Humor me for a moment, and let’s imagine something together.
You’re nine years old. For as long as you’ve been able to talk you’ve been calling your mother “Mommy” – or “Mom,” if you decided to be cool really young. When you want to get her attention, “Mom” jumps out of your mouth without so much as a thought. Not even a split second. It’s just there. It’s the word you associate with her.
Now comes the fun part. This year in school you’re in your mom’s class. She’s a teacher, and this year she’ll be your teacher (for the sake of argument it’s a small school; one teacher per grade). Along with all the weirdness and embarrassment this brings, you’re going to have to call her Mrs. [insert your last name here] in class.
The first several weeks of school are incredibly frustrating, because this scenario keeps repeating itself over and over: you need to say something to your mom, but instead of saying, “Mrs. Iylnh, can you —?” you automatically blurt out, “Mom, can —?” and then catch and correct yourself. The first week the word “Mom” springs out without any hesitation, and you only realize after a few seconds, and maybe a glare from your mother, that you’ve said the wrong word. The second week you slip up less frequently but somehow you feel more confused. A split second before you hail your mom, your brain holds back your lips, as you remember that “Mom” isn’t the right word to use. There’s another word. What is it? Why would you call your mom anything else but that? What is it, though? You hesitate, and if anyone was looking at your face, they would see the slight furrow in your brows and the blank look in your eyes. What feels like at least a few seconds later – who knows if it was just miliseconds or much longer – the muddle clears. Oh, right! “Hey Mrs. Iylnh —”
A battle that I can only describe with the story above has been playing out in my brain ever since I returned from studying abroad in Freiburg last summer, a whole year ago now. I have some serious second language confusion: that is, a lot of transfer from one of my second languages (German) to my other second language (Spanish). It’s never the actual word “Mom,” but it’s ones that feel just as familiar in the language I’m speaking. Up until today and to my great consternation, I accidentally threw German words into my Spanish sentences or, worse yet, was unable to complete my sentences because the word that I once knew perfectly well in Spanish would only come to mind in German. What are called “functional words,” like conjunctions and prepositions, were/are particularly prone to this problem, as well as filler words like “so” and exclamations like “really!?” (well, their equivalents in German, that is). Well, today I finally experienced the opposite.
I went to the gym (where I got to use my new Vivobarefoot tennis shoes! – I get a bit excited about trying new kinds of zero-drop shoes) and briefly met a German girl. She spoke to me immediately in German, because she’d heard me speaking Spanish when I’d accidentally throw in that German word for “so.” I attempted to respond in German without freaking her out with my rabid, pure joy at having the chance to switch from my still rusty and halting Spanish back to oh-so-comfortable German. And then a Spanish word jumped into my sentence! I saw it there in my mind just before it happened; it was a strangely vivid and visual experience. The Spanish word hovered in the twilight in bold, prepared to march forth, but in the background was the muted, hazy form of the equivalent word in German. Then it was over. She laughed, and I threw up my hands in exasperation as I explained how I constantly mix the two languages. She kindly sympathized. I shut my mouth.
Anyway, I’m glad my Spanish is slowly returning enough for it to start bullying my German. And the blessing it is to even have this problem is not lost on me. But it’s high time I make both Spanish and German friends, because I think the only way to solve the problem is by speaking both languages on a daily basis. And speaking English all the time, as I’ve been doing with my American classmates, isn’t going to help a thing.
After my Panorama of Spanish Literature class, I paid a visit to one of the abundant bulk candy stores that appear around every corner here. No one ever mentions Spain as being a prime place to find candy, but, well I guess it is. They’re stocked with gummy, chewy, and marshmallowy candies of (literally) scores of different shapes, flavors, and sizes. The pepper-shaped one I tried was shockingly spicy – an odd sensation!
Highlighter for scale.