Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Bizarre Things That Happen When You're Becoming Fluent in a Second Language

Beginning to Learn the Language

Learning a second language is more than just acquiring new words. There's a whole new grammar structure to learn as well, and, depending on how closely the new language relates to your native tongue, these grammar rules can prove quite confusing. Nevertheless, a huge part of learning a language is building your vocabulary. After all, what good does knowing the rules do you if you don't actually have anything to say?

Learning new words in your second language is very similar to learning new words in your first. Some will immediately feel easy to use, others will be awkward. If you're just starting out on your journey into the world of the bilingual, you may be surprised to find that sometimes these new words you're studying become as familiar to you as your first language. In fact, some words don't even feel like foreign words anymore. They just feel like words. And you feel tempted to use them in conversation just as you would use your first language.

The first Spanish word, well really I guess it's a phrase, that became as familiar to me as anything I had ever heard, read, or spoken in English was "tal vez", which means "maybe". This happened before I had even been studying Spanish for a year. Someone would ask me a question to which my response would have been "maybe", and "tal vez" would be the first thing to pop into my head. "Maybe" would follow a fraction of a second later, so I never actually got the point where I accidentally said "tal vez" out loud, but I was sorely tempted at times. Why was "tal vez" the first Spanish phrase to find a cozy place in my brain to snuggle up and nestle in for the night? I have no idea, but it was there nonetheless.

When You're Becoming a Little More Comfortable With the Language

After I had been studying for a couple of years, I occasionally found my English speaking brain trying to operate like my Spanish speaking brain. Here's an example:

The verb "to try" in English has quite a few different Spanish translations, depending on what, exactly, you are "trying". One translation is "probar" which can also be translated "to test". It is also the verb you would use if you wanted to say "to taste something" in Spanish. For example:

I want to taste that cake = Quiero probar ese pastel.

This verb gave me a laugh one day. I was at a church supper and I had just finished my plate. There was a delicious-looking chocolate cake over on the dessert table that I was just itching to try. When I turned to tell my husband that I was going to get myself a piece, the sentence that popped into my mind was, "I'm going to go probe that chocolate cake." Um...probe the chocolate cake? No, I most certainly did not want to say that out loud. That would conjure up a terribly inaccurate image of what, precisely, I intended to do with that cake. Luckily I caught myself just in time and was able to say "try" instead of "probe". Whew! Really dodged a bullet on that one.

Occasionally Speaking Your Second Language Better Than Your First

I do not yet consider myself completely bilingual. That word implies equal comfort with both languages, and I do not yet have that sort of mastery of Spanish. But sometimes...well, here's a funny story:

I was walking my dog and carrying on a rather lively conversation in my own mind (I'm a writer, so that's okay). I don't remember what I was talking to myself about, but at some point I starting thinking about things that people are not allowed to do. I knew that there was one word that summed up that sentiment, but I was having a hard time thinking of it. Then a word popped into my head. "Probidden." I stopped mid-step, scratched my head, and thought to myself, "probidden?" Somehow that didn't sound right. I knew it wasn't a real word, but I couldn't think what the real word was.

I continued walking, all the while racking my brain to figure out this mystery word that was giving me so much trouble. Then I thought, "It has to be 'probidden'. After all, the Spanish word is 'prohibido'. How else would I translate that to English?" Suddenly I remembered that "prohibited" was an English word that meant the same thing as "prohibido", but still it didn't sound right. I distinctly remembered a word that ended in "bidden". What was it? I just didn't know.

I walked for a good ten minutes, puzzling over this mystery, when finally it hit me. "Forbidden!" Yes! That was the word I had been trying think of. That was the word that meant "prohibido" but was not "prohibited". Once I thought of it, it was so obvious I felt instantly foolish, but that's what happens when your brain tries to think in two languages at the same time.

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