Friday, June 24, 2011

On Bilingualism: Inside-Out

The neighbor's ajisai are the loveliest blue...

Around the time I went to Germany, I used to have a recurring dream that was so vivid I can recall it to this day in its entirety.

I remember standing in a square room with no doors or windows, although it wasn't dark inside.  The entire floor was a sort of jungle gym of square pylons of varying colors and heights--some near the floor, low enough to sit on, others nearly touching the ceiling.  As soon as I noticed these things, I became aware that the floor was covered with water.  Water that was rapidly rising.  To escape the water I climbed the pylons, sure that there must be some exit near the top of the room.  There was no exit.  I sat on the top pylon, flattening myself against the ceiling, as the water swirled around my feet.  At this point in the dream, the fear started.  Just before the water reached my face, I took the biggest breath I could...and held it.  I could swim around the room, but there was still no way out.  The breath began escaping from my mouth. I tried to slow it, to forestall the inevitable moment when I would have to breathe in.

Some part of my brain knew I was holding my breath in my sleep.

My body started to shake from the effort of forcing the flow of air out instead of in... gone.  An involuntary gasping intake of water into my lungs and-- I could breathe.  In. Out.  Normal, easy breaths.  Of water.  The dream always ended with a feeling of  joyous wonder at my ability to breathe underwater.

Years later someone explained that awful, wonderful dream to me.  She said it was my own brain telling me not to worry about going to Germany and speaking German.  The room was Germany, the water was the language—my brain’s very literal way of representing the “immersion” experience of living in another country, speaking another language.  My brain was telling me I would be able to “breathe underwater", that is, I would be able to communicate in German.

I can clearly remember the first night in the Studentenheim on Kaulbach Strasse--I was terrified.  I was the only student from the exchange program in that particular dormitory, so at first I had no one to talk to.  I remember lying on my bed, feeling as though someone was pouring ice water into my veins starting at my feet.

I remember wandering around the second day until I found a supermarket.  I  was hungry, but couldn't cook anything since I had no pots or kitchen things.  I bought a coke and cookies--paying for them without speaking.  The following day I found a stand selling wurst.  I couldn't put words together to ask for what I wanted, but I was hungry since I hadn't eaten anything but cookies and coke the day before.  I pointed, and what came out was "Das!" (that!).   [Mini-moral:  if you are hungry enough, you will speak]

I went back feeling defeated and ashamed-- six years of German, and all I could say was "das".  I thought I must be stupid;  I thought I had no language ability at all.  I wish someone had told me before I went what a Silent Period is--and how normal and even necessary it is.  That *all* language learners--including, especially, babies-- go through it in an immersion situation.  It lasts weeks or months for adults (sometimes longer), one to two years for babies (no such thing as a chatty newborn;-)).  During the silent period, it's your ears that are doing all the work--following the rhythm, the prosody, of the language; picking out words and phrases; accumulating examples of syntax.  And within that expanding balloon of comprehension appears a tiny new balloon for production--speech production *always* lags listening comprehension in immersion.

I struggled when classes started at the Uni Hamburg-- everyone spoke so quickly.  I had to ask so often for people to repeat what they'd said, I thought for sure they must have believed me to be hard of hearing.  I thought there couldn't be anything harder than trying to understand my professors lecturing/gabbling at top speed... until I got Telephone Duty in the dormitory.  The dormitories (this was 1988, mind) had only one phone for incoming calls, and residents took turns acting as "receptionist", answering the phone and buzzing other residents when they had a call.   I discovered, upon picking up a phone for the first time, that it is an order of magnitude more difficult to understand someone whom you cannot see.  You lose an entire layer of facial expressions, lip-reading, hand gestures, and actions that are of signal help in the early stages of language learning.  

It was a good month and a half before I began to feel comfortable speaking in restaurants, stores, and similar situations.  Three or four months into my year abroad, I noticed that words and phrases (from tv, or heard from acquaintances) would seemingly jump out at me--"Ooh!  That's the fourth time in two days I've heard that word!"....and I'd go look it up.  Aha.  So that's what it means.  And then I owned it--I could use it in my own still sometimes halting speech.  Sometimes the way a particular person talked would strike my ear--and I would sit in my room repeating like a toddler phrases and clauses I'd heard.  Grown-up babbling stage:-))   I remember distinctly sitting on my bed saying "Ich mein', dass das eigentlich...." ...over and over, in an effort to say it in the smooth, cool way that Monika (who lived down the hall--different Monika;-)) did.  "I think that it's actually..."--this is the sort of phrase that, usually, you "unhear".  That is, you don't have to listen to every word of it--you can guess what's coming before it's said.  This sort of phrase is really a high-level filler-- an edumacated way of saying "umm".  I remember feeling inordinately pleased with myself the first time I got a whole sentence out with that phrase stuck on the front.

Every step along the way, the experience of learning from the "inside" was much more like learning to sing a song than learning the rules of a game before playing it.  Another language teacher once told me that "language is acoustical, not intellectual".  I largely agree with that.  Gradually, bits and pieces of the language "stick" in your head in the same way a song gets stuck up there.  (Please note that, as a public service,  I did not embed any links to songs that might get stuck in your head.  Am I not nice?:-))

There's actually more I'd like to say--but it's 3am, and I'm ready to pass out.  To be continued...;-))


  1. Oh wow, I can't even imagine.

    I was always my own worst enemy when it came to languages. I just felt so silly trying to recreate sounds and such, even in the classroom. I can't imagine the embarrassment of trying that out in the wide world.

    I'm impressed at how you took the bull by the horns and threw yourself into it. You're amazing.

  2. Re your stint as phone-answerer, and non-verbal communication. That's why I get annoyed when people treat 'lol' and emoticons as somehow 'common' and non-intellectual. (I've even seen self-appointed 'mods' (aka busybodies) say things like 'We don't use 'lol' on this board.)

    A simple lol or smiley face at the end can turn what looks like an insult into a joke: "Oh, you're really dumb :-)" It's a substitute for facial expression, is all.

    Was the bit about songs that stick in your head a challenge? 'Cause you had to know I'd think of summat…

  3. A few decades ago, I remember getting off the train with three friends in the middle of Paris suddenly surrounded by French! It was my first experience in a non-English speaking country. I thought, "What have I got myself into?"

    Armed with a basic traveler's vocabulary taught to me by my friend Bonnie, who had helped me sing in French during college, I boldly forged ahead.

    I found where to change money and get information. We got a map for the Metro. By the time we left Paris by car three days later, I was told to ask for a room when we stopped. The person who had "studied" French said that I spoke better than she did.

    I know I made mistakes, but I had a lot of fun and did communicate, sometimes with single words— that's another story! During our eight weeks, we sometimes had conversations with people using English, French, Spanish and Italian. (None of us knew German.) I was happy to say, "Dober Dan" when visiting Slovenia, then part of Yugoslavia, my grandparents' home before WWI, and I could read the menu there.

    Perhaps not knowing grammar was an advantage that summer. I blithely made mistakes but kept on talking. Now, when I am in a situation where I speak German, I try really, really hard not to be scared because I think that I might make a mistake and I don't want to do that.

    There is nothing like "having" to speak another language.

  4. Notice that I did not say how many decades that was.

  5. This and your previous post bring back memories.

    Forty years ago, I was a Monbusho (as then was) research scholar in chemistry. I arrived in April with my cohort, and started by learning Japanese (at Osaka Gaidai, 6 month basic course; undergrads got a year at Tokyo Gaigodai, since they were to be dropped into normal Japanese 1st year university classes when they finished). The course was the classic "outside-in" language learning, taught in Spanish for native Spanish speakers and English for everyone else. It was very well taught (I think you can still buy the current version of the textbooks in Kiinokuniya); but we all went back to our dormitories at the end of the day and, with a sigh of relief, conversed in our various native languages or common language of English.

    When the time came to leave to start my research, I could not think how I was going to survive outside the foreign student dorm environment. This despite the fact that I had begun a friendship with a monolingual Japanese - wonderful how much the desire to communicate there made any qualms about lack of competence seem totally unimportant.

    By what now seems like great good fortune, my research was done at Kyushu University, so there was no foreign student dorm full of English-speakers to come home to, and no-one in my research group wanted to speak English - "inside-out" learning, here I come. Day 1, I could walk into the tea room, and perhaps communicate face-to-face with one person. Within a few months, I could stroll in and join a several-way conversation.

    "Inside-out" and the sheer need to communicate make all the difference to oral competence. However, I attribute a large portion of my success at and speed of Japanese acquisition, such as it was, to the initial "outside-in" learning (which meant that I could, e.g., recognize a past tense verb when I heard it and therefore be able to look it up in the dictionary in the present tense form in which it appeared rather than just wonder what kind of word it was).

    When speaking Japanese, even now, I still more-or-less think in Japanese and don't interpret internally; when I have had occasion to interpret for someone else, I stumble.

    I think there is also a difference between alphabetic (or syllabic?) and non-alphabetic (ideographic) languages. I think that oral competence in an alphabetic language tends to lead more quickly to written competence in that language, and probably vice versa. Oral competence in a non-alphabetic language helps far less with written competence - knowing that "asu" (when heard) means "tomorrow" does not help you when you see the characters for "light day" in the newspaper weather forecast. And the reverse is also true - knowing that "light day" (when written) means "tomorrow" doesn't help when you need to say to your colleague "I'm off to Tokyo tomorrow". But I'm no linguist - perhaps someone with skills in that field can comment.

    Thanks for a fascinating blog.

  6. Reminds me of when I first moved to Japan. I was working at one of those private chain Eikaiwa schools, a small one - was just supposed to be me and the manager. The regional manager was there the first two days of work, and the new manager was supposed to start after that.

    ...except that she never showed up to work. So my 3rd day in Japan, I was opening and closing the school myself, answering the phones, greeting visitors, and also taking care of all the new resident stuff she was supposed to have helped me out with like getting a bank account, paying bills, etc.

    Her replacement didn't show up for a few weeks, and even after that there would be months at a time with no manager on site.

    I can't imagine a better way to have been forced to get better at Japanese. :)