Language modes

I’ve just returned from a wonderful week of Irish language and culture in Gleann Cholm Cille in Donegal, Ireland. This was my fifth visit to Gleann Cholm Cille, and my third time at the summer school – I enjoy it so much that I keep going back. And I’m not the only one – many of the people I met there last year and the year before were there again this year, and many of the first-time visitors said that they’d be back.

I spent most of my time there immersed in Irish language, songs and music. Although this week is the only one during the year when I get to speak much Irish, my proficiency in the language does seem to be improving. I still make plenty of mistakes, of course, but am getting better as expressing myself in the language without resorting to English very much.

One thing I noticed was that when I tried to think of Welsh equivalents some of the Irish words and phrases I encountered, they often refused to surface from wherever it is they lurk in my memory. I suspect this was because my brain was in Irish mode and this suppressed my other languages to some extent.

Have you had any similar experiences with languages?

By the way, apologies for Omniglot being down temporarily – it was something to do with the firewall, which I think I fixed now.

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This entry was posted in Irish, Language, Welsh.

17 Responses to Language modes

  1. Sean says:

    My problem is different — when I’m in another language, I have difficulty keeping languages separate. For example the other day, I was speaking in English about feeling restless, but for some reason the word “desasosiego” popped into my brain first, probably because it’s more descriptive of the feeling, so for me, I guess all of my words are pooled together.

    However, if I’ve finished speaking in one language and am going back to another, I have difficulty making the transition quickly; if I’ve been in Spanish “mode” for a few hours, if someone asks me “where are you from?” I’ll probably instinctively respond with “soy de los Estados Uni— did I just say that in Spanish?”

  2. Ben says:

    I am fluent in American Sign Language. Most of my friends and the people with whom I have regular contact with are either Deaf or know ASL as well so I actually use ASL more then English most times. It happens all the time where my english starts to have ASL grammar and word order. Or if I’m asked to explain something in English, I have to stop (and take a minute, sometimes more) to think of it because all I can think of is how to explain it in ASL. Makes some things very hard when so many ideas, thoughts and concepts are in my head only as ASL and have to physicaly stop to think of how to say it in English.

  3. Jennifer says:

    In the past, I spoke both Russian and Serbo-Croatian (my messy ad hoc variation thereof, a combo of Bosnian and Croatian), in addition to my native English. While I could easily switch between English and one of the others, it was very difficult for me to switch rapidly between Russian and Serbo-Croatian without experiencing something akin to a complete brain freeze. Sadly the S-C has fallen away due to disuse.

    As a child, I spoke German pretty fluently while we lived there. Now, when I have occasion to attempt to resurrect my German, I find that while I can generate German nouns and verbs, many of the particles and prepositions come out in Russian, my dominant second language. All that with an American accent, and listeners are very confused.

  4. Corcaighist says:

    All the time. Grosjean developed the notion of language mode which he defines as:

    Language mode is the state of activation of the bilingual’s languages and language processing mechanisms at a given point in time. Bilinguals find themselves at various points on a situational continuum which will result in a particular language mode.

    ( http://www.francoisgrosjean.ch/interview_en.html )

    As Estonian is currently my most active foreign language (my second, non-foreign language being Irish) it always interacts with my French. I often can’t speak in French without throwing in a couple of Estonian expressions. e.g.

    Je pense et – I think that
    J’ai kuulé – I heared

    I wrote about this on my blog recently:
    http://corcaighist.blogspot.com/2009/01/language-interference.html

  5. Daniel says:

    I experience ‘disruptions’ of the mode too.

    I used to learn Italian and Russian in parallel using an audio course, and sometimes I had to say a sentence in one and it just came out in the other.
    I guess it might happen when I lose concentration and switch to a more flowing mode. It’s a good thing because it’s hard to think of all the words I want to say instead of just say them, but it’s also problematic because I might unconsciously switch languages during conversation, confusing my listener.

    Now I’m learning Spanish and Japanese using the same audio course, and it’s somewhat easier to stick to one language while I’m studying, perhaps because the languages are further away from each other and perhaps I already have some experience with each of them.

  6. Jim Morrison says:

    A couple of years ago, I was in a Paris airport and wanted to ask someone something in French. I had just been in Barcelona for 3 weeks speaking nearly constant Catalan, so I had tuned into Catalan in my brain. I just couldn’t get the words out in French, even though my French is much better than my Catalan. When I sat down calmly later and tried to think what I should have said in French, I could do it easily. Two days later, I was back in French mode.

  7. Petréa Mitchell says:

    I learned Spanish in high school but then forgot most of it through disuse. I remember a few years ago, I realized I could only count to 8 in Spanish anymore.

    Shortly after that, I was on a Portland bus one afternoon. This was route #16, which has a street in common with route #4, which runs much more frequently, so occasionally someone doesn’t even look at the sign, gets onto a #16 thinking it’s a #4, and gets a surprise when they suddenly find themselves crossing the Willamette River.

    As we swung out onto the bridge, the woman in front of me turned around and frantically asked in Spanish if this was el cuatro. And without thinking, I said, No, diez y seis.

    After that, I found I’d recovered the numbers all the way to 49 in Spanish.

  8. Dennis King says:

    Speaking of Irish and Welsh, does anyone know of a friendly cognate list for the two? What I’m thinking of would be a sort of learning shortcut for those who know one and are learning the other: a way to download a lot of almost-but-not-quite-obvious vocabulary on the cheap!

  9. Simon says:

    Dennis – I’ve started compiling a list of cognates between the Celtic languages and wrote about it in this post. I plan to add this to the main Omniglot site eventually.

  10. Dennis King says:

    Go raibh maith agat, a Shím. Treise leat!

  11. Nick says:

    I have spoken a mix of Sicilian/Italian and English at home since I was a child, and I have studied Spanish for the last 10 years and have lived in Spain. Now I work in a job where I speak Spanish very frequently and Italian much less so, I find that if I have to speak Italian on the job the words refuse to come to mind, especially if I’ve just finished a conversation in Spanish. Also after I came home from my year in Spain I found it really difficult to recall words in Sicilian that I’d been using since I was a child, and resorted to Spanish instead.

  12. Juan Shimmin says:

    I find a fair bit of interference, which seems to vary with a) how well you know the language you’re trying to speak, and b) how similar languages are. I also find it’s way more common I get interference between non-native languages, than interference into my native (English) or even vice versa. Like there’s “native/foreign” division, rather than just by language. I’ve actually looked this up a couple of times, but not found any research about inter-L2 interference.

    So for example, I used to get a lot of Welsh intrusion into my German; but my German’s improved a lot and that’s not usually a problem now. However, I get Manx-Welsh interference (including mutation crossover), and German and Welsh both intrude into my poor French. So far, nothing’s intruded into Mandarin for me – I feel like it’s just too different.

    Re: the cognates, might be worth looking at roots and suffixes as well as words, because they’re so useful for word-building.

  13. Damon says:

    I find that all my languages muddle on another. For a long time my German and Spanish mixed, but German started to invade my (Native) English. Well if Spanish can invade German and German can invade English… I ended up with a very… varied vocabulary.

    Though my English loops over itself– I meant to say “Liz borrowed my discs a few months ago…” and said “Liz married my discs a few months ago…”. (Is there a term to describe this phenomena?)

    I’m now trying to get down Italian and Japanese (which I’ve been doing on and off for some time).

  14. Michael Farris says:

    I was just in Spain with some Polish speakers. While I’m used to going between English and Spanish or English and Polish, going between Spanish and Polish was harder than I’d imagined. Polish words kept popping up in my Spanish “es muy daleko … lejos” and I found myself addressing some of the Poles in Spanish a time or two.
    The weirdest thing was I found myself saying ‘ne’ for ‘no’ a lot. It’s a weird hybrid of Spanish initial (unpalatized) consonant and final vowel of Polish ‘nie’.
    The fact that ‘no’ is an informal (and very frequent) way of saying ‘yes’ in Polish didn’t help any.

  15. Declan says:

    I was immersed in German for the last three weeks, and before the course, I kept on putting Irish words into my German. Afterwards, I was putting German words into my Irish, which is an extremely unusual feeling for me, as my Irish is much better than my German.

  16. Michael Farris says:

    For the sake of completeness I should also mention that shortly before going to Spain I’d spent a bunch of time speaking Esperanto (at the ILEI conference in Cracow) and so maybe my use of ‘ne’ came from Esperanto (which I also found myself thinking in sometimes when trying to think in Spanish…) I didn’t think of it at the time but it’s the most likely source.

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