This Is Your Brain on Second Language

The wall

Pictured above: not the actual language I'm talking about. But I do love this picture.

As I brave the strange, navel-gazing midlands between “I speak Korean” and “Korean is a language that I know exists,” I have a great deal of time to reflect on the status of my own brain. The trials and tribulations, the ups and downs, the dizzying, self-satisfied highs of language successes and the mortifying, protruding-lower-lip lows of language failures. Being in the spooky land of intermediate capability in a language means my skills and capabilities are only so trustworthy. That, at any given time when I am expected to engage in my second language, the odds are about at even that I will manage to stun all listeners with my thrilling turns of phrase as are the odds that my tongue and teeth will fuse together into a tumorous fistula of flesh and manage to produce only the most mewling and pathetic of brays. Operating in a second language means being at the whim of your mood, your energy, the nimbleness of your articulators. It means seeming all over the place: at one point ragingly fluent, at others stunningly mute.

There are, of course, patterns I have come to notice in my own journey towards mild competence. Over time and experiencing both the greatest of shame and pride, my Korean has given rise to some easily-recognizable quirks.

1. The Boot-Up

More times than I can count, I have entered into some sort of interaction in Korean and have found it completely unnavigable. The waters are dark and murky and made entirely of strange, alien grunting sounds, all of whom are flitting about one another in arcane, incomprehensible ways, like galactic Rubik’s cubes made in seven dimensions . I am positive I am unable to speak Korean, and that I have never even heard the language before, or possessed any knowledge of its cursed existence.

And then, after a few seconds or minutes of panic, things begin snapping into place. It takes a few minutes to get into second language mode, to slip into the right gear where I start actively processing the language in front of me. I’m used to just hearing and talking, so having to go through the middle steps – the actual processing and slow construction and production of meaning – takes a minute or two to get online.

That the other party has often given up by this point and believes me to be a mute boob is of some concern, and I then need to go on a rampage of linguistic competence to back-up the belief that I can speak any Korean. Really! I just needed to stretch before the work out.

2. Overheating

The conversation is going pretty rad. I’ve been spouting mad morphemes left and right, and the table is compelled by my juvenile command of their native language. My hands flutter about the table like I am conducting a symphony orchestra, and I pull faces to fill in the gaps, but I’ve been managing to communicate entirely in this second language for hours. I feel like a bad-ass. A foreign-language-talkin’ bad-ass, which is to say: the best kind.

And then suddenly the ability stops. A brain-cramp, a shorted fuse, or simply all of my vocabulary leaking out the back of my head. I can’t think in Korean, or sputter a single syllable. I am out of brainjuice. Everyone at the table looks at me. When they open their mouths, all I hear is the quacking of ducks and some trombone slides.

The first laptop I ever got, I managed to fill with so much excess crap that it tended to run hot. So many things were going on, and because it was kind of a piece of crap, the overheating would lead to it simply giving up, like a lazy kindergartner, and shutting down.

Speaking in a second language means doing a lot more work just to produce the same thing you would in your native language, and after a few hours, the power cuts. You’ve been running hot for too long.

The river

3. The On Day and the Off Day

Some days, everything just goes right. Circumstance, the exact optimum levels of caffeine and arrogance, and actual language skill coalesce. Every interaction you have in your other language goes swimmingly: you seem smooth, debonair, practically a native speaker. You understand everything being said to you, and manage speedy, efficient replies that speak to your deep and elegant competence in this tongue.  People everywhere note your capability or, even better, barely notice it at all, such is your breezy naturalness. You begin thinking you could take up poetry in this, nay, all languages, such is your polyglot prowess. Has anyone ever been such a linguistic superhero?

Some days, it all seems to have fallen apart. Someone uses a grammar point with which you are on shaky ground. Circumstance forces you into a bank, or a hair-dresser, or a conversation with someone as old as the sun, and suddenly there is scary new vocabulary, issuing out of the dark ancient caves of this foreign culture, like monsters of the deep clawing their way from aged, terrible mouths. Your confidence is in shambles, and no one understands your accent, and you wonder how you ever thought you could manage to speak anything ever at all. You are fairly certain it would require at least two tongues to ever speak these horrible, chthonic incantations.

These days sometimes come right next to each other.

4. The Spread

As we’ve talked about, sometimes your vocabulary can get a little one-sided. Experience in one arena, or just the availability of better materials for one area of language tips the scales so that you essentially know how to speak restaurant Korean, or bank French, or high school student Punjabi. Exit the safe confines of these comfortable walls, and suddenly you’re in the dark.

But it also depends on who you’re talking to. Some people are better apt to deal with a second language learner. They have the patience, or the know-how, or just a sympathetic ear. They know how to collect the gist from the shambles of phonetic and morphemic scraps blizzarding out of another’s mouth, how to take these torrents of meaning and construct them into something vaguely resembling their own language. They are willing to put in the work to understand what you are saying, and become far more capable than anyone else in managing it. And when you speak to them, the feedback loop of positive reinforcement and actual exchange makes the language happen. You’re doing it!

But if you meet someone not ready for the challenge, suddenly you’re back to not doing it at all.

And this is the nature of language learning. There’s ups and downs and obnoxious cul-de-sacs and vicious plateaus and sudden black holes that suck up all of your hard-won syntax. With time and practice, you can start to fend off these harsh variances, and it’s really just a matter of dragging up your batting average of the good days versus the bad.

15 thoughts on “This Is Your Brain on Second Language

  1. I totally relate to all the examples, I used to get blazing headaches after spending too much time in the company of Spanish speakers. I felt like I was doing double duty, fiercely listening to the conversation ( because Spanish can be soooo fast) and then having to translate it all in my head.
    When the day arrives ( and you may not even notice when it happens) that you don’t have to translate everything anymore, it becomes so much easier.
    Now I’m only occasionally tripped up on a word or more complex verb tense, luckily I’ve developed enough ability that I can think of some other way to get my point across.

    • Hah, I always forget that you are already fluent in another goddamn language. All of a sudden you’ll be around a Spanish-speaking person and just tear off.

      I was reading a study a while back about language speeds that was interesting. It seems that almost all languages, on average, communicate the same amount of meaning in the same amount of time. However, different languages compress different amounts of meaning per syllable, so languages that compress more meaning per syllable will have to shove out less syllables to make the same rate of meaning communicated. But the ones that compress less require more syllables to be said even faster to get the same amount of meaning across.

      Of course, I can’t remember which ones were which.

  2. I spend all day translating documents at work and conversing with coworkers. By about 3 pm, I’m burnout and just spout simple phrases like a brain-damaged 7 year old.

  3. I also like to point out the reverse Native Language Meltdown: When you’ve been hitting the books so hard, filling your brain with the second language to the extent that when someone approaches and speaks to you in your own native tongue, you open your mouth and a garbled clump of awkwardly-phrased nonsense falls out. Last Sunday after we parted ways, I was trying to say, “There’s a coffee shop over there by the big post office.” Only I couldn’t remember the word for post office. So I floundered for a minute and said “우체국” instead. Everyone looked at me like I was a total freak.

    • It gets to a point you don’t even feel like you speak the first language anymore.

      I have a couple friends with whom we’ve started simply shoving the Korean words into regular English sentences because the code switching is hurting our noggins. Also, for a while, my friend tried to make “kwench” happen, as in, is this 괜ㅊ with you?”

  4. Great post, hilarious and apt, as usual!

    I so relate to the good-day/bad-day thing – some days, you open your mouth (in my case, to speak French or Spanish) and it all comes out smoothly and wonderfully and you feel so worldly and compassionate and totally open to being a polyglot citizen of the global community – all is good. Other days, wow – you forget basically everything you ever knew about the language and all that comes out are poorly pronounced cobbled-together approximations of something that may or may not be anything to do with the language you’re trying to speak, followed by silences and odd glances from people unlucky enough to be on the receiving end. Nightmare.

    To be honest though, the fact that you can even begin to speak a language as complicated and different to your mother tongue as Korean renders you fairly superhuman in my book, so congratulations anyway!

    Love your blog


    • Hey now. Mutual appreciation time: trilingualism! Look at that!

      The language distance is pretty far, it’s true, but pretty much any language once you get a feel for its internal logic just starts to make sense.

      • Ha! I thought the story was taking place in the Korean language; so then I assumed, “Oh my gosh, the cool people aren’t saying “uchaegook” anymore–there must be some new term that the truly modern and fluent people are saying, and if I use the dictionary word to Koreans they will laugh in my face.” Kind of like saying “wireless” instead of radio nowadays. Or, for that matter, even talking about “radio.” I’m always ready to believe I’m dopier then everyone else. Thanks for the clarification.

  5. Omg, so funny. Your posts always make me laugh out loud because they’re so true. Today I spoke probably the most Korean I ever have at any one given time. And I’m fairly certain that I should not be feeling as proud as I do at the moment, because undoubtedly, the next time I get the opportunity, it will be a disaster. It always seems to happen that way. It’s like that when I speak French too. An old, easily overheated computer is really the best analogy for it…

    • No, embrace those days for what they are. You know you’ll get a bad day sometime soon, so it’s better to feel high and mighty on the good days.

      Just last Friday, I managed to completely bungle simple interactions with my gentle, slow-going coworkers, and felt terrible. The same night I managed an hour-long conversation with my Korean friend at a loud bar.

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