Being Multilingual

A typical conversation when Eugene is around other people who speak the same 3 languages. HUGE!

Okay okay. I don’t want to toot my own horn too much here even though it does look like what I am doing. I think however, it’s safe to say that I am trilingual. That doesn’t mean I am totally native in all three languages, (far from it), but I am at the level where I can reasonably converse in Korean and Japanese.

Now, often, when your mind is trained to speak in other languages, it devotes a single space in the brain for storage of this language. When the time is right, your brain will kind of switch modes.
Switching modes? What the heck are you talking about?

It’s like, this.. The brain kind of blocks out as much of any other language as it possibly can, in order to stick with one language. Well at least that’s how my brain seems to work.. which suggests that maybe I’m not actually a functional multilingual, but I digress. This is actually different from when people speak to me, as no mode switch is required to understand spoken language. You either understand it, or you don’t. But as far as speaking goes, cramming more than one foreign language in your brain gets very very confusing.

Consider this. The language that I have studied for the longest amount of time (as in class hours spent studying) is by far Spanish. I learned Spanish for 4 years in high school. I was actually pretty good by the time I graduated. Most likely I’d have been able to get by in any Spanish speaking country had I moved right then. The thing is.. I didn’t. And living in the U.S., there really isn’t much of a necessity for Spanish, especially on the campus of the University of Maryland. Sure, I could have put more of an effort into seeking Spanish speakers out, but who has the time for that when you’re devoting all your time to drinking and meeting girls studying biochemistry and pondering what you’re going to do with the rest of your life?

Anyway, towards my third year of university, I began to study Japanese. At first, my brain was somewhat confused, as the area that relegates foreign language started to recall Spanish whenever I was called upon in class. This seemed to baffle the instructors, who never really understood why I, a Korean-American with no Spanish ancestry would make the mistake of using Spanish vocabulary in my Japanese sentences. In an effort to correct the problem, my brain took every Spanish word that I had ever learned, and kind of “erased” it, replacing it with the Japanese word. So in essence, because I wasn’t actually using Spanish at all, my mind kind of used the same space that had been for Spanish and replaced a lot of what I learned with Japanese.

Spanish is still there, but I’ve got to think for a really long time to make a functional Spanish sentence.

Take for example.

“I want to go to the movies” is a simple enough sentence. And immediately if you wanted me to say that in Korean or Japanese I could do it. Testing myself now. It took me a good 10 seconds to come up with the sentence “Quiero que ir al cine.” And before I came up with that, I had in my head “Me gusta que yonghwagwan kagosipeo.” Which is totally wrong. Lol.

Anyhow, my largest contingent of non-Japanese friends from the time I lived in Japan were Koreans, and this is where I started to learn Korean. To date, I’ve never really studied Korean seriously. I took a 101 course where I learned nothing at the University of Maryland, then I also took another course where I learned nothing at the Yonsei KLI a few years ago. Most of my Korean learning apart from that which I naturally had inherited from my father’s limited interaction with me in Korean as I was growing up came specifically from a sort of conversion from Japanese.

What? What are you talking about?
Yea, it’s kind of hard to explain. Bear with me okay. Korean and Japanese have a similar grammatical structure and many words are based on Chinese characters. It is thus possible in many cases for a Japanese speaker to use very high level and difficult Korean words if they know how to properly convert the sound from Japanese to Korean. An example.. (VERY SIMPLE ONE) The word heaven in Japanese is “Tenkoku”. From experience, you can decipher that the sound “ten” in Japanese is usually “Cheon” in Korean. Japanese “Koku” is usually “guk” in Korean. So “Tenkoku” can easily be made in to “Cheonguk” even if the speaker had never learned the word in Korean in the first place. (This method doesn’t always work however as sometimes different Chinese characters are used for each term… like “train” in Japanese is “densha”. Using the above method, it would be called “Cheoncha” in Korean. But instead, because Korean uses a different Chinese character, it’s “Kicha”.

Anyway, the point of explaining all of that is to better explain what I mean when I say my brain switches modes from Korean to Japanese or Japanese to Korean when the time is right. What I mean is that I’ll always be fine in English, but Spanish is at this point a lost cause, and I can only use Japanese and Korean at separate times.
I don’t get it.

Okay then here’s an example. The other day, my wife and I were at home watching a movie in the Japanese language on TV. (She was reading Korean subs, I was just listening to the spoken Japanese.) So it was time to eat dinner, and my wife paused the movie midway and asked me in Korean what I wanted to eat. My reply was ”何でもいい” which means “Anything is okay” in Japanese. She gave me a confused look and said in Korean.. “I don’t speak Japanese, why are you speaking to me in Japanese?” And I replied. ”あ、今日本の映画見てたから、韓国語は出ない。” meaning “We were watching a Japanese movie now, so Korean won’t come out.” She looked puzzled, until finally I realized what was going on and…. had to switch to English to effectively communicate with her. My brain was totally in Japanese mode. It would have been impossible to say anything in functional Korean until long after the movie was over and my brain started to switch back.

The same thing happened during one of my job interviews last month, where the interview had been taking place in English and Korean, when the interviewer asked me to introduce myself in Japanese, as I had listed that on my resume. So I started with “처음뵙겠숩니다”. She laughed and I realized my mistake immediately. It took me a while at first to switch into Japanese mode, but after she started to speak Japanese, I was fully in Japanese mode and the rest of the interview was conducted in Japanese.

That sounds really weird that your brain has “modes” for foreign languages.

Yes. But sometimes it doesn’t.

I’ve actually found that whenever I am speaking casually with anyone who speaks two or 3 of the languages I speak, then my brain doesn’t limit itself to switching into a specific mode, but opens the floodgates and I can start to talk with a sort of mishmash of the languages. And when I meet people like this and start to speak with them, It’s a real relief and I feel so comfortable speaking back and forth in our mishmash Korean-Japanese-English. It’s really awesome, and there are so many ways to express yourself that you can’t really do with people in only one language.

If I could get my wife to learn Japanese, then I think it would solve a lot of communication problems, as my Korean, while good, isn’t that great, and her English is slightly worse than my Korean.

Anyway, I’ll have to wager again that monolingual readers might not totally understand what I’m saying in this post. Bilingual readers might get some of what I am trying to say, but anyone who is capable in 3 or more languages will probably get everything I said.

What are some of your experiences with language use?


16 Responses to “Being Multilingual”

  1. O_o

    I’m in no way trilingual, but when I was learning Korean sometimes I mixed Korean with French probably because I studied french for 2 years while I was in Cooking school, weird thing is… this doesn’t happen with English, I don’t confuse English with French, Korean or Spanish, sometimes I don’t remember how to say a word in Spanish and I can only think about that word in English, but it’s probably because 80% of my day I use English…. witch is kind of weird since I don’t really like speaking English…but sometimes I find easier to think in English…… Weird… I know, right? :s

    • Gisela, I think it’s possible then that you are truly fluent in English, but not so fluent in French or Korean.

      Which would mean that either my brain is limited, or I’m really not that great in either Japanese or Korean.

  2. Ken here (my private wordpress is “ilovemikan”)

    i know what you mean with languages. due to my growing up (all the “bad guys” were english speakers and all the countries with the most problems being english speaking) i actually dislike english (also due to its crazy grammar). i strongly dislike english, although its my first language.

    often when i talk english to racist and narrowminded people, and i talk about something and say “i dont know how to explain in english this” they will give me a puzzled look… i think people who only can speak one language (especially english) just dont understand that certain things cant be explained in other languages….. (like i said about AMAE to you… you need to write a whole BOOK to vaguely explain that term).

    as i write this, to be honest im a bit frustrated with closed minded people who only speak english, and they think im rude, because i cant explain something about japan in english to them, as the english translation makes no sence.

    frustration vent over !

    btw i loved this topic about miltilingual and found it very interesting

  3. 1. When I first was learning Korean, and didn’t have enough vocab to express myself, French would emerge.
    2. I had 4 years of high school French and 3 years of French literature in college. I found an old essay I wrote for one of those courses. It was there pages long. I couldn’t understand any of it. Use it or lose it!
    3. I am more fluent in Spanish than French, even though I only studied it for a year and a half, because I use it more. I need to use it with some of the clients at the pregnancy clinic where I work.
    3. Not sure if I can still find it, but we have tape recording made on Christmas morning the year we lived in Austria. Our conversation, while mostly in English, is peppered liberally with both Korean and German.
    4. I disagree, there is quite a lot of use for Spanish in the US. OK, maybe not a necessity, but helpful, and in some areas will give you a leg up in the job market.

  4. ugh… i am so not bilingual anymore. my Korean went from being my first and primary language to something on the level of a language i learned in high school and then forgot once i graduated (you say “spanish”, i say “french”…okay, okay, it’s not as bad as my french.).

    sad face.

    next thought: when i worked at Tower Records, there were two guys who could each speak 5 languages. i think they overlapped three (English, Portuguese and one other). i can only imagine the kids of mode-shifting they employed! that, and how diverse their circle of friends might have been…

    • Wow, em, I didn’t realize that Korean was once your native language, but I guess it makes sense if you are talking about the age before school started when all you did was hang out at home with mom. (Correct me if I am assuming too much.)

      I remember though that when you were taking French, people used to think your name was Amy Lee because of the teacher’s accent of “Emily”. haha.

      5 languages? Wow! But actually it kind of doesn’t count if there are Romance languages in there, because they are all basically dialects of Latin.

      • haha, more like hanging out at home with grandma :p
        and yes, school ruined me. well, my grandmother actually moved into her own place around the same time. double whammy.

        omg, i remember Amy Lee. one of the funniest mistakes ever.

        maybe you should write a blurb about the evolution of your name(s)? or being called by a different name (either on purpose or by accident). i got comments, yo.

  5. This was a really interesting post. I have a step-sister who lived in Mexico at a young age, and to this day, isn’t aware whether she’s speaking English or Spanish, until someone points it out to her. She code-switches unconsciously… but effortlessly.

  6. my Korean is still quite labored, frankly. I hope to reach that point, but haven’t yet.

  7. awesome post. i so identify. because as you know with the husband i speak Chinese, and sometimes Tibetan, but in my life in Korea I speak Korean usually with people who can’t speak English, but then I am writing in English and internet this and that is mostly in English. I had good French in high school but now I can figure it out when I’m reading it, understand a fair amount when listening and speak NOTHING. It just won’t come out. If I sit down with a dictionary and some time, though, I can write.

    I also get stuck in Korean mode and have trouble switching into Chinese, but I don’t get this with English. I can switch in and out of English into Korean or Chinese equally well. My Tibetan is subsumed in my Chinese, the Chinese is subsumed in my Korean (all those easy words to learn since I already had the Korean vocab, like you describe with learning Korean after Japanese).

    And I dream and think in all three (not Tibetan) and get confused in my memory about how I understood something until i switch the memory into the right language and then it makes sense…

    • I don’t think I am aware of the language I am dreaming in because it’s all intelligible to everyone in the dream. However, my wife said she caught me sleep-talking in Japanese…

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