As our exchange students move into the second half of their school year with us, I continue to be amazed! They may hop off of an international Skype call talking to their parents/friends, and be able to immediately switch to English to talk to us mono-lingual Americans. In my single language brain, I daily suffer from a bit of jealousy for those who can so easily slip between languages with barely a breath or pause. In my brain, all foreign phrases are tied to their American equivalent phrase. (The “How are you?” gate must be passed prior to me getting to “Como estas?”) As I watch our exchange students easily converse in both languages, I realize this is not a very effective filing system.
Of course, having two exchange students does give the opportunity to assess their individual language switching dexterity. While our Chinese exchange student truly does make the transition between English and Chinese seem nearly seamless, our Korean student has been known to have a slightly blank stare or give a generic, “That is an interesting thought.” when her brain does not effectively switch linguistic gears. Earlier this week, both of our exchange students [they share a room] failed to hear their alarm. As they got up late, their minds locked into the language of their dreams [I can only assume you dream in your native tongue.], and I was told both of them spoke excitedly in Chinese and Korean, respectively. (I am guessing things like, “Oh, my gosh! We are going to be late.” were uttered in the appropriate language.)
It is these events that lead to me recent mindset as I called a customer up today. I knew the customer was in Montreal, so I knew to expect a French accent. However, when I was greeted in French, my whole grasp of other languages seem to change. I believe I have grown callous (sort of) to easy switching between English and an Asian tongue. (Without regular contact with any other bilingual people, I kind of “forgot” some people are fluent in English and other European languages, too.) When I said, “I will be speaking in English.”, she quickly switched to English. As my language jealousies were rekindled, I tried to communicate effectively to her in English. Our exchange students have programmed me to speak more slowly when I hear an accent. And, I believe I was probably choosing words that I believed were on the elementary level rather than any more difficult words. Due to her role at this company, despite her accent, her English skills were likely immensely better than her accent would lend me to believe. I can only assume I didn’t score any points for Team USA by forcing her to listen to my pathetic attempts to communicate with someone who is practically genetically bi-lingual.
I wish I could say living with exchange students and talking to those with superior language skills has made me want to learn another language. Truth be told, I would like to learn another language–it is the work to acquire the new skill that seems to leave me committed to being a mono-lingual. When they come up with the USB drive that can plug into my skull OR if they can do a language download through hypnosis or something (the TV show “Chuck” on Netflix gives a view of this), I think I will be able to justify the work to go to bi-lingual and beyond. Until then, I will be the American who thinks he is communicating effectively by slowing pronouncing English words and throwing in a few hand motions when I believe they will add translation value.