When Your Brain Fights Back Posted by Malachi Rempen on Jan 11, 2016 in Archived Posts
Sometimes I feel that my brain is fighting back against my insistence on learning new languages.
Vocabulary, for example. As far as the logical part of my brain is concerned, the only reason for the existence of words is to describe things that are. What’s this thing called? A fish. Great. File that word on the shelf where the concept of “fish” is. What’s this action called? Sneezing. Fabulous. File that word in the drawer under the concept of what “sneezing” is. Where is that sneezing fish? In the library. Brilliant. File that word with the other words which describe where certain things are in relation to other things. According to the logical part of my brain, each concept in the universe is associated by me with a word to describe it to other human beings. Once you’ve learned the word, that’s that – you might get more nuanced or specific words, but words in general serve this practical, logical purpose, and that’s about it.
Then, as a child in school, I started learning a second language: Spanish.
Suddenly, the word fish had to make a little more room on the shelf for the word el pescado. Wait, what? said the logical part of my brain. We already have a word for the concept of a “fish,” and that word is fish! Why in the world would we need another word for it? Because there are other people in the world who have assigned a completely different word to that same concept? Well, why is that my fault?!
Fine, said the logical part of my brain, somewhat begrudgingly: let’s re-learn new words for old concepts. That’s a terrific use of our time. And we did.
Then I moved to France, with an Italian, and started learning two more languages at the same time.
Suddenly, fish and el pescado had to make room on the vocab shelf for yet more company: le poisson and il pesce. Now the logical part of my brain was getting really bent out of shape. These words are nearly the same! it protested. Look how similar they are! Do we really need to squeeze them all onto the same spot on the shelf? We already learned el pescado, that’s close enough to poisson and pesce, can’t pescado run triple-duty in these other languages as well?
No. Same concept, similar word, completely different languages. Has to be learned again, and that goes for “sneezing” and “in” and all the other words, too. Make room on those shelves, brain!
Fine, it said. And it did. Then I moved to Germany and started learning German.
Der Fisch? Seriously? my brain cried out. Now we’ve got to make room on the shelves and in the drawers for yet another language describing the exact same concept with a nearly identical but also completely different word? What’s the point of THAT?!
That’s when my brain decided it’d had enough, and, seemingly in protest, started letting words drop through the cracks.
Though it doesn’t usually happen with the word “fish,” I do often find myself struggling to come up with a word. I know I’ve learned that word. And, like the comic, I can cycle through the other languages I’ve learned and the word comes right up, but not in the language I’m trying to use. My brain has decided there’s no more room on the shelves. It’s letting words fall off as I learn new ones. It’s as though there’s only a limited amount of ways to call a certain concept that my brain can handle at once.
Then I remember there are people who speak 50 languages, and they probably know how to say “fish” in many more, and I realize my brain’s just being a little wiener.
How about you other multilingualists? Do you ever feel words escaping you, or your brain fighting back against your accumulation of new ones?
Build vocabulary, practice pronunciation, and more with Transparent Language Online. Available anytime, anywhere, on any device.