During my four years at the U of A, I completed over 90 hours of course-work in 5 different foreign languages. In order to accomplish this, I was typically enrolled in 2-3 different foreign language classes at the same time, but I remember at least one semester when I was taking four: Greek, Latin, and Arabic, while spending every spare moment working on my German thesis. Frequently I would have to switch from one of these courses to the next without a break. People always asked me whether I got things mixed up, and I always answered this question the same way: no.
I did tend to qualify this response by saying that it usually takes a few minutes (5-10) to make the transition from one foreign language to another. With more observation, though, I found that active skills (producing) and passive skills (understanding) have different interplay when switching from one language to another. The passive skills remain at however high a level you have reached in the language, whereas the active skills are the ones that really require a period of adjustment.
More and more I found this to be the case. In trying to converse with my German thesis adviser in Kimpel Hall in passing on the way from Arabic to Greek, I had no problem understanding everything she said to me, but for the life of me, getting out even a few words of German felt like a fly trying to swim through molasses. After this occurred several times, I had to explain to her that my brain was only working in Arabic at the time. She then apologized for high-jacking my brain. I haven’t let go of the analogy since. I truly felt like my brain had been high-jacked when one of my professors would greet me in an unexpected language.
I also remember once sitting in Spanish class when I spontaneously started trying to conjugate present tense Latin verbs, and for the life of me I couldn’t even think of a Latin verb. Or maybe it was the other way around, but you get my point. In fact, that just further illustrates my point. It’s like once you’re thinking (producing) in a given language, your brain loses access to information from other languages you know.
Since we’ve been here, I’ve noticed that when I try to think of something in German, it just doesn’t come. I feel like I’m forgetting everything that I’ve learned. In the same way, Allison feels like she’s forgetting her Spanish. When either one of us tries to say something in German or Spanish, it all comes out Bulgarian. The funny thing is that we think that we’re saying it right until it comes out of our mouth and we realize that it’s really mostly Bulgarian. Except there was one time that we hadn’t been here that long that Allison and I went to Technopolis to look at blenders. A salesclerk came up to us and asked us if we needed help. I couldn’t think of a single thing to say in Bulgarian. Allison was crouched down looking at the blenders waiting on me to answer. I just froze up. For some reason I had German going through my head ever since we had come into the store. Finally, I got out some Bulgarian, which came out something like this: “We don’t want any of your help.” Wow. Did I really say that? He just gave me a strange look and walked off. Allison said “Thank you” to try to cover up for my blaring rudeness.
When we got to Istanbul, some German students studying Turkish helped us find how to get from the bus station to our hotel. Fortunately they spoke English, because I tried to speak some German to them, and it was awful. It was sorta embarrassing as I kept saying “Da” (Bulgarian) for “Ja” (German). They both sound like “Yes” to me. German seemed to be more useful in Istanbul than Bulgarian, though, as I ended up having to use my Bulgarian-sounding German to communicate to another guy (a German-speaking Turk) on the bus we got onto to go to our hotel to get more directions (we should have just taken a taxi all the way from the bus station, but we chose the adventurous route). In all of these experiences I’ve still found my observations to hold true. I can understand it, but I can’t speak it. Allison was also relieved when we were in Istanbul and I was flipping through the channels on our television. One was in Spanish, and she could get most of what they were saying.
Although I’m sure my German would come back to me if I had to speak it everyday, I just have to resign myself to the fact that it’s gone for now. This reminds me of Jesus’ words: “No one can serve two masters” (Matt. 6:24a). You can’t speak both Bulgarian and something else. Or as they say, you can’t have your cake and eat it, too.
-James, the younger brother