Slip of the tongue.

Still thinking about language and brain function …

I am usually ‘good’ with languages: I learn them relatively easily, pick things up quickly when I’m immersed. That kind of thing. But there’s another, weirder thing, too. I am sometimes able to understand languages I don’t know.

I was going to write that the first time I noticed this was in Budapest. Yes, I made a point of learning to say a few words, but this weirdness came first. I was at one of Maria’s famous soirees, surrounded by mathematicians and philosophers, musicians and film makers. Everyone was talking at once, twelve simultaneous discussions, a handful of earnest tête-à-têtes.  At one point, I leaned back in my chair and just watched, sipping my wine, not slowing down the pace by asking Petr or András to translate for me.

And then I answered a question.  Something about poetry, though I can’t recall exactly.  I answered in English, of course, but the question was asked in Hungarian.  That freaked everyone out, including me.  How could I have understood?  No idea.  And maybe it didn’t matter.  Maybe you’re thinking, “Ok, one fluke question about poetry.  Big deal.”  Except that it kept happening for the rest of the night.  Except that it happened when Rozsa took me sightseeing and got into a coversation with a man at the zoo.  Except that it happened at another party with a different group of friends.

And then I remembered that Maria’s party wasn’t the first time.  Hitching out of Prague with Evan years earlier, I’d had the same experience.  Evan and Dima, our Bulgarian truck driver, were talking in Russian when I realized I didn’t need Evan to translate.  Evan had been surprised.  Dima had just shrugged it off.

Maybe I’ve always been able to do this.  Maybe, but I trace it back to this wacky ‘Super Learning” workshop I attended sophomore year in college.  A woman came one night and got a bunch of us in a room to teach us Russian.  We got there and the lights were dim, there was Russian music on the boom box, there was poppy seed cake, there was vodka, there were big pillows all over the floor.  She told us to get snacks and find a comfortable place to sit.  She said she was going to talk to us but we shouldn’t worry about paying attention, about trying to understand.  So we drank vodka and ate cake and lay around on the pillows as she talked to us … in Russian.  After a while she began to mix English in with the Russian.  We were still enjoying our vodka and cake.  Then she turned off the music and turned up the lights and started asking us questions in Russian … and we were able to answer her in Russian.

I was fascinated by this.  It seemed utterly impossible, but there we were, understanding a language we didn’t know, giving answers in a language we didn’t speak.  Ok, not everyone could do it, but many of us could.  And true, we weren’t waxing poetic, just answering basic questions like “What’s your name,” and “Where are you from,” but we were doing it.  And I can still answer some of those questions today.

So what’s that about?  I love that it’s true, love that it’s possible, but it’s so odd.  Maybe it won’t be after I read some of the study results Molly pointed me to yesterday.  Has anyone else experienced something like this?

16 thoughts on “Slip of the tongue.

  1. molly

    I teach language (English to Italians), and I have heard of this sort of approach to teaching. There are whole language schools and schools of thought built around what is known as language “acquisition” (which is what children do, and in part, what we do when we “learn” a language) and “the natural approach”.
    I know from personal experience that children below the age of, say, three, do not care what language you speak to them in. I know that there are theorists who say that “intonation is meaning” — that if you get the intonation patterns, you get the meaning. The context and body language will get you farther than you would think.

    This said, I think that you have a special gift, Girlgriot. I think on the one hand, your mind has not lost the ability to listen to language even when you don’t already know its code. On the other hand, you also seem to have a particular memory for the sounds you have heard before, and you have studied lots of languages, which always helps, with loans and roots going back and forth always.

    Do you sing well? Has anyone every told you that you have perfect pitch? I think a musical ear is often part of linguistic talent.
    Find yourself a linguist and tell him/her that they want to study you. Because they do — they just don’t know it yet.


    1. I like the sound of ‘the natural approach’ … especially if it always involves vodka and poppy seed cake! Seriously, though, the idea of children not caring what language you use when you talk to them is fascinating. It connects perfectly with an essay I wrote years ago as the final project in a translation class I took in grad school. I’ve been thinking a lot about that essay as I’ve been writing these language posts. Maybe I’ll revisit the topic and post about it.

      Thanks for thinking I have a gift and not just that I’m weird! Being the subject of a linguistic study might be interesting. I’ll have to think about that one. And I love to sing, and I love the sound of my singing, but you’d have to ask someone else if I sing well or have perfect pitch.


  2. When I was a kid, maybe 12, I was lying in bed one day half-asleep and a man on the radio was talking about this, that and the other. I understood everything he was saying, and then I fully woke up, realized he was speaking Spanish, and stopped understanding it. (I had probably already taken my first year of Spanish in junior high, but was still at a very basic level and would not normally have been able to understand the radio commentator.)


    1. That’s excellent, Linda. And it makes sense to me. Maybe it has something to do with being relaxed, with not trying so hard (or trying at all). Maybe that’s part of why the ‘super learning’ woman had us drinking vodka!


  3. Elizabeth

    I had to circle back around to catch your last slice, and to say thanks for your great writing this past month.

    Now to address your post: I do know some Spanish, but the closest thing like this that has happened to me was in the cathedral in Toulouse France, and the cleaning lady was chatting along with me in Portugese and I caught just about everything she said unless she stopped to emphasize a word, pulling it out of the stream of language. I chalked it up to the similarity between those two languages, and I know I don’t have the gift you do.

    Great post–see you around,


    1. Oh, I don’t know, Elizabeth … Spanish and Portuguese do have some things in common, but they are sooo different. It’s pretty impressive to me that you were able to follow what she said.

      Thanks for reading my slices and for your comments. I’m still working through the list of slicers, catching up with everything I missed last month, so you’ll be seeing me soon!


  4. molly

    I just want to add that each language speaker uses different registers for different situations. The fact that many of your students are from minority groups means that they use different registers all the time. From register to dialect to separate language are all shifts in linguistic code. I believe it is true and scientifically established, that anybody who shifts linguistic code is exercising parts of their brain that are not used by people who stay in one code all the time. I believe it is a cognitive advantage to practice this flexibility. We should all feel very proud to know the various codes that inhabit our brains, and of our fluency in each of them. I hope your students can cherish their linguistic ability in all their fluent codes.


    1. Hmm … more to think about with language and brain activity. It makes sense though, doesn’t it? The more languages you know and can use reasonably well, the more dextrous your brain must be. Or something like that. Wow, that waiter I met years ago in Lisbon who could speak eight languages must have had a fascinating brain!


  5. inmate1972

    I have similar ability in which I can pick up general words and phrases pretty quickly as well. My dad speaks a number of languages, I think it’s an inherited ability.

    But to understand someone from a language you don’t speak at all? Damn, sister, got me there.


    1. I think you might be onto something with the inherited ability idea. Both my aunt and grandmother studied languages, and I always think that’s where my facility with them comes from.


  6. Pingback: Open Lines of Communication – if you want kin, you must plant kin …

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