“Unzipping” languages in your brain

Author: Inês Carvalho

I sometimes use a metaphor to talk about language learning that depicts the inability to simultaneously use all the languages you’ve learnt in “full potential”. I’ve talked with other polyglots and they share similar experiences. For example, let’s imagine that you speak French at an upper-intermediate level and Italian at a pre-intermediate level. You decide to put in a lot of effort to improve your Italian, but after a few weeks, you realize you’re struggling more than before with French. The metaphor that I’ll introduce you to also covers that phenomenon of feeling that you forgot a certain language and that it’s all lost forever, but after a few hours of practice you’re back on track.

At Mundolingo, “unzipping” languages

Maybe someone else has already thought of this metaphor before, but I consider that it’s something worth discussing, if only to alleviate the pain of those language learners who delved into another language only to, weeks later, find out that their language skills in all their previous languages have apparently become impaired.

Bear in mind that this metaphor has no background in neurolinguistics, and that I’m using it to rather describe a feeling that I often have when learning foreign languages. Now, to the metaphor. Imagine that your brain is a computer and that your language knowledge is stored in folders. For the sake of convenience, and because you need some of these files and folders on a daily basis, they are unzipped on your brain desktop. In my case, the unzipped folders on my “brain” desktop are: the Portuguese folder, which I use every day; quite a lot of the files in the English folder, since I need them for work and entertainment; the Spanish files for daily communication with my Mexican exchange students; and all the Italian files, because I am learning it at the moment and I watch YouTube videos in Italian every single day before falling asleep.

Now let us check the other folders, which are compressed: German, a large folder, lots of vocabulary and grammar inside, can be rapidly unzipped but some old files may have been lost; Swedish, a smaller folder, not very well organised somehow. It looks like it is going to be hard to unzip unless you pre-heat the computer – wait, you don’t do that to computers, do you? Never mind, it is just a metaphor anyway. And then there is the French folder. The Dutch folder. The Mandarin folder. The Latin folder. The Japanese folder. The Russian folder. The Esperanto folder.

So I am here in Lisbon and you tell me that there is a cool language exchange going on around the corner tonight. I’m all excited about it, of course I’m going. Will there be any Swedes? I definitely miss speaking Swedish! Of course, I also want to practice my Italian since that’s my focus right now.

We arrive at the bar where the language exchange is taking place. A tall blond person sitting shy at the corner. That must be a Swede! I approach them. “Hej hej”, I say. They reply and ask something, but my Swedish is so unbelievably rusty! I even manage to confuse Esperanto pronouns (“ni” first person plural) with Swedish ones (“ni” second person plural) and that makes me feel awful. Have I really lost Swedish? No, wait, don’t even think of switching to English! That’s nice of you, such a polite Swede, but we are NOT going to have this conversation in English! It’s just that it takes some time to unzip the Swedish folder. Please, be patient. Tack. Let me listen a bit to you speaking Swedish, let me think in Swedish while we’re at it and let me feel it again. After some minutes it is going to be much better, still a little bit rusty, I’ll still have to think a lot, but you’ll have no excuses to switch to English. Keep talking to me please, I can understand what you say, it is just that “unzipping the files” is taking longer than usual. Another beer, please. Or maybe not, my Spanish friend told me that my Spanish does not get any better after a few beers. Maybe we just lose the ability to notice our mistakes and stop worrying about grammar details.

We have now been talking for a while in Swedish, haven’t we? It’s now flowing much better than at the beginning. For my Swedish to reach its full potential I would probably need a couple of hours, but it’s a language exchange after all, maybe we should go and try talking to other people too. Just let me exchange Facebook profiles with this Swede.

Now you introduce me to your Dutch friend. You told him before that I could speak Dutch. Yes, you are totally right. I could. But then I started learning Swedish some years ago and now the Dutch is all gone. I cannot unzip that folder. It says that the files are corrupted, what can I do? This time I won’t even try. I politely say something in English to your friend and then from the corner of my eye I spot some people doing a lot of gestures and laughing very loudly. They might be Italians, let’s go and check!

After two hours, on our way home, you are puzzled. “Why didn’t you try to speak Dutch?”. I reply that I might have completely forgotten how to. “Why don’t you try to have it back?”, you ask. Well, I’m afraid that if I try to fix it, I’ll damage my Swedish files. I could have a simple conversation in Dutch a few years ago, but after living in Sweden I’ve never been able to speak Dutch again – not that I’ve tried that much anyway. Well, my fear is that if I learn Dutch again, it’ll negatively affect my Swedish – and I really don’t want to lose it! “Oh but that makes no sense according to your ‘zipped folders’ metaphor”, you say. “You just have to be careful not to unzip the Dutch folder into the Swedish folder”. Now I can’t even understand what you’ve just said implies in practical terms. I got caught in my own metaphor.

But what you said did get me thinking. So tonight, before going to bed, instead of watching Italian videos on YouTube, I’m choosing a very easy Dutch video for beginners.  Of course I’m able to understand it, I’ve never stopped being able to understand it. But this time I am pausing, I am taking the time to internalize every sentence that appears on the screen. Suddenly, a grey window appears somewhere in my brain: “Unzip file?”. And I click “Yes”. I fall asleep with a confident smile. There might still be hope for my Dutch after all!

Written in 2017

Swedish B2-C1: Därför reser vi (That’s why we travel)

Inês Carvalho – Text written while I was living in Sweden for the B2/C1 course that I was (kind of ) attending at the time (2014). Reading this text really makes me want to go back to improving my Swedish 🙂 (Translation into English below the Swedish text)

Det finns många anledningar till att människor reser: resor kan göras för nöjes skull, för att lära sig, för att fly eller för att upptäcka.

Stämmer det att resa ökar förståelsen från andra kulturer? Forskaren Per Lundberg hävdar att fördomarna kan ibland bli ännu starkare om man är oförberedd på den kulturen man möter. Enligt honom tolkar vi andras beteende utifrån vår egen kultur och egna värderingar och vi uppmärksammar det som stämmer med den bild vi redan har.

För att undvika etnocentrism behöver man känna till sin egen kultur. Det är bra om man är medveten om kultursskillnader så att man kan acceptera kulturkrocken, eftersom det ibland kan vara svårt att acceptera oerhört stora kulturskillnader. Vissa människor ser kulturskillnader som en ”evolutionsprocess”, men detta sätt att tänka kan leda till en överlägsen syn och elitistisk attityd till människor till exempel i tredje världen som kan ses som ”gulliga men dumma”. Bästa sättet att resa är att acceptera att man inte alltid kan förstå andras beteenden eller värderingar, dessutom är det viktigt att undvika att värdera och döma.

Jag är fascinerad av andra kulturer och älskar att träffa nya människor. Jag har intresse för olika samhällen och språk. Att tala språket som man pratar i landet man besöker är viktigt för att man lyckas ta sig bortom fasader och också för att närma sig lokalinvånare. Jag behöver bara ha råd så att jag kan resa mer.

Nantes (or some place close to it), 2012

Jag skulle vilja resa till Asien i sällskap med endast mig själv och mina tänkar – jag kallar det min ”odyssée” i Asien. Jag drömmer om att bara gå ut och låta mig uppslukas av atmosfären… att lunka och spana på gatan… allt är nytt och det finns så mycket som jag inte kan förstå! Men vad min hjärna inte kan förstå, kan jag kanske uppfatta med mitt hjärta. Man måste öppna sitt hjärta när man resar och ha förståelse för det främmande.

Jag har inte rest så mycket. Jag har vara rest till Sverige, Tyskland, Englad, Spanien, Frankrike, Kroatien, Denmark och Estland. Jag har aldrig varit utanför Europa, trots att jag har brasilianskt medborgarskap och är av brasiliansk nationalitet. Den viktigaste erfarenheten för mig var min första resa till Tyskland. Jag vara bara 17 år gammal och jag förändrades mycket som person. Jag fick möjligheten att vara utbytesstudent i gymnasiet med fler än 200 studenter från hela världen. Jag hade aldrig varit utanför Portugal och det var inte lätt att umgås med andra unga människor som var så annorlunda och ”konstiga” för mig.

Estonia (Tallinn) 2013

Nu, mer än tretton år senare, är jag doktorand i Turism, och har lärt mig många språk och bott i Tyskland och Sverige. Hade jag aldrig upplevt denna erfarenhet i Tyskland när jag var tonårig, skulle jag ha valt ett annat ämne.

Men… jag tycker att jag borde resa mycket mer… jag är doktorand i Turism… och väskan är färdigpackad!!

TRANSLATION INTO (LAZY) ENGLISH – thanks Google for translating 95% of this text!

That’s why we travel
There are many reasons why people travel: you can travel for fun, to learn, to escape or to discover.

Is it true that traveling increases understanding of other cultures? The researcher Per Lundberg claims that prejudice can sometimes become even stronger if one is unprepared for the culture one meets. According to him, we interpret the behavior of others based on our own culture and our own values, ​​and we pay attention to what corresponds to the image we already have.
In order to avoid ethnocentrism, you need to know your own culture. It is great if you are aware of cultural differences so that you can accept the cultural shock, because sometimes it can be difficult to accept extremely large cultural differences. Some people see cultural differences as an “evolutionary process”, but this way of thinking can lead to a superior vision and elitist attitude towards people, for example in the Third World, which can be seen as “sweet but stupid”. The best way to travel is to accept that one cannot always understand the behavior or values ​​of others, and it is important to avoid valuing and judging.
I am fascinated by other cultures and love to meet new people. I have an interest in various societies and languages. Speaking the language that is spoken in the country you visit is important because you manage to get past façades and can approach local residents more easily. I just need the money so that I can travel more.
I would like to travel to Asia by myself only with my thoughts – I call it my “odyssey” in Asia. I dream of just going out and allowing myself to be swallowed up by the atmosphere … walking and scouting around the streets … everything is new and there is so much that I cannot understand! But what my brain can’t understand, I may perhaps perceive with my heart. You have to open your heart when traveling and have an understanding of the foreign.
I haven’t traveled so much. I have traveled to Sweden, Germany, Englad, Spain, France, Croatia, Denmark and Estonia. I have never been outside of Europe, even though I have Brazilian citizenship and am of Brazilian nationality. The most important experience for me was my first trip to Germany. I was only 17 years old and I changed a lot as a person. I had the opportunity to be an exchange student in high school with more than 200 students from all over the world. I had never been outside Portugal and it was not easy to hang out with other young people who were so different and “weird” for me.
Now, more than thirteen years later, I am a PhD student in Tourism, and have learned many languages ​​and lived in Germany and Sweden. Had never had this experience in Germany when I was a teenager, I would have chosen another subject.
But … I think I should travel a lot more … I am a PhD student in Tourism … and the bag is packed!

PS – I would like to thank Patrícia Coutinho for the corrections!