Bilingual conversations

In Japan (and I, I would imagine, just about any other nation with a large expat community), there are lots of “cultural words” that all expats know, whether their Japanese ability is fluent or not. For example, you don’t go to a festival, you go to a “matsuri.” Everyone talks about taking an “onsen” trip, and never bothers to translate it into the more cumbersome “hot spring,” which really doesn’t properly convey the meaning anyway.

I am a (more or less) fluent speaker, at least fluent to the point where when my mind goes looking for words to use, I have a crowd of English and Japanese words all standing up and raising their little hands and screaming “ME!!! PICK ME!!” It can trip you up a little to switch back and forth, but a few beers usually fixes that.

The great thing about switching between two languages whose grammatic structure is so different is that you can actually say the same thing twice in one sentence, constructing statements that are kind of like bi-lingual palindromes. The English verb is at one end and the Japanese verb is at the other.

Carrying so many languages in my head at the same time, it’s curious how the wires can get crossed.

Once in Malaysia a rice seller asked me, as I was looking for some brown rice, where I was from. I was going to say “Dari Barat (from the West)” in Malay — but it came out “Dari batu (from stone)”, which doesn’t make much sense.

I got the Malay words barat and batu mixed up with the Turkish word for West, batï. (The Turkish vowel /ï/ sounds like the Japanese vowel /u/). The Malay word batu ‘stone’ and the Turkish word batï ‘west’ sound almost alike. I got 'em mixed up with barat, I guess, because they all shared the letters b, a, t.

So the rice seller looked puzzled for a moment, and then he guessed, “Turkey?” Either that was telepathy, or he was calling me a turkey, I don’t know!

This is just begging for a link to the classic Blinkenlights.

I have a question that I don’t think is a hijack.

For very young children in multi-lingual households, do they recognize that different languages are being spoken?
If not, then when does it begin to sort it self out? If so, then how?

To an 18 month old, it’s just a series of sounds associated with stuff. So they learn that two (or more) sounds all mean “chair”. How and when does it get sorted into English, and French, and German, etc.?

Seems to me that it would be incredibly confusing for quite a while. What’s the experience of you Dopers who grew up in environments where different languages were used interchangeably?

Algernon I’ll add to that if I may (and apologies to the original OP) - if you were a bilingual parent would you intentionally teach a child your second language? I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to learn French to a fluent (ish) level, getting there with Spanish. My mother speaks German fluently but I don’t know a word - a regret.

Algernon, I’m not sure about young kids, but there is something about young cultures. In the book ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind by Ivan Illich and Barry Sanders, they told of France in Charlemagne’s time. There were three idioms being spoken within the same society: the Romance vernacular (a decomposed Vulgar Latin, which became Old French), Frankish German, and formal book-Latin. A preacher in church would give the sermon in Romance and also in Frankish. They didn’t have the concept of “translating” from one language into another, according to Illich and Sanders. They just thought they were explaining it so everybody could understand. They also thought that their Roman vernacular was still Latin, just not very good Latin, so it wasn’t a “language” of its own. When Charlemagne decreed that the preachers use formal classical Latin, that cut loose the vernacular to develop in its own direction and eventually be recognized as the French language in its own right.

I spent the first sixteen years of my life in Finland. After I came to Canada, learning English became imperative, especially because I had to attend school. I have retained all my Finnish skills, but I have noticed a very curious phenomenon: I cannot translate from either of the languages into the other fluently, even though my understanding is 100%. When asked to translate, I must take the sentence, switch mental tracks to the other language, and then summarize the sentence.
I could never work as a translator. I think this came about from the way I learned english, after gaining a basic vocabulary, I quit using my finnish-english dictionary and started using Webster’s.
When speaking to my finnish friends, I use english terms only if I’m not familiar with the finnish equivalent.
There is, however, finglish that is spoken by thousands. This came about because people learned words that were not commonly used in finnish. Thus, you get words like kaara(car), haussi(house), peismentti(basement) etc. Often words were simply given finnish endings even though equivalents existed, just for the heck of it.
You pet yor sorts, sanomakana.

It’s usually much easier to understand a foreign language than to actually speak it. You recognize the words/structures of the foreign language when your hear them , but wouldn’t be able to remember them if you had to use them. So when two people have some command of the other’s language, but aren’t fluent (though in the case you’re refering to they’re probably fluent in both), it’s way way easier that each person stick to his own language. It happened sometimes to me with spanish speakers. Since I’m not fluent in Spanish (far from that!) and they weren’t fluent in french, I would speak french and they would answer in spanish. That was much more convenient and easy.
As for bilingual people switching language back and forth during a conversation : I’ve been brought up in an Occitan-speaking part of France. Most older people did exactly that : they would begin in Occitan, than would switch unexpectedly to french then back to Occitan a couple minute later. Or would use french words in an Occitan sentence or the other way around. I assume that when people speaking together are fully fluent in two languages, they just spontaneously use the sentence/word which conveys what they mean the best, without a second thought about the language they’re using.