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Off topic: Do you have to switch on/off your "language" mode"? (based on circumstances, people, etc)
Thread poster: Claudia Alvis

Claudia Alvis  Identity Verified
Local time: 06:40
+ ...
Aug 6, 2008

Do you have to switch between languages in a conscious way or does it happen automatically?

Let me explain: I usually don't really need to think about it since I speak perfect Spanish and I live in an English-speaking country. I can just switch from one language to another; it happens automatically. But when it comes to certain circumstances, it's not that easy.

I was doing my groceries today and the self-checkout cashier asked me to choose between English and Spanish. I always choose English because it's the top button. But today I accidentally selected Spanish and, without hesitation (1) I canceled the transaction and (2) confirmed that I wanted to cancel the transaction. Then I realized how stupid that was because I speak Spanish and I lost several seconds canceling the whole thing and starting again.

But that's not the only time I've had a language short-circuit of sorts. I also realize that if I use one particular language to communicate with one person, using a second language with the same person doesn't go so smoothly. It just might be that I'm used to using that particular language with that particular person. But I think there's more to that.

I've noticed that if I normally use Language A with one person and I switch to Language B, my brain is still thinking in Language A. For instance, there's a Spanish PO that always writes to me in English when she sends me work-related emails or IMs. But when we're just having a casual conversation or we're using Skype just for fun, we use Spanish. Although it does feel kind of weird, at least for the first few seconds. I also noticed that even though we are using Spanish, our sentences have an English-like syntactic structure: use of passive voice, adjective-noun phrases, etc. So a part of our brains is still thinking in the language we use more often when we talk to each other.

In the same way, if I'm translating into Spanish, my conscious brain is "switched" into Spanish mode. If I have to write some short message, I can just go into English mode; but if I have to write a lengthy text in English or a formal document, I have to "shake off" the Spanish mode.

This notion used to fascinate me when I was taking linguistic classes at the university but I hadn't really thought about it in years until now. Maybe that's what happened to me at the Supermarket, my brain wasn't used to a Spanish-speaking machine but it was used to an English-speaking one.

I guess that's one of the reasons I'm such a lousy interpreter. I'm still amazed when I see a good interpreter doing his/her job because I know how hard it is and I also know that I can't do it.

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Local time: 20:40
Japanese to Spanish
+ ...
I try keep in mind the language of the speaker but, things happen Aug 6, 2008

I try keep in mind the languages spoken when interpreting. As far as I can remember, I have had no problems with that. However, what you described happened to me a few times, mostly when shopping or when talking with friends. Not when interpreting, but when asking about a product or having a casual chat.

I may be going off topic, but since part of my friends speak Japanese, and there are concepts that are difficult to explain in Spanish, we use Japanese to make sure we understand it. My grandparents used to do that, too.

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Nicole Schnell  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 04:40
English to German
+ ...
Same here. Aug 6, 2008

Nobody ever speaks German to me, only when I am on the phone with my folks back in Germany. It really takes a couple of seconds to adjust. In fact, it feels like I somehow have to adjust my jaws first.

I absolutely admire interpreters. Whenever my parents (who don't speak English very well) meet my husband (who doesn't speak German at all), I am completely exhausted by all the back and forth after one hour.

[Edited at 2008-08-06 00:57]

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Henry Hinds  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 05:40
English to Spanish
+ ...
Interpreting Aug 6, 2008

Having been an interpreter for all these years in addition to translating, I have found that it involves a complete rewiring of the brain. Therefore, I do not have any particular problems mixing up languages, although at times I have to switch back and forth very quickly and instinctively. That also is a big help in keeping the flow going in translation.

The rewiring process involves doing a lot of things that are not natural and must be developed through practice. I did not go through the process with any guidance and method at all, it just simply came into place after time, although I was well aware that it was something I had to accomplish. And it did take a long time.

Now if I could just rewire it for a lot of other things, for instance just a few hours ago when I forgot something really important... fortunately I was saved, but it was something I never should have forgotten. So much for the wiring, it works for some things, and for others not.

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chica nueva
Local time: 00:40
Chinese to English
code-switching, interpreting Aug 6, 2008

In conversation I tend to introduce myself in Chinese, and then continue in English. But I tend to be thinking in the Chinese context some of the time, so Chinese phrases can appear. Sometimes this confuses the listener because they don't know what to listen for.

I did some interpreting once, for my boss. I found myself semi-simultaneous interpreting. It seemed to work. I would listen, process and speak while the conversation was happening, with a delay. Do other people do this?

[Edited at 2008-08-06 03:10]

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Local time: 06:40
Spanish to English
Same here Aug 6, 2008

I find that it's usually automatic, but there are fields (living in a Spanish-speaking country, typically everyday things) where I am speaking English (like to Mom) and that Spanish insists on creeping in (We had chifa).
It gets to be fun in interpreting too, because almost all of my interpreting work is with local accounting firms when they have foreign accountants with clients visiting. Six or seven people around the table, with lots of crosstalk, so it usually takes me about 45 minutes to get to the stage where I hear something in Spanish, mentally convert it into English, and just as swiftly convert it into Spanish to receive blank stares from a Canadian auditor. LOL

[Edited at 2008-08-06 03:53]

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Angeliki Papadopoulou  Identity Verified
Local time: 14:40
Member (2006)
English to Greek
+ ...
Many years back Aug 6, 2008

I worked as a tourguide. Most of the time I delivered bilingual tours, in both English and French.

The funny part was when I had to "count heads" in the bus to make sure everyone was on board. I had to school myself to stay with one language, because I often started in Greek and switched to English halfway through - a nightmare! Eventually I only used English for counting, but it took some getting used to.

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biankonera  Identity Verified
Local time: 14:40
Italian to Latvian
+ ...
reality of my life Aug 6, 2008

For me this switching is kind of an automatic thing since I was born into a bilingual family and live in a bilingual society, so Im juggling 2 languages since day one and over the years Ive added 2 more languages so now Im dealing with 4. The only times when I get a bit stuck is when somebody suddenly asks me for a translation of some word and it hapens Ive to think a bit (which I guess is due to the surprise element) so in such cases I say - thats why Im a translator not interpreter, Ive my dictionaries for that.:))

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Annelise Meyer  Identity Verified
Local time: 13:40
English to French
+ ...
Same here Aug 6, 2008


French is my mother tongue, English and German are my 2 working languages and I speak Spanish as well. I also find it hard sometimes to switch between two of my foreign languages, though I find this most enjoyable to speak several languages during the same day or event! I also think this is due to a lack of practice, and I often tell myself that I should be practicing more but then.. time flies and I have no time to set any proper strategy to do that
Anyway, though this can be quite a tiring exercise (to switch from one language to another), I just love it. In fact, I like to go abroad in countries where noone speaks my mother tongue, because I find it quite "relaxing" as well to forget French for a few days and to use another, less "meaningful" language: a language where there are no such things as hidden meanings or afterthoughts, you know?

Have a nice day!


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Barbara Toffolon
Local time: 13:40
Member (2008)
Italian to English
+ ...
Two-way thinking.... Aug 6, 2008

I am perfectly bilingual in italian and english and I have been since day one. What I find myself doing when, for example, I am reading or watching TV...I simply continue translating in my mind - from one lanuage to another - or even trying simultaneous interpretation of conversations in a film. I find I do this without thinking, as though my brain cannot shut off and is continuously looking for situations in which to try itself. There have been moments when I even found myself to be tired and realized that I was still translating everything I heard or read that day. Is this normal? or maybe I'm a burn-out candidate.

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Margreet Logmans  Identity Verified
Local time: 13:40
English to Dutch
+ ...
Mix-up in conversation Aug 6, 2008

I have family members in Germany and in Canada. They are married couples, and in both cases one partner speaks Dutch, while the other does not, they speak German and Englis, respectively. But I'll give them credit, they're trying hard, especially my German sister-in-law, who has made enormous progress over the years.

Whenever I'm in conversation with them, I just speak the language the conversation was started in. For example, if I walk in on a meeting in German, I'll speak German. But as soon as someone drops in a word in Dutch or English, I'm out of it. Somehow my mind just locks up.

So yes, I do have to switch to a 'language mode' and I don't switch easily. The funny thing is, I do some interpreting for my family sometimes and that's not too much of a problem. As long as I don't have to actually take part in the conversation, I'm fine with more than one language at a time.

It is also very strange to me to have a conversation with my brother in German. It's just not natural to speak your second/third language with someone you've grown up with, even in the company of German speaking people. All my childhood memories are in Dutch, after all...

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Marijke Singer  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 12:40
Dutch to English
+ ...
Automatic Aug 6, 2008

I switch languages (English, Spanish and Dutch) without noticing. I can also have a conversation in three languages (with my sister which is always highly amusing to others; we do not even notice we are doing it). When I count to myself, I always count in Spanish (I suppose because my first maths lessons were in Spanish although I have a Math degree from a UK university).

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Nicole Schnell  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 04:40
English to German
+ ...
Interesting point, Margreet! Aug 6, 2008

Margreet Logmans wrote:

As long as I don't have to actually take part in the conversation

Why is it so perfectly normal to translate a German newspaper article to my husband into English in a snap, or give a summary thereof, but so difficult to use several languages during a conversation? Because we have to weigh each and every word? That's certainly beyond interpreting.

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Juliana Brown  Identity Verified
Local time: 07:40
Member (2007)
Spanish to English
+ ...
I have an offshoot of this "disease". Aug 6, 2008

When I speak Hebrew, I have no trouble at all flipping into French, and it comes out the way it's meant to. The problems start when the combo is Spanish/French; then my Spanish seems to "eat" my French, and it comes out with the oddest verbs and adjectives. I spoke French long before I learned Spanish, but after being immersed in Spanish for the past 15 years, and using it daily for work and family, the French retreats into some wierd corner of my brain. I don't know why the same doesn't happen with Hebrew...
My Spanish and Hebrew speaking five year old will start learning French this year- I wonder what will happen with her languages...?

As for interpreting (which I am doing less and less, b/c of the exhausting human factor)...I always find that after the job is finished, I need some "neutral" silence to rewire myself, before I can work on a translation.

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José Henrique Lamensdorf  Identity Verified
Local time: 08:40
English to Portuguese
+ ...
The human brain OS Aug 6, 2008

Just as it is said that the Creator made humans to His image, which is questionable, as anyone meeting their Maker will no longer be able to write here, it's somewhat easy to find features in computers' operational system that were made to their (human) makers' image.

Then, just as there are several computer operating systems, such as DOS, Windows, Mac OS, Linux, and many others, it should be safe to venture that humans also may have different "operating systems" in their minds, though being able to interact externally in a standard way. What I mean is that a DOC file may have been created under Windows, Linux, or Mac OS, but it will be fairly compatible with all of them.

All I know is how my brain operates for languages, and I've noticed several identifiable peculiarities.

First, I studied English as my second language in ages 9-17, most (and last) of it the British way. I could read, write, and even translate fairly well after that. When I was 23, I went to the USA for the first time. Immediately upon my arrival in Los Angeles, I discovered that I hadn't learned to speak! Having been told something, it took me several seconds to mentally translate it into Portuguese, draft my "response" and some more seconds to translate it into English, and say it aloud. When I was ready to fire, the other person was usually gone. This lasted for my first three days there, while I was probably taken for a moron. On the third day, I was watching "60 Minutes" on TV, when I (physically) felt a whack inside my head, like a sluice gate opening, and I suddently started to speak English about as fluently as I do today. It took me a week or so to get rid of the British accent. Amazingly enough, some two decades later an amateur "Professor Higgins" from Princeton, NJ, said that I spoke like a native from the San Fernando Valley (the precise spot of my first stay in the US) of Italian descent. My parents were Polish, but the Italian had its reasons.

I often get the impression that my mind works simultaneously in both Portuguese and English, though I never start off speaking or writing in the wrong language. I can watch a whole film listening to the audio and reading the subtitles. The problem is physical, the way I have to set my mouth to speak each one. If I switch too often and too fast between these two languages, there is a moment when I accidentally bite my cheek really hard, and it hurts! From that point on, I slow down the shifts, prompted by the unceasing pain.

During ages 10-14 I had Italian classes at school. Mostly grammar, but it seemed very easy for me, especially in comparison with my class buddies. Apart from personal curiosity now and then, I never used this knowledge until exactly two decades later, when I went to Italy and Switzerland. To my absolute astonishment, I could understand and speak it very fluently. It should be noted, however, that I never went south of Rome.

When I was 14-16, I took French at the local Alliance Française. Note that my English studies were far ahead then. Though I was doing well there, on the third year, in class, I had a rather long stretch of speech. Suddenly, I might have missed some word in FR and, instead of using mais... I said but..., and brilliantly finished my whole part in English. My teacher - a quite charming and young Niçoise - stared at me with chagrin and said, in a heavily-accented English, I hope that some day you'll express yourself as well in the French I'm trying to teach you as you do it in English! So I dropped out by the end of that year.

At age 32, my job required me to organize several international corporate meetings, with just too many participants from various Spanish-speaking countries. Before I noticed it, I was speaking Spanish quite fluently, though I was thoroughly illiterate in it (I have to say a text aloud to understand it), and my vocabulary was such a mix that I cannot be traced to any country from what I say in ES, not even my own Brazil. Both Argentineans and Mexicans say that I speak their language quite well, though it seems to me that they wouldn't say so about each other.

Now comes the funny part: retention. Italian and Spanish seem to co-exist in the same region of my brain. No matter how long ago it was the last time I spoke either of these, it lingers. So if the last time I spoke Spanish was two hours - or two years - ago, next time I speak Italian, for the first hour or so it will come out heavily loaded with Spanish. And the reverse works exactly the same way. I cannot explain it.

At last, one day - can't remember when, but long before the computer age - I decided to study German. Borrowed some tapes, books, feedback gimmicks, the whole course. Though my mother spoke it with perfection, I recall I was already married, so no longer living with her for constant help. I remember exactly where I stopped: Lesson #4. Exercise: Ich besteige ... strasse." I couldn't figure out id it would be der, das, or dem. When I found out that the correct answer was die, it dawned upon me that I hadn't learned a thing from lessons 1-3, and the "language real estate" in my brain might have been totally taken. So I gave up.

However the availability there seems to be variable. Evidence comes from the late uncle of a close friend of mine, who spoke 14 languages "with unusual literary sophistication", according to their respective native speakers. No, he was not a linguist but an accomplished lawyer.

So these are my personal findings so far. I don't know what branch of science would study such variation in mankind. The payoff, if attainable, is clear. Either there would be a way to heal the language block, or an individual's DNA could point to it being a waste of time for that person to study any foreign language.

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