Polyglot dilemmas: my own experience

Polyglot dilemmas: my own experience

If you speak more than two languages, probably your own culture or way of thinking has widened and got diverse thanks to different languages and cultures beneath them. That is why I am pretty sure you have experienced the so-called polyglot dilemmas in your life.

If you are curious to find out what I am talking about, here are some of the polyglot dilemmas I have experienced so far.

Dilemma number one: A specific word in another language comes to your mind while you are speaking in one language. Some months ago, I was walking on the street with a French friend and we were talking in French. I saw a cute little cat and I exclaimed: “Hé, regarde ce jolie gato là!” (“Hey, look at that cute gato”). At that moment the only word that came to my mind was cat in Spanish. I had suddenly forgotten how to say cat in French. I thought about it over and over again and at the end I couldn’t say the word cat in French. Luckily, I did not have any problem in communication because I was pointing the cat over there and my friend had studied Spanish in school, so she understood.

Dilemma number two: Some words or expression in another language are mixed up without noticing it. This happens more often when it comes to languages of similar sentence order or grammar. Among the languages I speak, it happens often with Spanish and French. When I am asked if I don’t get confused and if I don’t get mixed up when I speak or learn several languages at the same time, I basically say “sometimes”. If I compare my brain part that takes in charge of languages to the house, the languages are all in respective rooms. The rooms of Italian and English are so big and well-established because the first one is my mother tongue and the second one is the foreign language; I feel most comfortable with. The room of German is also quite big and good that do not get easily affected by other rooms. The room of Spanish is also okay but quite close to the room of Italian because I acquired it with so much help of my mother tongue. In the case of Japanese, it is very close to the room of Korean and sometimes it feels like the opening gate of Japanese and Korean is one and I have to enter into the Korean room to get into the Japanese room: Maybe it is on the process of being an independent big room. Throughout more practices and studies, a big independent space will be slowly made for it. So, when I speak Japanese with my online teacher and friends, some expressions or words in Korean just come out without noticing it.

Let me tell you one of my experiences. I was texting a Japanese-speaking girl I met on studenz.com and I wanted to say: “my cousin is going to get married soon”. I knew all the words in Japanese to express this sentence: “Watashi no itoko ga kekkon suru” but the sentence I said in that moment was: “Watashi no sachon ga kekkon suru”. I didn’t notice that I wrote “sachon” instead of “itoko”! My Japanese friend asked me who was going to get married and I told her I had just written it. A few seconds after I realized that my Japanese and Korean were mixed up in a very weird way. But I know that this dilemma will probably go away when my Japanese gets to the advanced level, which means that the room of Japanese becomes more independent and bigger in my brain house. I remember that I had this kind of dilemma before with other languages before, too, but this no longer happens with the other languages I know after I already get good at them.

Dilemma number three: Not just the language itself, but non-linguistic expressions such as gestures get mixed up. So, my own culture is made up with all the cultures of languages I speak. For example, when I am with my Italian friends in England and we want to imitate the sounds of certain animals, they would say that the dog sound is “bau-bau”, whereas I would say “ruff-ruff”, which is the dog sound described in English. Though I am Italian, “ruff-ruff” is the dog sound more natural to me.

In regard to non-linguistic expressions, I use the huge variety of Italian gestures daily without caring if my international friends would understand my gesture or not because it is my own culture, no matter what language I speak. I know a few people who are studying Chinese and they have started to use the Chinese finger number culture when they speak any other languages. In many parts of the world, the way we express numbers with fingers is normally to fold or to spread out fingers. However, in Chinese it is extremely different.

Dilemma number four: Awkward expressions or words sometimes come out. I often use some expressions which are not weird in terms of definition on the dictionary, but which are not culturally used in real life. I don’t think only in one language. Of course, I think mostly in Italian, which is my mother tongue, but I also sometimes think in English and German, which are the languages I like the most. So, I am surprised by myself that I use some words or expressions that I can tell that I translated them into the language I speak in my brain. I have recently complimented an Italian friend of mine that his mindset is very healthy and desirable, and I was thinking in English at that moment and the word that came out of my mind was English. So I wanted to say the word “mental status” in Italian and I literally translated it into the Italian “stato mentale” but in Italian the nuance of these words together is not culturally used in a good way so I remember that I had to explain to him once again that I didn’t mean it and I just wanted to compliment him.

So, these are the polyglot dilemmas I have experienced. What about you guys? Have you ever experienced similar ones or what kind of dilemmas have you experienced that I didn’t mention? If you and your language exchange friends have your own experience of polyglot, feel free to share it with us in the comments below!

Written by: Martina Sassi, Staff Writer

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