Flipping Languages

I’d never really thought about it, like so many Odd things in my world. I was sitting in the teachers holding pen ah, workroom, and Señora Dominguez marched up to the smaller of the two copiers with a look bordering between determination and trepidation. “Is it working yet?”

I’d been reading and hesitated for a second, trying to remember, then answered, “I don’t know, but the repairman was just here.” But I answered in Spanish.

Señora did a double-take, then tried the machine. It worked, and there was much rejoicing.

Later on, she caught me and said that I’d surprised her by answering in Spanish and so quickly. She can’t flip languages so fast, apparently, and was listening for English. We chatted a bit more and she went to her next class and I went back to trying to find a stray form that I was supposed to have filled out while filling in for another teacher. But I kept thinking about what she’d said. I’d just assumed that everyone who is bilingual can switch languages quickly and easily. Apparently not.

The only times I have trouble are when I’m having very low blood sugar or am exhausted. Although, I’ve noticed that if I reach a certain level of zonked, I just tip into the local language and stay there, rather than going back and forth. This is a great survival technique if I’m on my own. It’s not so good if I’m trying to get a group of jet-lagged travelers organized and onto the proper train.

I’m not certain when I developed this knack, or if it has always been there, because of people asking “what did she say?” and “What does that sign mean?” and because of taking notes in English from German materials. I can be reading German and flip into English, or reading English and flip into German without hesitation. Ditto spoken language, although that usually requires a moment to get the thought strings aligned. I’m a translator, not an interpreter, and doing full-out back-and-forth interpretation gives me a headache after several hours. Simultaneous interpretation gives me a headache after about fifteen minutes. I’m just not wired for that, not trained for it, and the people who do that for a living have my highest respect and awe.

I’d just always assumed that everyone who spoke two languages on a regular basis could switch instantly, and cold. Apparently not. And it may be because I learn through association and creating a mental web of meanings and grammar that fits all sorts of bits and pieces of several languages into slots and links, rather than layering language on top of language like many people do. Spanish, German, Latin, and English words for things can be found together, so it is very easy for me to mix and match, for better or worse.

Once again, I’m Odd.

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3 thoughts on “Flipping Languages

  1. I think that falls more in the ‘gift’ category… Probably part of your ability is multi-lingual too. I know people in Germany that speak German, Italian, French and Spanish who do it regularly.

  2. “Beware the flying context switch” is also “beware the flying language switch”? Pa and myself used to have some conversations that I know would not make sense to anyone else as context changed often with little or no warning. It was worse when one of us didn’t catch the context switch. I can imagine language switches are similar.

    Two or three things come to mind not quite related. I was just now disappointed/relieved to find that stop signs in Italy read ‘STOP’. Pa used to jokingly ask if they read ‘STOPPA’ or ‘HALTO’…

    And there was the time I was operating an injection molder (for plastics) and he told me, due to how the parts produced were looking, to “turn up the voltage” and caught himself – at the very instant I reached for hydraulic pressure control, since voltage is pressure and that was the only pressure control – there being no ‘voltage’ control. Another time we were discussing some transistor circuit (in common emitter configuration) and the old tube term ‘grid’ (assume common cathode) was used and understood for ‘base’.

  3. I am FAR from bilingual; my big problem is that my brain apparently interprets it all as jargon, so when I was tired in Japan I’d occasionally say something in Spanish, and now when I’m tired and my brain is yelling “not Navy” and “polite,” I will speak Japanese. Phrases from whatever I’ve been reading or thinking about will likewise pop up. (Helloooooo, horribly mangled Latin.)

    This is even worse because I only have a few basic manners type things. Thank God that folks think saying good evening in Japanese is cute, and the slangish “thanks” and “excuse me” mumbles are not radically different enough from “thanks” and “‘scuse me” that folks just auto-fill it in.

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