There is a well-documented phenomenon called the foreign language effect. This is something that occurs when an individual is learning a third (or fourth or fifth) language. As the learner runs into difficulty with the new language, the second language jumps in to help, filling in words, supplying grammar, etc. I’ve experienced this phenomenon first-hand and it can lead to all kinds of weirdness.
English is my first language, German is my second, and Greek is my third. I studied German for many years starting as a child because my mother is German. Greek I have studied in midlife just because I like the sound of it. I must admit, Greek is my favorite of the three. I love everything about it, from its alphabet to its insanely complicated grammar. I love speaking it, writing it, and reading it. I read Greek grammar books like some people read cookbooks, and sometimes when I can’t sleep I conjugate Greek verbs. That being said, it’s a tough language to learn and requires a lot of fast thinking. That means that German has had many opportunities to come to my assistance.
This is how I ended up boldly proclaiming, “Nicht papoutsia, pandeloni!” (Not shoes, pants!) one evening during Greek class. Of course the “nicht” was German, but the “papoutsia pandeloni” was Greek.* My teacher stopped and looked at me and said, “What’s with this nicht?” I wasn’t even aware that I had said it. In my mind I was just saying “not.” It doesn’t help that Greek and German are very similar in structure and grammar. I’ve even made up a parlor game for myself where I alternate German and Greek words in a sentence. It actually does work–for about sixty seconds–and then my brain seizes up.
A few years ago I spent a week in Germany speaking German with my cousins. I then went to Vienna to attend a concert by Giorgos Dalaras, my favorite Greek singer. I sat next to some nice people from Athens and when I tried to speak Greek to them it was like someone had driven a spike into my head. Nothing was happening! It was as though the German language part of my brain had completely taken over and thrown the Greek language section out the door. And it felt like I had absolutely no say in any of it.
Learning a language is always an extremely humbling experience, at least for me. At first you are a toddler struggling to communicate, grunting and pointing when words fail you. Even when you get more proficient it’s still a battle. It can be exhausting to speak another language twenty-four hours a day, and after a while I don’t even feel like myself anymore. My voice even changes depending on what language I’m speaking. In German I speak in a higher voice, and in Greek I speak more softly, and do a lot of drooling. (When you form most of the sounds at the front of the mouth, you seem to accumulate more saliva.)
Then there are the mistakes – the constant humiliating mistakes. I once caused a lot of smirking when I referred to an insane asylum as a spider house in German. At my Greek school in Athens I carried on blithely about temples when my teacher had been talking about news broadcasts. [ne’a (news) vs. na-ee’ (temples)] No native speaker would ever get these two confused, but to me they sounded a lot alike.
I am now attempting to learn a little Spanish ahead of a trip to Spain in the fall. I’ve already noticed that Greek has taken German’s place and is jumping in all the time to help, maybe because it’s closer to Spanish than is German. I will be very curious to see what kind of cross-pollinated monstrosities I come up with this time around.
*The Greek has been transliterated.