Sunday, June 27, 2010

I No English Good, or First Language Attrition

This article, Code Mixing and Code Switching in Bilingual Children and Families gives a nice, clear rundown of the difference between code mixing and code switching. Useful, since I always get them mixed up. Basically: code switching is deliberately choosing to use a feature of one language while speaking the other, typically by bilinguals who master both languages well. This is definitely a staple in the Havo household. Code mixing, by contrast, is substituting features from your native language when you don’t master the second well enough. This is how K speaks at the moment, pulling in words and grammar from English since she doesn’t master Slovak well enough to express herself yet. She’ll get over it with time and exposure. Her parents may code mix from time to time as well, which usually results in merciless teasing (because we should KNOW better!).

One interesting point the author makes is that children who mix languages together may be perfectly aware of what they're doing. It is easy to assume that since a child uses words from both languages indiscriminately, the child isn't really aware that they are actually separate languages. However, children may choose to mix just as deliberately as adults do, and for similar reasons. Something to keep in mind.

What especially interested me, though, was that neither code mixing nor code switching as defined there managed to account for my most common problem: substituting features from my SECOND language into my NATIVE one. Of course my second language has certain limits and I sometimes use an Englishism until someone lets me know it’s wrong (ex: “Slyšela jsem od něho” instead of “ozval se mi”). In casual situations (i.e. in groups where everybody also speaks English AND I don’t care about impressing anybody) where I don’t know a word and can’t be bothered to come up with an on-the-fly workaround, I will deliberately borrow from English. That’s still code-mixing.

However, what really perplexed me was when I would use a Czech word (or literally translated expression, or word order) without realizing it. Especially with Czech words that sound like (even unrelated) English words. For example, I’ve said things like “Put it on the stůl” or “I can’t see from behind the sloup” (stůl means table but sounds like stool, sloup means column but sounds like slope). Presumably my English brain saw those as viable options because they sound like English words, but I’ve also used Czech words with a totally anglicized pronunciation that I would NEVER pronounce like that when in my right mind. I remember a Czech-speaking American friend told me about accidentally mixing when I was still in language school, like “Are you checking on me?” to mean “Are you waiting for me?” (čekat means wait). I thought that was just weird at the time…but then the next year I did the exact same thing! Part of the language acquisition process, I suppose. I don’t do this as much now, thankfully. I do still have a tendency to use the most ridiculous word order in English sometimes, or say things like “I don’t have to eat broccoli” (brokolici nemusím) instead of “I don’t like broccoli”. I’ve even mixed up “lend” and “borrow”, how embarrassing!

Another problem that goes hand in hand is forgetting words in my native language, which is still pretty common. Everybody forgets words sometimes, I just forget them significantly more often. This is kind of embarrassing when talking to family, like the chronic problem I had remembering the word “stroller” since we always used “kočárek” with my husband, so when talking about the baby pushy thing with my mom, there was always this slight pause as I frantically tried to remember: “I was walking along pushing the…stroller…” I have a similar problem in trying to translate quickly, which I think is because I crossed the self-translating bridge a while ago, so I don’t necessarily associate the Czech and English words for one thing with each other, at least not right away. So “stroller” becomes “baby pushy thing” (or with this particular word “baby carriage”, since that’s a literal translation of kočárek), or “kitten” becomes “baby cat, small and furry”. I would make such an impressive interpreter…

At first I thought all of this meant I was slowly losing it: becoming bilingual makes you crazy! Then I decided to hope and pray it was just a phase that passes once you master both languages. Then I decided it probably IS, and that probably other people experience it, too. So when it wasn’t included in the Bilingual For Fun article above, I started googling and it turns out, yes, this is a known phenomenon with a name and everything!

Take a look at this article, Learning and Forgetting Languages:
“However, they argue that it is crucial in the early stages of learning a new language when students have to actively ignore familiar native language words to progress. This becomes less necessary as fluency increases.”

"First-language attrition provides a striking example of how it can be adaptive to (at least temporarily) forget things one has learned."

This article suggests that it is, in fact, a phase we go through in learning our second language. I wasn’t losing it – I was being adaptive! Also, our children growing up bilingual shouldn’t go through it. Nice to know.

More googling of “first language attrition” turned up this article.

I identify very strongly with this. I don’t even have the excuse of language isolation as the author of this piece does, since I have never immersed myself in Czech completely: I have always had a small group of people I regularly spoke English with. True, the last year or two that I was in Prague the “small group of people” contracted to include mostly just my husband and the internet, but still, I never gave up English entirely. And yet I do all the things she talks about! Comforting to know it’s not just me – and that it’s not irreversible.

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