Thursday, June 25, 2015

Word Woes of the Multilingual and Unknown

One of the things I've noticed over the years is that my spelling has gotten worse. I've come up with various explanations, like age or lack of sleep or the disconnect between brain and fingers while typing, but even taking notes by hand I find myself misspelling things I never would have before. It's disconcerting for someone who prided herself on her spelling and proofreading abilities!

Recently, however, I've come up with another theory, and I think I may be on to something. I think it has to do with the number of languages I've studied and my increasing awareness of phonology. In English, especially, there are so many different ways that a sound could be spelled that sometimes I am no longer automatically sure what's right.  The other day I was playing Words with Friends and was trying to figure out what I could play. I thought of the word "raze" which I knew was spelled differently from "raise" but I couldn't immediately remember how it was spelled! I ran through various combinations in my head for the /a/ sound and the /z/ sound and finally settled on "raze."

Then, yesterday, I did a duolingo placement quiz because my daughter had told me that they finally offered Swedish. I had to type a sentence that said, "The man is drinking coffee" and I actually thought - wait, how is coffee spelled in Swedish? C or K? O or A? One or two Fs? One or two Es? I know the word coffee in English, Spanish and French (café), German (Kaffee), and Swedish and it's all slightly different! After a little thought, I settled on kaffe and was right.

I used to be surprised when I saw multilingual, intelligent people spell easy words wrong, but now I think I understand: when a similar word is spelled differently in your languages, it's really hard to keep track! And (gasp) it's not really that important. If I had spelled coffee "kaffee" in Swedish, I would have been told I had a typo by duolingo, but it's not like it would impede communication. So maybe multilingualism is good for my perfectionism? Or is it a symptom of my perfectionism?

An additional note, and this might be something for me to research later about bilinguals and multilinguals, is that when I'm playing Words With Friends, I cannot turn off the other languages I know and it's rather annoying. I will see a word I can play and then realize it's not an English word. The other day I had played "teat" and then realized I could make "teatro" from it and was all set to play that when I realized that "teatro" is Spanish. Again, not really that important, but interesting nonetheless (to me, anyway).

(insert pithy, clever conclusion here, whenever one comes to mind)

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Am I Trilingual?

I'm currently reading two books that intersect, I think. One is called A Dynamic Model of Multilingualism: Perspectives of Changes in Psycholinguistics by Philip Herdina and Ulrike Jessner, and the other is called Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success by Matthew Syed.  So far Bounce hasn't said much that I haven't read in other similar books like Outliers, but it's interesting nonetheless.

At a workshop I attended recently, I introduced myself to one of the speakers and he was asking me about my background, and then commented, "Oh, you're trilingual!" I was surprised a bit, because I would never say that about myself. The Dynamic Model of Multilingualism (DMM) book explains the conceptualization that society and researchers have had about bilinguals: that they are double monolinguals, eg, people who are just like monolinguals, but in two languages. "As Grosjean (1985) mentions, the monolingual norm assumption has had an enormous impact on our concept of bilingualism and has also been (and still is) accepted by most bilinguals who criticise their own language competence or do not refer to themselves as bilingual. Only if a person is fully fluent in both languages may one call him or her a real bilingual" (p. 59). I know that my German and my Spanish are nowhere near the equivalent of my English (how could they possibly be?!) and so I hesitate to call myself trilingual.

It's only in this past year when I asked another multilingual friend if she considered English a native language of hers that I began rethinking this concept. She was raised in Finland with a Finnish mother and an American father who always spoke English with her and her sister, but they answered in Finnish. When they were in high school, the family arranged to spend a year in the United States to  develop the girls' English. She also learned Spanish and uses it in her work. So that is what made me curious, because she was raised hearing English but not speaking it, so was it a native language? And that's when she used the triathlon comparison, and the same idea is in DMM: she was like a triathlete who wouldn't necessarily win a bike race against someone who just bikes, but she could do all three - bike, swim, AND run, and complete the race successfully.

So, no, I certainly am not a balanced bi- or trilingual, but I can get a lot further in Spanish than people who just speak German, and I can get a lot further in German than people who only speak Spanish. DMM talks about each multilingual person being their own dynamic system and I really like that concept. I've also had to realize this year that, I am an unusual American: with no heritage language or family that speaks another language and no extended residence in a foreign country, I have learned two foreign languages well enough to study them at a graduate level and to teach them. And I learned them pretty much simultaneously, with Spanish getting a bit of a head start.

And this is where Bounce comes in. How did I do it? If you ask someone, they'll probably say that I  have an aptitude for languages or that I must pick them up easily. Perhaps I do have a talent for languages, I don't know. Basically, I would say that I have a fascination for language and that, combined with a lot of hard work, led to my ability to speak German and Spanish. This is the point that Bounce makes: when we think of Federer or Tiger Woods or Mozart, we think that they have amazing natural talent that the rest of us could never have, but when you scratch the surface, you find out that they worked really, really hard to get better. Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics used to shoot a thousand free throws a day on top of practice.

Yes, I am trilingual, and it happened because of hours and hours of practice: of making and actually using flash cards, of practicing, of writing and writing and writing and working to understand my professors' corrections, of talking to myself while I walked my dog, of studying, of watching movies with subtitles in Spanish, of reading books, magazines, websites, of pushing myself to speak and to say complex sentences. A talent for languages? I actually have three big drawbacks to learning: I can't really understand or have a hope of remembering new words unless I see them written out, so I can't learn new words from speech, I'm very perfectionistic about making mistakes (which means, I don't want to make any, ever), and I'm introverted and intimidated about speaking in a foreign language, especially in group conversations, which, by the way, is most of the practice anyone ever gets.

I remember one time in Germany asking myself when I would finally get to the point where I could just ask something without rehearsing it first, and then realizing that I always rehearsed things in English anyway. So, never?

This blog post was actually going to be about something else, but it became this, which happens. So tune in next time for a synopsis of my language studies so far, and how I'm adding Finnish into my dynamic model and plan to blog about how I learn Finnish. Maybe we'll see if I actually have a talent for languages or if it's just more hard work!