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Posted on 2017.06.25 at 20:31
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So I have nearly completed my work for the first year of graduate school. It was intense, immersive, and fascinating. It has been without a doubt one of the most positive experiences of my life, which is such a nice change after the last two years. I will put all that into a different post though as I want to talk about recent research before I lose my thoughts and questions.

During graduate school, one of the doctoral candidates and I had a few brief conversations and at one point he told me I actually think differently because I can speak other languages. It is not his field of expertise, but he has taught in other countries and has friends who are studying languages and perception. He gave me a list of links to check out when I asked for further information. So I have gone down the proverbial rabbit hole over the weekend instead of finishing my last paper.

One of the things that came up repeatedly was the idea that one language can, and does, interfere with the others. It can be obvious or subtle but it does often impact the language. So I do what comes natural to me and begin analyzing it. I know when I get migraines, I will use the words from one language and the syntax of another. I have also noticed when I write, there are times when I use a syntax that is from a different language than the one I'm writing. Case in point, read through a few entries as it happens frequently in English. Not the extent that you don't understand and it's necessary poor grammar, but to the extent a native English speaker may think it was an unusual way to word something. I also sometimes have spelling issues for a similar reason.

Research goes on to apply this to accents. How sometimes an accent is present, but more often is not. It even went so far as to say the accent could affect the first language in some cases. My first reaction was a memory of competing in a language tournament in high school and my German judges asked me if I was French. When I replied no, they asked if I studied it. I said yes and asked how they knew. They said because I sounded French not German, that my "r's" were very French. My second language accent was transferred to my third, which is still true today. However, it oddly did not translate to Japanese. I also have some issues with words I learned in French first and English second, like Quebec. It sounds wrong to me to pronounce it as "kwah-bek" rather than "kay-bek."

Another topic was that of "thinking" in another language. It started by stating that linguists define thinking differently than society; for a linguist thinking is what parts of the brain are being accessed versus society's idea of the language of their inner voice. For the linguist, they used the example of learning Chinese and how many who start it, view the variations as a variation in pitch thus using their right hemisphere, but once they become more fluent this shifts to the left hemisphere and the variations are considered variations of phonetic sound instead. While interesting, I am still left with a question. Why when I study Japanese do I translate it into French rather than English? There are some similarities, but they are also very different and sound nothing alike.

The idea of fluency was something else brought up in the research. Fluency is a continuum, not a destination. I took it to mean when you began to process the language as a native speaker rather than translating it to your own and back. At that point you begin to enter stages of fluency in that language. If that is the case, I am some stage of fluent in at least three of the languages I have studied with the fourth being nearly at that point. French is fluent, and if I'm honest I have no issues with Japanese...in fact is was startling to me how quickly I transitioned into the stage of not translating with Japanese. German I am hesitant to say is fluent because there are moments I have think of German grammar to say what I want to say. The language itself however is not being translated, just the syntax is not as easily accessible.

Lastly came the idea of metalinguistics being a huge advantage to language learners. That is to say, those who are aware of the rules of language in general and how it is acquired and used across cultures and languages have an easier time assimilating other languages into their learning. To me, this perhaps has the biggest impact on changing how we see the world. For one, we know that there is a deeper meaning behind words at times not just the literal meaning. Two, we know that the meaning is a cognitive thing and does not change depending on the word we use. Thirdly, we understand that language can be manipulated and changed. You can also start to see how having an overarching view of language could change how you perceive any language and go about acquiring it. Perhaps this is one reason I think French when I learn something new in Japanese? I think however, it is more likely true of when I decipher the speech of others. I do not presume to know what they mean because I understand this can vary widely between culture and language even when the same words (or translations) are used. I am highly aware of metalinguistics and in an effort to improve communication I perhaps notice things both in spoken and non-verbal language that others do not. If someone pushes me to make an assumption, I will often opt with the literal one rather than guess at the intent, even if I feel I know what it is (and am often correct).

This has been a source of miscommunication with specific people and I have no doubt I have frustrated them to no end because of it. Often they are frustrated with why I think what I do (and interestingly usually don't argue it's validity), and I am sometimes at a loss for words because it's like trying to describe what blue looks like. "I said ____ how did you get that from it?" Well, because it was the order of the words, the specific word choice, your inflection, your gestures, and how you felt...sometimes it reminds of how someone in another culture acts when they mean ____. I'm going to move to the next point as I feel I'm getting a bit rambling in trying to explain. I have also found I will take on the cultural aspects of the language in communication depending on the situation. I notice the most with Japanese because there are times when I respond in a more "Japanese" way than "American." It could be the type of speech I'm using or it could be an actual reaction, filler word, or interpretation of something. Research has showed that bilingual and multilingual people often will flow from one language to the next and also between cultures. They have learned to live with a blending of them rather than keeping the language in its own isolated folder in the brain. This is so true it isn't even funny for me.

The thing is, I don't even think about it. It's just like when I see a word that looks Japanese or French or German, I will pronounce that way even if it's an English word. Likewise, when presented with a situation that the response feels more natural in one of those culture's that's how I interpret the situation and act. It isn't to be difficult, ambiguous, or arrogant; it's simply what feels natural. I had never really thought about it before researching this but now I'm curious and want to know more about it.

How do we get to that point where we assimilate it all into ourselves?
Why are others, who are aware of other cultures and languages, so closed minded when dealing with this?
Is there a way to prevent one language leaking through into the other? Or to choose how it affects the target language?
What IS fluency?
What impact does it have for a multilingual teacher who teaches bilingual students? Does it make it easier, harder, or have no impact on learning?
Why would someone have a native accent in a second language, but the third results in the accent of the second rather than the first?
Why would someone when learning a language past their third translate the new language into a language other than their native tongue?
Does the method of learning another language need to changes as the person learns more? Does it get easier? Is a different type of study more or less effective?

I look forward to seeing what future research turns up.

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