Saturday, June 16, 2007

The bilingual brain

A different language is a different vision of life. ~ Federico Fellini

I'm trying to speak as much English as possible with my family. I know to those who have never lived in a bilingual family that should seem like a no-brainer. Speak English. What's the big deal? C'mon, you're American!

Learning, living, dreaming, reading and writing in a second language makes you realize the incredible intricacies and innuendos of your own. When I imagine my bilingual brain, it is as if it has different rooms; there is the Italian room and the English room. When I'm in the Italian room (a.k.a. Jenny's room), I do absolutely everything in Italian. I think in Italian, and even talk to myself in Italian (something that freaked me out the first time it happened). When I'm in the English room (Jennifer's room), everything is in English. When I am working, I imagine that the adjoining door between these two rooms is unlocked, and that I can go back and forth.

I've written before in this blog about how much I like my work, and how much I learn about a zillion different things that would normally fly right over my head. But I absolutely totally cannot work when I'm tired. When I'm tired, not only is the door open between the English and Italian rooms, but the entire wall disappears. My inherent ditziness (a few days ago I found my car keys in the refrigerator... don't even ask me what train of thought I was cruising on that day!) takes on a whole new persona... imbecile speaking in tongues, and I make no sense to anyone, myself included. Imbecile speaking in tongues usually makes her appearance when she's had a glass of wine too many, or is suffering from jetlag, or has a sick imbecile speaking in tongues child keeping her up all night.

Our move to the US has spurred me to speak as much English as possible with my family lately. My husband's English is OK, and since he never talks anyway unless you pinch him really hard, it's no big deal. My children's comprehension and spoken English is decent, but their spelling is horrendous, something that will surely benefit from their upcoming enrollment in an American school. When you raise a child in a foreign language speaking country, instilling your own language is not as automatic as it seems. Either that, or I just haven't been very good at it. When my children were small, we were running our restaurant business, so they weren't at home with Mom only speaking English. They were in the kitchen with Mom and Dad and their Italian grandparents making ravioli.

Yesterday we took a day off and went to the mountains. We were sitting in the parked car waiting for the children and I was speaking English. My husband was telling me how at his farewell dinner given by his colleagues, the cook got drunk and wound up burning the porchetta to a black smoldering crisp. He obviously then the wound up in the kitchen himself cooking his own farewell dinner, which seems to be the story of his life. As he recounted this scenario, I was fully inhabiting the English room, and when he finished I said, "Oh get out!" (you know, as in, oh come on... oh no way... oh you're pulling my leg...)

My husband got out of the car and stared at me as if I was nuts.

Living in two languages can at times be funny, infuriating, frustrating and exhausting. It can make me feel downright nuts. But here's the good news... this BBC article does shine one ray of light on my eternal feeling of being on the road to early senility:

Researchers from York University in Canada carried out tests on 104 people between the ages of 30 and 88.
They found that those who were fluent in two languages rather than just one were sharper mentally.
Writing in the journal of Psychology and Ageing, they said being bilingual may protect against mental decline in old age.
Previous studies have shown that keeping the brain active can protect against senile dementia.

Oh, that makes me feel so much better. And it makes me not beat myself up quite so badly for that time years ago when I asked the supermarket guy for prosciutto senza preservativi... I thought I was asking for ham without preservatives. What I had really just asked for was ham without condoms.


Jennifer said...

I like the metaphor of the rooms. I had never seen it as three-dimensional as that. I always picture it as movie screens or TV channels in my brain. I see the languages projected onto little screens on the back of my forehead. French. English. Italian. And if I'm tired, the reception is bad.

Romerican said...

Great post... i can totally relate.
my english and italian start getting very jumbled if i'm tired, REALLY angry, frustrated, sick, or cranky, it's like I literally have to pull words out of my head one by one and i end up making no sense at all in english or italian!
as much as i love my work as a translator, at times it is kind of frustrating that our work can never be just a brainless task. at times i envy friends who can go to work exhausted from staying up late or slightly hung over and still "be productive" ... but as we all know, if we're too tired, hung over, or too anything else, it's like a day wasted for us.

anno said...

I've never been that fluidly bilingual, but I have noticed that the only time I ever make almond cake is when I hear my (very stylish) Bavarian Mutti's voice saying, "Heute mag ich ein biBchen Mandelkuchen..." I even shrug my shoulders differently in German. I think you will enjoy feeling your American muscles uncoiling when you return to those big skies and wide open spaces of Colorado.

Did you grow up speaking Italian?
And, totally off topic, do you know anything about medieval Italian? My daughter adores Emma Shapplin who apparently sings in that language, and she's interested in learning more. I would have assumed medieval Italian was basically Latin, but it looks like it has something more to do with the Italian of Dante. Any pointers? Thanks!

Jenn in Holland said...

I remember reading a study on the brain several years ago, and the differences in how an adult takes on a new language vs. how a child's brain forms the same connections. The article led me to believe just what you've explained here, that as an adult you file the second (and third...) language in a fully seperate area of the brain as to where the primary language is stored. Conversely, a kid who is learning a second (or third...) language is layering one on top of the other. It is why children can be readily fluent in more than one.
Anyway, I am really glad you addressed this, because I was actually wondering about your kids' command of English. No worries there of course, it will be speedily gathered as soon as thier feet hit the ground running.

Also I loved the description of getting your husband to speak. I have a similar man here. There are those in my life who would swear to you they have never heard him speak!

jennifer said...

Hi to all of my bilingual friends- good to imagine that we aren't heading to senility anytime soon, no?
To Jennifer and Romerican, fellow translators, I knew you would relate. Bad reception, wasted days, are all just part of the territory. Today one of my clients returned a mistake to me (I used reign instead of rein), which was a reminder of how tired I am. I officially stop working tomorrow until my move is done.
Hi anno- no, I didn't grow up speaking Italian. I learned Spanish at an early age, and my husband and I spoke Spanish to one another for the first year of our relationship. I learned Italian very quickly, and I've been here for ages. As far as medieval Italian, I know nothing of it... sorry. Sounds cool...
Hi Jenn- the pinching comment really is true. On the rear!

ByJane said...

I absolutely know what you're talking about, except that my two languages were British and American!

Kataroma said...

I studied Russian back in my early 20s and lived there. Now in my mid 30s I'm living in Italy and speak Italian on a daily basis. Up until I moved to Italy and started learning Italian I was still fluent (although a bit rusty) in Russian. Whenever I ran into Russians I could speak Russian no problems.

But now I just can't seem to switch to that "channel" in my brain. I know it's all still in there but I just can't click over to it. We had some Russian guests at the B&B and I tried to speak Russian with them but it came out half Russian half Italian (very weird!)

Does anyone have any advice with keeping up a second language while using a third? I feel very sad to have lost this language!

As for Italian and English - yes it's like two different TV channels - and my personality is slightly different in each one.

Caroline in Rome said...

I speak French to the Frenchman and English to the Bambina and in our house, the television, radio and most books are in French. It has made learning Italian much more of an uphill battle for me.

The Bambina, on the other hand, well, if you think getting your kids to be bilingual is difficult, try three languages. So far, English is definitely her mother tongue, Italian is second and French is a far and away distant third.

Better make sure you find a way to keep up the kids' Italian once you move back to the States, by the way! The language metaphorphosis occurs faster than you think!

Brillig said...

For a time, I was fluent in German, but then as I began intensively studying Italian, the German had to take a back seat. Then came Spanish, which is the only foreign language with which I ever reached that truly bilingual status, but it had to bump Italian and German out of the way. It's like my brain can only handle two languages at once. And even then, I do this room thing that you're talking about. I love the analogy!!!

Gunfighter said...


I took four years of spanish when I was in school, and I can stuill use it, but I have no fluency. when I was in the military, I was stationed in Germany where I learned to speak German rather well. While I can still speak German (twenty two yeaers after I left Germany), I really have to work in Spanish.

There have been one or two incidents where I couldn't remember an english word and just used a German word in it's place.

eLĂ­ said...

This is great...i know exactly what you mean. I usually envision it more as changing lanes on a highway, weaving in and out of traffic. One lane, Italian, move over to the next lane and speed up into english, then back to the italian lane and vere off and add a few words in french, spanish and portuguese. I'm incomprehensible at times.

*SASHA* said...

grazie grazie grazie! and all this time, pensavo che ero da sola in my bilingual 'pazzia' ;) i too love the metaphor of the two's always in the evening, stanca morta, that i absolutely confuse EVERYTHING! fantastic post. in bocca al lupo on the journey home!

Rebecca said...

I lived in Indonesia for two years and eventually became quite good at Indonesian (although, now, unfortunatly - because I never USE it - I've almost forgotten everything) I remember thinking that understanding two languages really enriches your entire experience of language as a whole.

I wonder how your boys will cope with English when they are in America???

Cate said...

"Get out!" I love my bilingual household. Cracks me up when my husband has no idea what my kids just said.

Goofball said...

Hi Jenny/Jennifer!

I am just discovering your blog a bit, so here I am commenting on a post that is already a couple of months old. But I really loved what you were writing.

I can see totally the image of multiple rooms. What I sometimes find is that I can work/function ...perfectly in Dutch (my mothertongue) and also in English or French, but when someone asks me to translate something, then I can't. Because I am in one room and not in both. I cannot always bridge the rooms. I understand what they are saying, but I can't easily translate and make that jump.

something else I find is that my memories of my youth exchange to Canada (where I learned most of my English) are in English. When I talk in Belgium about my exchange I sometimes get stuck as I can't find the words in Dutch, even after 13 years. The experiences at that moment were lived in the english room, all the associations, names, feelings are in English and I stored them in my memory in English.

I think that's cool somehow.