Monday, October 29, 2012

Slipping up over Second Languages

I know some of my friends here are bi-lingual and others are even tri-lingual, so maybe you'll know what I'm talking about.

Do you find that you no longer speak either or any of your languages perfectly anymore? Do you find yourself puzzling over whether you're mixing your words and phrases up with one of the others, or, like me, you can only think of words in the second language when you're trying to come up with one in the first?

Another problem is just simply using the wrong words for things, which I personally seem to be doing a lot these days.

I mean take the word 'ship' for example. There's a distinct difference in English between a ship and a boat. For one thing, it's a matter of, simply, size. In English, a ship conjures up images of cruise liners, vast sea-going vessels and tankers. A ship is big. I don't know at what point a boat becomes a ship, but I do know my barge is not one. Why is it then, that I cannot remember to call my barge a barge, or even a boat and not a ship? I do know, of course. It's because in Dutch even a cabin cruiser can be referred to as a schip and I've just got into the habit of using it without even thinking.

I was talking to an English colleague the other day when I happened to mention putting my ship on the slipway. Her eyes widened just ever so slightly (as I said, she's English, and therefore, very polite). I noticed it though and thought back to what I'd just said. Oops. So laughing, I told her my problem.

But it's not just Dutch that gets in the way. Most of you know that I lived in South Africa for twenty years, and my first language became seriously tainted with a mixture of old military terms, two hundred year old Dutch and Zulu. Yes, I hear you think. What a mess! There we said things like "I'm going on leave" instead of "on holiday" or people were "retrenched" rather than made redundant from their jobs. Then we'd leave a restaurant and say. "Well that was lekker, but I'll need some muti for the indigestion, boykie, so let's pay and rij" (pronounced 'ray'). A fair translation would be  "That was delicious. I'll need to take some medicine for the indigestion, guys, so let's pay the bill and go," Or it would be "Man, these plakkies hurt," (my flip flops hurt) or "Why doesn't he just voetsak!" (Why doesn't just b****r off). Even my family were totally mystified.

These days, though, I talk freely of being stuck in a file (a traffic jam), going on the helling (the slipway), turning up the kachel (heater) and so on. The problem is, the more I do it, the more difficult it is to remember the English words when I want them. The even greater problem is that I don't speak Dutch all that well, either, so in the end, I'm not sure that this second language thing is doing me much good. I shall finish up stumbling cheerfully through a motley selections of words and sentences just to make myself understood in the simplest of situations. They call it adaptation. Maybe it is, but I don't know what it does for my communication?


  1. Stumble on, Val - this is one way languages are enriched!

  2. Thanks, Jo. I don't have much choice given how verbally challenged I am already, but I like the idea that I might somehow be contributing to the enrichment of our language....if only by mistake!

  3. Val, I would say your mind is brilliant with different languages. I'd say whatever word the language comes from, your mind is saying it's the fitting word. And how very cool, btw.

  4. You say the absolute sweetest things Grace. I'm actually really not much of a linguist. I don't have good ears, so it takes me ages to catch on to what people are saying. But thank you, my friend xxx

  5. oh I bet, if I were to travel to Amsterdam again, you could be my translator. Here, in America, I know poquito in spanish.
    But, really, I think, in any country if not knowing the language, one can always pick up on body language, going back to dogs and body language and energy. As you know, I have educated myself on that over the past couple years, and I truly believe in the primitive language of animals, they don't typically use vocals. So, one, human, can get by.
    I was leading to a point here, but lost my train of thought, happens. think I get my point across?

  6. In a word, yes. I find I end up mixing my metaphors (I once said "he won by a nose hair"- mixing winning by a hair and by a nose, lovely, eh?)

    And as I'm getting older and crafty, I find I sometimes mix up words in my two dominant languages, although I must say my German was quite brilliant back in June. My 90 year old auntie does this as well, tossing in some German words into English in a way she never did before.

    Let's just think it makes it all the more colourful!


  7. Ah Anne Marie, I can imagine that with your three languages, life gets interesting! Colourful, it most certainly must be. I don't know if you've ever heard of David Crystal, but he lectures on the subject of the future of Englishes, and he means it in the plural form too. Based on exactly what happens to us, he foresees English morphing into a whole variety of new languages!

  8. I know the feeling! :) There is a major background influence related to this issue and it is called....: Age!

  9. I think I have to elaborate a little more here; I am a Swedish speaker and at my work I am mainly surrounded by workmates of which 2/3 speaks Finnish and 1/3 speaks Swedish. Though we are nowadays a global company most of the work related (work related lingo) stuff here has been defined in the Finnish language since the beginning of the last century and to me the Swedish names for stuff and tools sounds dorky to me and even more so in English :)
    So when discussing work related stuff with my Swedish speaking collegues here we throw in a lot of Finnish words into the discussion. When speaking to my Swedish speaking colleagues in our factory in Sweden I somtimes have to stop and search for the correct Swedish word to use, even more so nowadays because of my age, sometimes I only find the English words and terms but that will often be OK with my Swedish colleagues in Sweden. The Finnish words would not... :)
    My working language nowadays seems to be a funny concotion of Swedish-Finnish-English and some German thrown in every now and then.
    It is a relief to go home every evening and switch back to monolingual Swedish.

  10. I pick up accents, words, and expressions by osmosis, I swear.
    Cheers to being bilingual or, in your case, multilingual!
    It opens our minds and keeps them that way ...
    slip ups or slipways
    schips or schleps
    plakkies, flipflops or thongs!

  11. I find myself doing this more and more as well. Not just using the Dutch word because I can't think of the English one but also picking up some of the broken English habits of my father-in-law :p

  12. Hans, you guys are astonishing with all your different languages, but yes, I can imagine it's a relief to get home and just speak Swedish. Thanks for the comprehensive comment!

    Stu, you and I are in the same boat. What I also tend to do is speak the broken English of my students, so that's like another version of your father-in-law.

    Dale, you don't need to swear in your own language when you have a plethora of other language expressions at your disposal. I notice this with Dutch students who freely swear in English. Mind you, I find it quite shocking. By the way 'voetsak' is not as harsh as the English equivalent. It's quite a mild expletive really. I love your play on the words!

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