Being Bilingual: Different Languages for Different Purposes
In addition to being a Word Nerd, I’ve always been something of an amateur computer hacker.
Posted by Stacey on Fri
When I say that I've been an amateur computer hacker, I mean that in the sense of always wanting to know how things work, to know how to break them and then fix them. One of my most exciting weekends was spent rebuilding a hard drive! Whatever that says about how much fun it is to spend a weekend with me, it has earned me the role of general computer troubleshooter for my friends and family. This is fine; I enjoy it. Except when friends who speak other languages call me for help.
The Wrong Domain
As a multi-lingual working as a translator, I have been honored with a lot of friends who either don’t speak English or who don’t speak it as a first language, so a lot of my conversations are in other languages. Normally this is not a problem; I’m fairly comfortable having general conversations in other languages and can usually borrow a few phrases from English or French to fill in any gaps.
But in language there is the concept of ‘domains’. A domain is a field of vocabulary – for example, computers. All of those technical terms and concepts form a domain, and in that domain the only language I am any use in is English. While I am comfortable speaking with you in French or even German, I am at a loss as to how to explain installing an application in Linux in those latter languages. In English I can do so very easily. In French, I would fumble and hesitate, and almost certainly resort to English borrowings for much of the conversation.
Tricks of the Brain
This affects bilinguals in other ways, as well. The human mind often creates specific discrete chunks of memory to speed things along. Have you ever had to tell someone a complex password? I often have to actually type it out; I cannot remember it, but my fingers can type it quite easily! My brain has stored the password not as a string of numbers and letters, but as something more subtle and complex.
This often happens in languages with phone numbers. In English, I recite my mobile number several times a day. The number is no longer a series of numerals; it has become a single blob of information. When I must recite the number in another language, I have to actually sit and think and the numbers come to me slowly, one by one! Again, my brain has stored the information as a single chunk of information, and translating it is impossible – I have to start from scratch.
So, next time you ask your bilingual friend for help and they mumble and cough and look at the floor, don’t be annoyed. You’ve probably brought them into a domain they’re not fluent in, and they’re suddenly not as fluent as they thought they were!