Thursday, August 16, 2018

Scrambled languages

Yesterday, still slightly dazed from finishing a book, I took the day off and watched an old musical. And it's a good thing I didn't try to watch Csardaskiralyno while I was writing, because this version totally scrambled my brains.

See, I have a theory about brains and language development -- totally unscientific, but mine own. It stems from the fact that I myself seem to have only two places in my brain to stash languages. One is labeled, "English" and the other, "Everything Else." The second box is just a stack: whatever non-English language I last used is what it will give me next time I reach into the box.

Most of the time this isn't a problem; I've only noticed it when moving rapidly across Europe, where on one morning I may need German, on the next Italian, and the next day I want all one hundred words of my pitifully small Greek vocabulary. (It gets even worse when you figure that twenty of those are numbers.) Trips like that involve a lot of pulling out and discarding languages before the box finally starts delivering what I need.

But I've been around a number of people who were raised bilingual, and they're not just more fluent in their second language than I ever hope to be; they also juggle multiple languages with aplomb. They can have a conversation with a German, a Hungarian and a Russian without ever getting tongue-tied or stammering as they switch languages.

My theory, then, is that people who spoke two or more languages from the time they learned to talk have constructed better and more sophisticated language boxes than I have. Maybe they've actually got a separate box for each language they learn!

So how did the operetta mess over my language boxes? Well... I've listened to highlights from this operetta so often that despite not being very good at picking out words with music, I seem to have memorized the songs. In Hungarian.

Now, this production was being sung in German, and sometimes the words didn't mean anything at all like the original lyrics.

And since my German's no longer good enough to follow the story unaided, I was heavily dependent on the English subtitles. Which sometimes had little or no relationship to either German or Hungarian lyrics.

So... you try remembering in Hungarian, listening in German, and reading in English for a few hours! Go ahead; I'll wait. And then I'll wait some more while you try to compose a coherent sentence.


  1. There actually is some scientific data supporting the theory that if you have not been exposed to a second language by an very early age, you will always be at a disadvantage. The brain apparently starts to seize up and create those boxes you refer to. ;-)

  2. There is? Ha! I knew it, I knew it!


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