Hungarian couple a few weeks ago, I don't know how I would have fared with more than a two-minute conversation--I haven't spoken Hungarian in a couple of years and don't know how cognitively available it is at the moment.

Some people are polyglots by nature; I just am by circumstance. And I think my main advantage, linguistically speaking, is a willingness to sound like a complete idiot, coupled with a willingness to say something that is almost, but not quite, what I want to say. Circumlocutions R Us.

Better post this before Blogger eats it.


Penny said...

even though i'm currently "land locked" in this english speaking country i understand. i look at my husband with a bit of bewilderment not only is he polylingual but he can add languages as an adult. though i do have him beat on the written word, especially for asian languages. but i can not flip around them at all. ivrit b'ivrit and if i hear a word or two in another language that i recognize? it goes downhill from there. (hungarian is the worst for me since i only know a handful of words)

shanna said...

My brain does not process more than one language at a time, period. When we were just with my aunt & uncle in K.S., and then visiting other relatives from that side in that generation, I was able to communicate just fine. I mean, on a first-grade level, but still. I could form sentences and tell stories and understand (some) jokes. As soon as a cousin my age showed up (used to speaking to me in English), all Hebrew skills went out the window.

miriamp said...

My Hebrew is rather poor, my French consists of being able to introduce myself, say it was nice to met you and tell you when my birthday is, and my (high school) Spanish is rusty. However, I definitely find that my brain classifies languages as English and Other. If I can't find a word in Hebrew and I know it in Spanish, I'll substitute the Spanish word automatically, rather than fall back on English. Probably vice versa as well (I kept thinking cup in Spanish was cosa, b/c it is a Spanish word and is really close to cos.) but I currently have a larger vocabulary in Spanish than in Hebrew.

miriamp said...

And I'm still in awe that you even know that many languages and can make yourself understood in any of them, even if it's only one at a time.

LC said...

Cosa is thing? because *casa* is house.

I've done both - I learned Spanish in HS with my jr HS/HS German as a fallback, but my Hebrew falls back to English, maybe b/c I wasn't co-learning it with anything?

LC said...

Cosa is thing? because *casa* is house.

I've done both - I learned Spanish in HS with my jr HS/HS German as a fallback, but my Hebrew falls back to English, maybe b/c I wasn't co-learning it with anything?

Cyndy said...

Circumlocutions R Us, Latin Edition. My younger daughter could not remember the word for snow in Latin so she wrote "frozen water falling from the sky" and got full credit. The older one can go from from a class taught in English to Adv. Spanish then on to Chinese without getting mixed up. I think your Hebrew will get less fragile over time.

Anonymous said...

I can go between English, Farsi, and Dutch without problems, because those are the languages spoken at my parents' home: I can switch from addressing each in their native language to English when my husband walks in. Not so good switching to Japanese and any other non-English language, though, and since I've been working on learning Swedish I get weird interference when I'm trying to speak Spanish and can't find the word right away. I really have to concentrate on digging any French up out of the pit of my memory, and if any more recent 2nd language comes along, forget it.

Funny thing, neurolinguistic pathways.

~ Jasmin