The Language Files 7: Un mélange étrange des langues! A strange language mélange

Have you ever felt your brain literally melt?

I have.

Over a year ago, a bilingual French and English friend of mine was very kindly helping me with my French presentation. I had written a rough draft in French, with a bit of English dotted in when I really couldn’t think of how to express something in French. He was reading the text aloud, when he sputtered to a halt at an English phrase, and closed his eyes in a mixture of pain, dismay and confusion. I found the franglais quite amusing, but he saw no humour in it. “Seriously,” he groaned, “when your French gets better you’ll understand how brain-melting it is to switch suddenly from one language to another.”

I didn’t know what he meant at the time. I had started French just over a year before, and I was pretty much constantly translating directly from English in my head. Now, I understand exactly how he felt.

The bewilderment comes when you start thinking in and getting into the flow of one language, and then you start to speak in another, but words creep in from the first. Saturday night was a perfect example. I was at a little party consisting of English-, French- and German-speakers (Swedish too, but they weren’t speaking it, they spoke perfect English as all Nordic people seem to). So there was quite a lot of language swapping going on; few of the people at the table spoke all three languages. Cue major brain-melting as I shifted from French to English and dipped a toe into German. I wasn’t alone either, as other people at the table were doing the same thing and suffering the same disorientation.

The moment I realise the mistake my mind grinds to a halt, as I am literally caught between two languages and not sure how to proceed. Often it is with a curse word (in either language) followed by some head-clutching.

As if two wasn’t enough, try getting caught between three languages. Franglais is one thing, Chinglish another, but whoever heard of François? Chinch? Chinçais? I.e. when I mix French and Chinese together. It’s amusing, don’t get me wrong, especially as I am not particularly proficient in either language, but it mushes my brain. Throw in English and it really does start to get ridiculous. One language needs to be decided upon in order to continue the conversation in a sane manner.

Linguists have a name for this: code-mixing. Apparently it happens alot in bilingual children who move between languages without discrimination as they are learning. So, though it might be making a fondue of my brain at the moment, I’ll choose to take it as a good sign, if I’m displaying the same traits as bilingual kids. It can only mean my French is getting better…right?


One thought on “The Language Files 7: Un mélange étrange des langues! A strange language mélange

  1. Also, we have something called the language switch. Some people have a good language-switch, others don’t. Interpreters, for example, are experts at juggling with two languages at the same time (hearing in one and speaking in the other). Some multilingual people are very good at being monolingual, and other (like me) aren’t. I mix my languages all the time. Annoying for my monolingual friends, probably.

    Reading this post, I suspect you might be interested in reading François Grosjean’s blog on bilingualism, if you don’t know it already!

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