That time I was an asshole, plus a few words about being bilingual and about not being bilingual

Walking out of class one day, I said something horrible and teasing to someone. He burst into tears and my teacher slapped me across the face, hard. I deserved it.

monolingual and bilingual brains
The vast majority of what we know about language and the brain is actually stuff that we know about language and the brain in monolingual speakers of English. This is a shame, because there are more multilingual people than monolingual people in the world. Picture source:

Walking out of class one day in high school, I said something horrible and teasing to the fattest kid in the class.  He burst into tears and my teacher slapped me across the face, hard.  I walked out of the classroom with my facing burning red-hot from the fact that I knew that I’d just been a total asshole as much as from the fact that I’d just been whaled on, hard, by our teacher–a huge big deal in our culture, where teachers were the absolutely most respected people in the community.  As I walked out of the room, the kid sobbed to our teacher–not in English, the language that we’d been speaking in class all morning, but in Yiddish.

Bilinguals have two native languages.  They don’t have to translate from one to the other–they’re both just there, like English is for me.  In a truly bilingual community, people aren’t necessarily conscious of which language they’re speaking at any particular moment.  Which language they’re speaking isn’t random, though–in a truly bilingual community, language choice and language switching–linguists call it code-switching–are highly rule-governed behaviors.  And, those rules of code-switching are just like almost every single “rule” that you know about your native language(s)–speakers are not consciously aware of them, and typically can’t figure out what they are even if they try.  (Can you explain how you know when to use the word the?  Do you understand why the word anything is negative?  Can you explain why sometimes you have to switch a preposition to the beginning of the sentence along with its verb when you ask a question, and why sometimes you absolutely can’t switch the preposition to the beginning of the sentence along with the verb when you ask a question?)  In our high school, for the many people who were bilingual in English and Yiddish (I wasn’t one of them), English was for intellectual inquiry, while Yiddish was for emotional things.  Perhaps not in the sense of meaning in linguistic semantics, but in the broader sense of meaning in semiotics, the fact that the kid switched to Yiddish meant something.

I’m not bilingual.  My native language is English.  Spanish is a second language to me, but I would never say that I “speak” Spanish–it’s not a native language, but rather one that I learnt as an adult.  French is getting there, a little bit more so every time that I spend a few weeks in Paris.  The processes by which you learn a native language as a child and the processes by which you learn foreign or second languages as an adult are utterly different.  For me, as for many people with multiple second languages, it’s very difficult to use both at the same time.  Once a year I go to Guatemala for a week to do volunteer work, sometimes immediately after spending time in some country other than America, where I’m struggling with a language other than English or Spanish.  This means that I have to make a concerted effort to switch–not to switch from English, but to switch between second or foreign languages.  How to do it?  I don’t know of any research on this subject (which doesn’t mean that there isn’t any).  Basically, I switch my radio and my flash cards.  A couple weeks before I go to Guatemala this summer, I’ll start listening to the news in Spanish on my way to work in the morning, instead of in French, as I normally do.  I’ll put away my French flash cards, and pull out the pile of Spanish medical vocabulary flash cards that spends the rest of the year collecting dust.  I’ll immerse myself in Spanish as much as I can in a city that has Spanish-language radio stations, TV stations, and newspapers.  Equally importantly, for those two weeks, I’ll cut myself off from French–I’m not bilingual, and I can’t effortlessly switch between languages.  Most especially, I can’t easily switch between second languages–I can switch between English and French or between English and Spanish far, far more easily than I can switch between French and Spanish.  (That’s not to say that I can’t–I have a Mexican friend who has lived in Paris for 25 years, and we switch between French and Spanish all the time.  But, it’s clearly way easier for her than it is for me.)

Here are some words for talking about bilingualism in French.  The French text is from the French Wikipedia page, and the definitions are from

Le concept du bilinguisme comprend deux types de variabilités :

  • Le bilinguisme de l’individu : capacité du locuteur d’alterner entre deux langues selon des besoins de contexte sociologique où deux langues sont couramment utilisées sur un même territoire
  • Le bilinguisme de communauté : la coexistence de deux langues officielles dans un même état<1.

Il consiste théoriquement dans le fait de pouvoir s’exprimer et penser dans deux langues. Les individus bilingues sont également imprégnés des deux cultures . Le bilinguisme constitue la forme la plus simple du multilinguisme, qui s’oppose au monolinguisme (fait de parler une seule langue).

The concept of bilingualisme consists of two types of variabilities:

  • Individual bilingualism: the capacity of the speaker to alternate between two languages according to the needs of a social context where two languages are used fluently in the same region.
  • Community bilingualism: the coexistence of two official languages within the same state.

In theory, it consists of the ability to express oneself and to think in two languages.  Bilingual individuals are equally steeped in two cultures.  Bilingualism constitutes the simplest form of multilingualism, which is opposed to monolingualism (the state of speaking only one language).

  • le bilinguisme: [bilɛ̃gɥism] bilingualism.
  • comprendre: to include, to consist of, to comprise.
  • l’individu (n.m.): individual.
  • la communauté: community.
  • couramment: fluently; commonly, frequently.
  • imprégné: many senses, including soaked, steeped, or permeated with.

Incidentally: the part about bilinguals being immersed in two cultures isn’t necessarily true.  Societies can be bilingual without members of the society belonging to some other society.  For example, many Hasidic groups in the northeastern US are pretty insular (from other Jews, as well as from everyone else), but also bilingual in Yiddish and English.

I’ll leave you with a little secret–something that linguists will talk about with each other, but not with non-linguists.  It’s called the “foreign language buffer.”  There’s no evidence that it exists, but I don’t know of a linguist who doesn’t believe in it in their heart.  Go ahead and ask a linguist about the foreign language buffer–but, don’t tell them that I let you in on the secret of its existence.  I’ll also leave you with the fact that I’m 54 years old, and I am still ashamed about teasing that kid.  Be nice to people–that’s a much better thing to have to remember in your old age.


9 thoughts on “That time I was an asshole, plus a few words about being bilingual and about not being bilingual”

  1. Your explanation of bilingual ease of code-switching versus switching with second languages I found interesting, I’m multilingual but have never quite figured out why/when I use a language. English/French are definitely “mother-tongues” and though my Italian and Spanish are totally fluent including spoken accents, I have difficulty switching between them in real time. I always thought it was just because they have similar roots and structures, and because I do relatively little reading in both …..?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting question. I don’t know of data on the role of structural or lexical similarity in code-switching—just anecdotes. Seems like something that people would have looked at, but I don’t know the research.

      OK–I just went to Google Scholar and did this search:

      code-switching structural similarity

      …and got lots of stuff.

      I also tried this:

      code-switching transfer

      …but didn’t find as much. “Transfer” is the influence of one language that you speak on another that you speak or are learning.

      Liked by 1 person

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