I knew this would happen, and it has been such a curious experience. It has happened before, but not to this extent. I have been tongue-tied for the last several days. I am recently arrived for a visit in Senegal, West Africa after having lived in Okinawa, Japan for the last two and a half years. In Senegal they use French as a common language to communicate. I grew up in Haiti, which is also French-speaking. Although I never mastered French, I can comprehend a lot of it and speak a bit of it. I should, therefore, conceivably be able to draw on those reservoirs of language knowledge to assist me in communicating with the Senegalese I meet...
Perhaps some people have the capacity to rapidly and methodically cycle through the languages in their heads to land on exactly the language they want to use for that precise moment, but I have not yet acquired that skill. And perhaps that skill is only developed as needed. I have never needed it. Having only ever really spoken two languages, merely dabbling in others, I rarely have cause for confusion when selecting from the foreign language section of my brain.
The first time I experienced foreign-language-brain-confusion was while visiting the Dominican Republic from Haiti. It was so hard to refrain from speaking Kreyol and to search for that Spanish-class vocabulary. Kreyol was at the fore-front of the foreign language section of my brain. I was surprised to find that now true of Japanese.
This should not be any wonder to me after being immersed in Japanese for nearly three years, but I feel as if I have not really been able to learn much Japanese while working in Okinawa. I did not formally study Japanese, except for a few free classes for a couple months after I had been there a year. And my job was not one that required me to speak Japanese to be able to perform it. I did not feel as if I made much progress in Japanese.
Perhaps I should have realized my progress when I was able to follow my kids’ conversations and answer their questions or comment on their stories, which had all been spoken in Japanese. Or perhaps when I could answer parent’s questions even though they hadn’t been directed to me, since they asked in Japanese. Or when I sometimes understood better if my co-workers just explained in Japanese rather than using broken English. I should have realized when I would skype my parents in Haiti and had to sift through the Japanese in my head to find the Kreyol to greet my Haitian friends.
I finally did realized when I arrived in Senegal and was completely tongue-tied. My mind may not have the ability to rapidly cycle through languages, but it does recognize the wrong language fast enough to prevent me from verbalizing it in the wrong context. When I went searching for my scraps of French, all I encountered was Japanese. Unbeknownst to me, Japanese had taken over as the primary foreign language in my brain so that is all my brain threw at me whenever I struggled to find words to convey my thoughts in French. (After Japanese it would switch to Kreyol, which wasn’t any more helpful and actually more complicated to distinguish from French.)
I have never been so thoroughly tongue-tied, and yet strangely proud of it. I hate not being able to articulate my thoughts as I would like to when I already sort of know a language, but I am surprised and delighted that I could know enough Japanese that it would impede my more proficient languages. I often picture in my mind the expressions on everyone’s faces if I ever let slip a word in Japanese instead of French or Kreyol. :) But perhaps with all the African languages mixed in here, they wouldn’t much care.
They did ask me to say a greeting in Japanese for them to all hear. It was odd because as I said it, I tried to imagine what it would be like for them to hear it. But it sounded so normal to me that it seemed rather dull and anti-climactic. It’s like when you tell people you don’t think you have an accent because you can’t hear your own. Hearing the Japanese did not sound strange or novel to me. It just sounded like something I’ve been saying and hearing every day for the last two and half years, simply normal.
*Two observations I want to make note of briefly:
I am amazed at how my brain has subconsciously, yet actively paid attention to the phrases and words spoken in French that coincide with Kreyol. It’s like my brain has been going, “Oh, I recognize that, but I didn’t know that was used in French. Let me now catalog that under French as well since I know that I can use those words and they will be understood.”
I am also rather amazed and slightly concerned at how quickly the French/Kreyol has come back. I am glad to know it’s there and I can understand it as well as cobble a few semi-intelligible things together in order to communicate. But I am worried that any Japanese I have will quickly vanish. I don’t know how deeply embedded the Japanese is and I’m afraid the all too brief imprint it has had will rapidly vanish. I do not want that to be the case. Will I be able to switch back and pick it up again as easily as the French and Kreyol came back? No, I doubt it, but perhaps the freshness of it will last me until I can give it more attention again.