Sunday, November 20, 2016

Languages and teddy bears

So, it's two weeks since I posted last and Fiona asked me a question in the comments, which I also hadn't gotten around to answering. Since my answer started to get a bit long, I decided to make a post out of it.

First of all, about the teddy bear she commented on: I got that teddy bear when I was seven (I think). Around then anyway. My dad had to go into town, an unusual occurence, and I remember it was around christmas and there were stalls on Henry St. Thinking about it now, he was probably picking up a present for my mum, or collecting something she had ordered. I don't remember why I got to go with him, I'm not sure if I just asked and he said ok, or if there was a babysitting issue. That seems less likely though because it was just me and him and if it was a babysitting issue, my younger sister and brother would have come too. At any rate, he bought me that teddy from one of the stalls and it lived on my bed the whole time I lived in my parents house. After that, it came with me, mostly living in a bag of other toys and being dragged out from time to time for a visiting child to play with. That bag of toys was whittled down over the years to really just the ones I couldn't bear to let go of and when I moved to Germany eight years ago it came with me. Except I didn't know anyone with kids when I moved and although a few friends did have kids a couple of years ago, I never really entertained at my place. However, at some stage about four or five years ago when I was clearing up I suddenly starting to feel really bad that poor old Ted, who has been with me for so long, should be shut away in a bag. He was always the first one on my list of toys (yes, even as a child, my penchant for lists and filing was very strong and all of my toys had a name and a number on my list). So, since then, he has perched on top of a cupboard, or now, on top of a shelf. I like to think that at least he gets to see what's going on now. And since he's there, he also gets the occasional cuddle. I've decided that no-one should ever be too grown-up to hug a teddy every once in a while.

Fiona actually asked the following: Do you find the translating very difficult & do you now think in German as well as English?

Funnily enough, someone in choir asked me the same question about what language I think in just a few days later. And the short answer is yes, I definitely do think in German now. I switch between both actually, particularly now that I'm working through English far more. It does make German a bit harder but from a translation point of view it's really better that I regularly think in English, too.

I don't find translating very difficult but I enjoy language so although it can be frustrating sometimes, if you're the kind of person who rarely manages to just look up one word in a dictionary without getting distracted by other words on the same page or led up to looking up more words, then it's more fun than not. I've been learning German for 28 years though, and speaking it for 23. Although I'd love to claim that I was so brilliant at languages I've been able to speak it for as long as I've been learning it, that just wasn't the case for me and so I consider myself to have been speaking it since about two or three months after the first time I lived in Germany.

That ties in with the thinking in a different language aspect, too. The woman from choir who asked me if I think it German wanted to know if I hear what someone is saying, translate it in my head and then reply. And that is kind of what I did for the first couple of months. It made conversation very difficult though because by the time I'd figured out what people were talking about, thought of and translated something to say in reply, invariably the conversation would already have moved on. You just don't really get minutes to formulate your answers in a normal conversation. At some stage I started to understand immediately, without having to pick out words and translate them in my head and as far as I remember that was about two or three months after living here. Admittedly, my first time here meant four months working in a cafe in the small village of Ruhpolding in deepest Bavaria, where the accent is already thick enough to cut with a knife before even taking the dialect into account. It's possible that it might have only taken a few weeks to reach the same stage in a town where most people spoke high German. Who knows.

The only exceptions that I have found over the years are maths and music. But if you think of either of those things as languages in their own right, then it kind of makes sense. I'm not sure I can explain it very well but I know I'm not the only one who has experienced it. I simply cannot add well in German. I can say all the numbers, if you tell me a number I can repeat it to you, write it down, visualise it in my head. But ask me to add, say 25 and 46, and I have to do that in English and translate the answer in my head to get the German answer. I think maths exists at a more instinctive level than spoken language, if you know what I mean. You can think sums faster than you can articulate them. And everyone has their own way of adding in their head. For example, to add 25 and 46 my thought process would basically be, sixty, seventy, one. Someone else might think 25 plus 50 minus 4. But really, you probably think it so quickly that it's hard to say how you got to 71.

Music is somewhat similar but a bit more difficult for me as I'm not that good at it. I did do piano lessons when I was a child though and obviously enough made it into my head to make it partially instinctive. If someone asked me to sing a C, I wouldn't be able to do it. But if you asked me to pick out a C on a sheet of music, I can. If a conductor says, let's start from the B flat, I can find it immediately. But, if a German conductor says the same thing I don't just "see" the note immediately on the page. I have to translate what they're saying into English first. Mostly I don't bother with that to be honest and just sort of figure it out by starting a split second behind everyone else. It's definitely something I notice, however. It just feels like music is another thing that happens at a less conscious, and therefore faster than language, level.

So there you have it. Feel free to chime in in the comments about your own experiences with languages. If you speak a second (or third, or fourth, of fifth) language, do you think in it?

1 comment:

Fiona said...

I really love this post! For starters, it is lovely to know the history of Teddy sitting there on the shelf. I'm glad he's not a neglected bear but instead a bear who has been taken out of his bag!

I loved reading about which language you think in! It must be amazing to be so fluent that you can swap between languages in your mind and think in German as well as English! It's such an amazing achievement when your first language was English.

It fascinates me to see how language is acquired. A kid I taught last year moved to Paris this year and emailed to say she now thinks in French first. It blew my mind. I just love the whole idea of how the brain works and can switch between languages and cultures.

I have only been to Europe once so I'm still a long way off thinking in French. But I do remember the excitement the first time I dreamt in French. That was the first time it was 'easy' (all in my dreams, literally!) But recently I watched a YouTube video in French for 40 minutes and at the end, had forgotten whether I heard it in French or English. That was a real thrill.

I'm intrigued about the comments concerning maths and music. It is a lovely notion that some things happen faster than language (as you mentioned with music.) But I also love the parallels between language, maths and music...because all of them are languages.

Interesting to think about!