I’m fascinated by bilingualism, probably partly because I speak a lot of languages badly. I realize that even speaking a foreign language badly makes me unusual in the U.S., but compared to the rest of the world, I am pretty unimpressive. Having spent a lot of time myself getting by in foreign languages, I have a ton of respect for people who are comfortable in a language that is not the one they learned from birth. (For people who learned multiple languages from birth–I’m just jealous.)
For the May/June issue of the APS Observer, I wrote about how people behave and feel differently when they speak in different languages. It’s a neat idea–is a Mexican-American more gregarious in Spanish than in English? The answer: actually, yeah. Read about it here.
It’s always fun having smart people on the phone, but even more so when I can ask them questions about my own life. When I lived in Norway, I discovered partway through the year that I couldn’t do crosswords in English any more. I’d just lost that ability to think laterally in my native language. I told one of the researchers about that, and she said when she lived in Holland, she couldn’t use idioms in English and her writing was weird. Research has found that, indeed, one of the things that happens when you’re learning a foreign language is you inhibit your native language.
I also learned that things don’t feel as emotional in your second language. There’s an anecdote in the story about foreign students who were perfectly polite in their native language but swore like sailors in English. This made me think of several times I’ve been shocked by how rude someone was to me in Europe. It’s possible that they were just rude–ok, that was probably a lot of it–but they also most likely didn’t feel the rudeness of their statement as strongly because it was in their second language.