Cat, hat. In French: chat, chapeau …

… in Spanish he’s el gato in a sombrero …

I read somewhere that childen raised multi-lingual go through a period during which they speak all of their languages at once.  Their brains don’t sift through and focus on one tongue.  They find the necessary word and use whichever language they find it in first.

I loved learning that, loved the idea of language being so fluid, so interchangeable, of brains being so dextrous — and not at the same time.

I have studied French and Italian with some degree of seriousness, Hungarian and Czech with no seriousness at all (though I can still say useful things like “Who is that man?” “What a bargain!” and “Come on everybody, clap your hands!” in Hungarian).

I wouldn’t have thought my brain could or would do the linguistic slip of the polyglot child, however.  Until now.  Until trying to learn Spanish.  There are times when I’ll be chatting with Martín or Gustavo and I’ll feel particularly able, particularly comfortable with speaking, particularly sure that I’m expressing myself clearly and completely.  When I finish whatever thing I’ve just said so well, there will be a little silence on the other end of the line, and then M or G will say, “I don’t think that was Spanish.”  Oh.  Right.  Because somewhere in there I slipped over to French (the one I know best) and started throwing in a bit of Italian (the one that feels closest to Spanish). 

And I can’t hear it happening, can’t hear that I’m not speaking Spanish.  I know Martín or Gustavo must wonder what’s up with me.  It’s taken me months of study with them to realize that they keep correcting me when I say ‘niente’ … not because ‘nothing’ is the wrong word in whatever situations I’m using it, but because ‘niente’ is Italian, not Spanish.   It’s frustrating from a getting-my-work-done perspective, but it fascinates me, too.  How does my brain do that?


13 thoughts on “Cat, hat. In French: chat, chapeau …

  1. molly

    Your question is now being answered much better than before, using MRI technology. Scientists can now actually see what parts of the brain are stimulated when we say stuff in the languages we know.
    I am fascinated by the fact that the area in the brain stimulated by saying nouns seems to depend on what verb they are associated with. on May 30, 09 reported on research (the link is very long, but you can find it easily) in this area:
    — Brain areas involved in taste, for instance, tended to light up when subjects viewed the word “apple”. …”If I said ‘the fast rabbit’ versus ‘the hungry rabbit’, you think two different meanings,” says Mitchell. “I’d love to understand how adding an adjective modifies the neural representation of rabbit.”–
    For more articles, just google MRI with multilingualism or with bilingualism. It’s an amazing area of research.


    1. Thanks for all this info, Molly. I will definitely check it out. My morning GED class and I have been studying brain function a bit, and all this I’ve been thinking about with language will make an interesting addition to our lessons.


  2. Ray

    When I was a child my parents put my brother and I in a Welsh speaking nursery school. We stayed in Welsh language education until we were 18 (even though English is our first language). I do not remember ‘learning’ the language. It’s just in my head and I can switch between English and Welsh without having to think about it.

    When I tried to learn Italian a few years ago I found that I was constantly trying to translate word in my head before saying them. Something definitely shifts as we get older. Keep at it. Eventually you will reach a point where your brain finds the correct words without analysis.



    1. I think it’s great that you were able to ‘absorb’ Welsh, that you’re able to use it so fluidly that you can switch easily between Welsh and English.

      Sometimes I find myself translating when I try to speak in Spanish, sometimes the words just come out without me thinking too hard about them … and sometimes when that happens, I find that I’m speaking French or Italian!


  3. When I first got to Panama I put my kids in an all spanish pre k class. They were there for two years before they went to an international school. They are pretty fluent in the language at this point (three years later). Their friends in the neighboorhood and the house keeper only speak spanish so they have no choice to respond in the language if they want to be understood.

    The thing that I found interesting was when Cailin had a nightmare last week she was sitting up in her bed and speaking spanish. I mean yelling, arguing and pleading in Spanish.

    So if you speak in many languages do you have mulitlingual dreams?


    1. I think if you speak many languages, your dreams must be multilingual, right? How interesting that Cailin was using Spanish in her dream. That would definitely seem to point to multilingual dreaming.


  4. foxrafer

    I think you and Viggo should have a conversation in Spanish. I know you want to stop mixing your languages but he’d find it fascinating (and probably be able to follow you).


  5. gnomespeak

    So, you inspired me to start taking spanish. I’d taken it years and years ago as a kid, but forgotten most of it, then in high school switched to french. Now, in spanish class, when I’m supposed to be speaking spanish, I toss out french on the rare occasion that I can’t think of the spanish word. And then I panic.


    1. Oh, how cool that you’re taking Spanish … and that I inspired you! Are you in a class or online like me? Ahora tenemos que hablar en espanol! Or, you know, something.


  6. Husband’s grandmother was German and he studied both German and Russian in High School,he says that sometimes when he is trying to remember a word in Spanish the German word comes instead. He looks at a door and thinks “tür” instead of “puerta”.
    My youngest sister spent a lot of time with my grandmother, and spoke both Spanish and English as toddler. She would use whichever word that she liked better when speaking. She had red zapatos and nothing anyone said would get her to say red shoes or zapatos rojos.
    I find that when I am writing I tend to use “y” instead of “and” if I am not careful. Also my sentence structure tends to get funny if I am tired.
    Oh, FYI Firefox just added a Mexican Spanish dictionary to the Spanish and Argentine ones!


    1. I’m with your sister and the red zapatos! This topic is still rolling around in my head. Maybe I need to be studying this more seriously … Something else to think about. Visiting with my family last weekend, I was reminded that there are certain words I no longer know how to pronounce intuitively in English. I pronounce them as if they were in some slavic language. It really cracks my sister up, and confuses lots of other people.


  7. I went to Venezuela over a decade ago and that happened to me. I could understand some of what they were saying because I had been there several weeks. They’d ask me a question (where are my keys) and I’d answer in French and they’d just stop and look at me.

    And personally, I think “Come on everybody, clap your hands!” would be useful to know in every language!


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