My four languages

I have never known what it’s like to speak only one language. I speak four altogether: Polish (my native language) and Russian, English, and French, learned in that order. I’ve lived half of my life now in English, technically my third language but in truth second and competing for first. This sort of thing is common in Europe and among academics, and especially among American or Canadian academics of European origin such as me. It’s less common elsewhere, and I’ve heard all kinds of myths and misconceptions. I’m writing this mostly for those who haven’t had the experience.

I got an early start on Russian. I have no memory of not being able to speak it, or not reading and writing in both Polish and Russian. (I’m told that I learned both around the same time.) That did not make me bilingual. My family spoke only Polish at home. My mother knew Russian fairly well from her youth, though, and sang Russian songs to us sometimes. Here’s one. If you ever decide to learn Russian, you can’t skip Pushkin.

Polish and Russian belong to the same Indo-European language family. They’re often similar in terms of grammar and vocabulary, once you get past the Cyrillic alphabet. Yet the cultures are vastly different, divided by history, religion and ethnic influences. Neither one is exactly monolithic, either.

We’d buy children’s books from the Russian-language bookstore and read them alongside Polish ones. I often returned to that bookstore later on as a university student, this time for advanced mathematics books: monographs written by Russian mathematicians, Russian translations of English-language books, all incredibly cheap. I still have a few in my office.

Russian was mandatory in school back then. Poland was part of the Soviet bloc and there were Russian troops stationed throughout Poland, including in my home town. We resented that but sometimes shopped at their grocery store anyway.

I started learning English in school when I was 11. A chore at first, it became a joyous pursuit once I discovered anglophone rock music. It spoke to parts of my identity that I hadn’t known I had. Some of the tastes I developed back then have stayed with me ever since. Others did not. At 14 or 15, the less I understood of the lyrics, the more profound they sounded to me. I projected a lot of my own stuff on them. For instance, I had no idea that “Comfortably Numb” made references to getting medicated for hangover and/or drug overdose, but it worked well enough as a deep meditation on the pain of continued existence.

I had 4 years of formal English classes in school, 2 years at university, and 2 years at a British Council center. Only the latter had native English speakers as teachers. I read English books and listened to BBC radio when I could. By the time I left for Canada at the age of 23, I’d thought myself quite advanced, at least by the common standards for learning foreign languages. But I couldn’t yet drop the word “foreign”.

Before I left, I’d also taken a couple of courses at Alliance Francaise, learning a new language as an adult for the first time. I’ve been told often that our ability to learn languages declines past a certain age. I’ve never been sure what that age is, exactly, and in any case I’m skeptical. What’s definitely true is that we have less time for it. Some folks basically give up on learning new things. Others (myself included) have too much on their hands already. It was going well when it was going, though. I think I’ve kept up what I had and perhaps picked up some more since then.

Learning a new language in adulthood is a surrender of power. It’s like that scene in Matrix where Neo wants to speak or scream but his mouth is sealed. You’ve lost most of your language ability and are reduced to baby sentences. You can’t communicate emotions more complicated than “I like this” or “I don’t like that”. You can’t ask for the food you want because you don’t know the name of it. You can’t explain what exactly it is that you do on your job because you would have to use complex sentences that you don’t know yet how to construct.

But that doesn’t matter, because it’s so fascinating that the French say “je viens de manger”. That would be like saying “I come from eating” in English instead of “I ate” or “I have eaten”. “Je vais manger” is the future tense, and you can actually say “I’m going to eat” in English, which is pretty close although it’s not “I go to eat”. Isn’t it curious how the grammar of one language can reflect that of another in a curved mirror?

If you speak more than one language already, you get to compare your new language to each of them. In English, nouns are not gendered. In French, they can be masculine or feminine. In Polish, they can be masculine, feminine, or neutral. The genders don’t always match across languages: “home” is feminine in French (“la maison”) but masculine in Polish (“dom”). “Milk” is masculine in French and neutral in Polish. “Door” is masculine in French; in Polish, it’s neutral and you have to use the plural form (“drzwi”) even if you’re speaking of a single door.

Does this affect the way we think about homes, doors, or milk? Apparently, yes:

In one study, we asked German and Spanish speakers to describe objects having opposite gender assignment in those two languages. The descriptions they gave differed in a way predicted by grammatical gender. For example, when asked to describe a “key” — a word that is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish — the German speakers were more likely to use words like “hard,” “heavy,” “jagged,” “metal,” “serrated,” and “useful,” whereas Spanish speakers were more likely to say “golden,” “intricate,” “little,” “lovely,” “shiny,” and “tiny.” To describe a “bridge,” which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish, the German speakers said “beautiful,” “elegant,” “fragile,” “peaceful,” “pretty,” and “slender,” and the Spanish speakers said “big,” “dangerous,” “long,” “strong,” “sturdy,” and “towering.” This was true even though all testing was done in English, a language without grammatical gender.

Experience has taught me to be careful when speaking of having learned a language. If the goal is to attain a certain level of functionality – being able to get around town, qualifying for admission to a university with instruction in that language – then there is a point when that gets accomplished. If it’s mastery of the language that you strive for – turning words around in your head, engaging with them, studying their meaning, crafting sentences and bending them to your will – then you never really stop learning your native tongue.

Somewhere in between, you begin to think in the new language. This comes gradually as you become immersed in it, collecting enough reference points along the way – conversations, writing, work, music, literature – that it becomes easier to connect them directly in their language instead of mapping everything to your native language and working there, hoping that it won’t all fall apart in reverse translation. This first happens piecemeal, one conversation at a time, then for extended stretches, until you can drop the safety net altogether.

I never got that far in either French or Russian. They’ve shaped a good deal of my thought nonetheless, albeit indirectly. It’s huge to be able to experience culture in its own language, even if your command of it is limited. So what if you do not understand everything? Isn’t that how you experienced your own native culture first, as a kid or adolescent? You bump into words you don’t know as you read, so you look them up or guess them from context. You can miss a double meaning, fail to notice clues, or misunderstand something altogether. It’s all good. It’s learning.

I did get there and beyond in English. To the extent that I verbalize my thoughts, they’re usually in English, reverting to perhaps half-and-half when I visit Poland. But I honestly can’t isolate the effects of that on my cognition: not that there haven’t been any, but I can’t tell what was due to my increasing proficiency in English and what should be attributed elsewhere.

For one thing, not all thought is verbal. I also use visual images and mathematics. For the non-mathematicians out there: we sometimes use mathematical concepts in reference to real life situations, not to quantify anything, but to invoke certain logical constructs. A condition could be “necessary but not sufficient” for something to occur. Two systems may be so similar in their structure and functioning that they’re “isomorphic”. These are mathematical terms with a precise and instantly recognizable meaning. It doesn’t matter whether I use the English word for “isomorphic”, or Russian, or French. They mean exactly the same thing defined in terms of mathematical symbols. Thinking in these terms might well rewire one’s brain just as much as learning a language.

There was also the matter of moving overseas to a country with a significantly different culture. I’ve known immigrants who live most of their lives within their closely knit groups of expats, continue to speak their native language most of the time, and rarely venture out elsewhere. Never been like that, never wanted to be. I wanted to learn. Add to it all kinds of other pursuits I’ve engaged in (martial arts especially), and there must have been enough to rewire me several times over. I don’t have a lot in common with my 23-year-old self.

I do notice that my English-language personality is just ever so slightly different from the Polish-language one. The distinctions are subtle, affecting the presentation more than the content most of the time. In photography, this would be akin to processing the same image with different white balance settings, daylight for one language and cloudy for the other. The second one will usually have warmer colours; this looks gorgeous in some images and unnatural in others. Were you stuck with the cloudy setting only, you might gravitate towards shooting scenes that will look good in that setting, and skip those that won’t.

Something like this:

By his own account, when he spoke Spanish, he gestured with “the effervescence and fluidity of those of a good many Argentinians.” When he spoke Yiddish, his gestures were more “tense, jerky, and confined.” He sometimes combined the two styles, as when “discussing a Jewish matter in Spanish, and vice versa.” After living in the United States for a few years, he found his gestures becoming “in general less expansive, even when speaking in his native tongue.” His gestural identity was further complicated by the “symbolic Italian movements” he had picked up from Argentine-Italians and reinforced on a trip through Italy. But no matter what language he spoke, he proved to be “an adroit table-pounder.”

English tends to be more reserved than Polish or Russian. It relies on omission and understatement more often. In translation, the English text is almost always shorter than Polish, as if to leave room for that. Polish grammar directs the speaker to include far more extraneous information than is required in English, making it harder to leave something unsaid. I’ve seen an English language novel where the gender of one of the key characters is only revealed at the end. It would be very difficult (if at all possible) to do that in Polish or Russian, given that almost every verb and adjective has to indicate gender through its grammatical form.

This article gets at something different:

Behavioral economists have documented the all too many ways that humans are predictably irrational. Emotions and biases often just get the better of us. In a new study in Psychological Science, however, psychologists found that people forced to think in a foreign language made more rational decisions. […]

Even when we understand a foreign language, what should be emotionally charged phrases, such swears or expressions of love, just don’t register the same emotional effect. The researchers think that’s why the participants were able to make more rational decisions in a foreign language.

That’s not where I am, not even in French or Russian. Reading books and listening to music will do that to you. But when I’m stuck working on a math problem, I like to switch languages sometimes. It’s the mental equivalent of hitting “reload”, or of opening the window and letting fresh air in. The use of different vocabulary and grammar does not necessarily suggest new ways of looking at the problem – while I suppose it could be possible, I don’t recall it ever happening to me. It clears the mind enough, though, that it’s easier to think of those new ways.

One thing I regret is that I did not learn proper English pronunciation as a child. As it is, I still get “where are you from?” in response when I ask for a piece of merchandise in a store. Continental European languages, especially Eastern European, shape your voice apparatus in a way that makes it hard to articulate English sounds without an accent. It’s next to impossible to fix that later in life. I’ve heard that from any number of sources, including classical singers (voice professionals, after all) who grew up in Eastern Europe. I worked with a speech therapist for a while anyway, might do it again when I have time. But then, there are always too many things to do.

I wish, too, that I’d had the internet all along. Not just because I have no accent when I write, so that I can have normal conversations without someone interrupting to mention vodka and pierogi. Back in Poland in the 1980s, access to western culture was better than most people here assume, but limited nonetheless. I had to scour second-hand bookstores for English-language books, any that I could find. Anglophone music was generally not sold in record stores, either. Everyone had stacks of music tapes recorded from the radio. Now there’s YouTube and Project Gutenberg to begin with, and all kinds of paid downloads. There are online dictionaries and translation services. If I were to learn a new language today, I suppose that would make it so much easier.

I might still do it sometime. But first, I’d like to catch up on French and Russian. They’ve been on the back burner for too long. I’ve always wanted to read “The Master and Margarita” in the original Russian; I started it several months ago, then got too busy otherwise. Maybe this summer. There’s a French language waiting list, too. I could sign up for conversation classes or something similar. It’s a process that never ends.

Author: Izabella Laba

Mathematics professor at UBC. My opinions are, obviously, my own.

17 thoughts on “My four languages”

  1. I’m curious about what some of the myths and misconceptions are that you’ve enountered about multilingualism.

  2. Marcin – Thanks!

    Mark – There’s a persistent one about learning languages in childhood vs. later on. If you start early (before you’re 5? 7? 10?), you are bilingual with basically no additional effort. If on the other hand you start later on, it’s a lost cause already. You can learn to get around etc., but you’ll never be really good at it. (I’ve found both parts to be false.)

    There are many myths about what’s supposed to be difficult or impossible. You don’t have emotional responses in a second language. (That one’s not so hard, actually.) You can’t experience fully a foreign-language culture except in translation. (What does “fully” mean? There’s a wide range of degrees of experiencing culture, many of which require some work from native and non-native speakers alike.) It’s very difficult to think in a foreign language. (It happens in stages, and the first instances can come quite early.)

  3. Very interesting post. Much of what you say resonate with me, as I’m quadrilingual myself: Italian is my mother tongue, and I’ve learned French (from age 9), German (12) and English (15), in that order. (You may add to that six years of latin in school and also my local Italian dialect, which used to be my only language until I was 3 but I don’t use anymore – although I understand it).

    Gendered nouns make for some interesting psychology. For instance, after all these years — I’ve spent more than 11 years in German speaking countries — I still feel it as “wrong” that their moon is masculine (der Mond) and their sun is feminine (die Sonne)! Not to speak of neutral girls (das Mädchen) and masculine humans (der Mensch)…

    French definitely has some weird features, mostly some phrasal constructs that underwent something like synecdoche and got crystalized into the grammar. Just think of how they express negation (“je ne veux pas ça” = “I not want a step this”, or “il n’y a personne”, “il ne dit point”).

    I object somewhat to your statement that it is only a myth that young children learn languages much more easily than grown ups. As far as I know (and I’ve read my fair share of books on the subject) this has been demonstrated and is quite non-controversial among linguists and psychologists — with all due qualifications, of course. Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct, for instance, explains the facts of the matter quite convincingly. One piece of evidence you’ve illustrated yourself: we “fine-tune” our ear and our phonetic apparatus quite early in life, and it can become next to impossible to pass for a native speaker in a later-learned language. (But maybe I’m misunderstanding what exactly you’re calling a myth here.)

  4. Ivo – Thanks! Part of the reason I wrote this is that I’ve been hoping that others would want to compare experiences.

    I don’t necessarily disagree that it can be more difficult to learn languages (and new stuff in general?) as you get older. I don’t think this was the case with me – I actually think that French came to me more easily when I started at 21 than English did when I was 11. The part that I really disagree with is the magnitude and irreversibility of that difference. I’ve heard opinions that you cannot become fluent in a language unless you start in early childhood (sometimes with specific examples of what is meant by fluency). That hasn’t been true for me and many others I know.

    The pronunciation issue is specifically related to transitioning from Eastern European languages to English. Other combinations of languages can work better, even later in life. For example, if I’d spent 20 years in France instead, chances are that I would have lost the accent altogether. (Italian pronunciation also seems similar.) But French speakers always seem to have an accent when they speak English, and vice versa. That includes actors and voice professionals.

    And yes, the French do have funny negations if you think about it 🙂

  5. Ivo’s comment about German genders reminded me that after you mentioned an English-language novel which revealed a character’s gender only at the end, it occured to me that in German, if the character were a child (das Kind), it would be quite trivial to achieve that effect.

  6. Mark – Polish is similar in that “child” (dziecko) is neutral, but it would be quite unnatural to continue to refer to the child as “the child” for any length of time. It would certainly raise suspicions. Normally, “child” would be only used in situations where the child’s gender is unknown or irrelevant (“a child was crying on the plane”). Any child that we get to know up close will be referred to as “boy” or “girl” instead.

  7. Though I am a new reader to your blog, I just have to comment here: To me propably the most difficult thing in learning foreign languages like German and French has been the idea of a gender. In my mother tongue the nouns do not have a gender. It goes so far, that even the pronouns are genderless: there is only one pronoun meaning both he and she. Therefore, it is quite easy to hide the gender of a person in a novel by just not telling it explicitely!

    And yes, even if learning new languages as such does not get any harder when you grow up, learning new sounds and phonemes does. Since my native language only has one s sound, producing the seven (?) different s’s in Russian is extremely hard. I only manage correctly the ones I had to learn as a child, the new ones need tremendous effort, they will propably never come naturally. It is hard even to hear the difference.

  8. riikkakangaslampi – New commenters are always welcome!

    I’m finding it really useful to move the discussion from “learning languages is hard” to something more specific, like “learning the sounds of this language is hard when you grew up speaking this other language” or “this language has a concept (gender, say) that this other language does not have”.

    I’m not sure how you are counting the s’s in Russian. I can only think of two: the “normal” s as in “solntse” (sun) and the soft one as in “semya” (family). Perhaps you’re including other consonants (“z”, “sh”, “ch”, “ts”?) that don’t exist at all in your language, so that “s” is the closest equivalent?

  9. Those are exactly the sounds I meant with “seven s’s”. To me they are all the same…

  10. Wow! all these sounds are the same to you… riikkakangaslampi, what is your language, if I may ask?

    As for the aging of language learning skills: I am sure that there is a huge individual variation, and there must be also some cultural variation — it seems to me for instance (by comparing the many people I know who migrated to Switzerland as adolescents or adults) that speakers of slavic languages can acquire new languages with grater ease than others. Also, I myself am much more fluent in English than in German, although I’ve actually lived in German speaking regions for 12 years, against the 2 years for English (I suspect this is because I almost exclusively consume books and movies in English).

    Nonetheless – and beyond personal anecdotes – there is nowadays little doubt remaining that small children are somehow hardwired for soaking up their ambient language. We know this is some detail: from the rather precise ages at which various features are acquired (e.g. in English: names, verbs, simple sentences, irregular forms, etc.); from the amazing number of new words that they effortlessly and even unintentionally learn (dozens a day), and so on and on. Some of these skills are highly specific, and cannot be generically attributed to the better learning skills of youth as compared to later ages. I could go into some detail here, but I would have to start reconsulting my sources…

    I concede that a consensus hasn’t been reached yet by linguists on such matters. In particular, it is still argued that language acquisition in children may simply be a a result of a general learning module. But it is my understanding, from observing the field as an external enthusiast, that this view is quickly becoming obsolete in view of a recent but steeply cumulating mountain of evidence from experimental psychology and neurology. In a single sentence: it seems that children, rather than just soaking up language because of some general aping instinct, are actually hardwired to “fix certain parameters” from their ambient language – on which they will eventually build the language’s grammar – as well as to memorize great numbers of words, in a certain pattern. And all of this, regardless of which particular language that happens to be spoken around them, and also regardless of whether the parents actively try to engage them and teach them to speak, or not!

    OK, sorry for the long post. I’m just trying to convey that there is now a lot of evidence that backs up this particular “myth”, which in any case cannot be discounted out of hand. Again, I can only recommend Pinker’s The Language Instinct for an overview.

  11. Ivo – Sorry, I’m allergic to Pinker. He has written some stuff about women that I did not appreciate all that much.

    You are really arguing against something I never claimed. This is what I actually wrote:

    If you start early (before you’re 5? 7? 10?), you are bilingual with basically no additional effort. If on the other hand you start later on, it’s a lost cause already. You can learn to get around etc., but you’ll never be really good at it.

    This is quite compatible with saying that children “soak up” ambient languages much more easily than adults do. I’ve seen it and I know it to be true. But I’ve read my share of the literature on the subject, and basically there’s no place in it for someone like me or many of my friends. Every study of bilingualism that I can recall had only two classes of subjects: bilinguals who grew up speaking two languages and continued to be immersed in them all their life, and second language speakers who studied a language for a few years in school maybe and never got good at it. That dichotomy leaves out for example those of us who did get good at it as adults, or who learned a language in childhood but were not immersed in it, or any other intermediate cases.

    So, to make it clear: the “myth” that I object to is that there are only two extreme cases with nothing really in between.

    And yes, I did mention accents. I might always have one when I speak English. So will a native French speaker from Quebec when he/she travels to France.

  12. OK, I see. Then we have no real disagreement. I readily acknowledge that the usual dichotomy is too simplistic.

    Just out of pure curiosity: do you remember what was it that Pinker said on women that irked you? (I’m not out to defend him: he just seems to be quite liberal and feminist, from what I’ve read of him, so I wonder if I’ve missed something)

  13. I certainly don’t know about Polish, but in German a character named initially as “das Kind” is correctly referred to thereafter with neuter pronouns, which is how I imagined such an effect being achieved. This sounds odd to native English speakers like myself, but is idiomatic in (literary) German.

  14. Mark – The pronouns for “dziecko” are neutral. But this is a question of custom, not grammar. It would be perfectly correct from the point of grammar to continue to refer to the child as “the child” and use neutral pronouns. In real life, that’s not how people talk. It would be similar to what Cormac McCarthy does in “The Road”, referring to the boy as “the boy” throughout the book. It’s all grammatically correct, but it does attract your attention that the boy is never given a name. Likewise in Polish, if an author continued to write about “a child”, even though the child is old enough to have agency and be a character in his/her own right (note how “in its own right” would sound odd here), that would draw attention to the fact that the child’s gender is not being specified.

    Ivo – Pinker has written a lot (“The Blank Slate”, “The Better Angels”) about how women think differently for biological reasons. I have not actually read the books, but I did follow a good deal of the publicity (interviews, excerpts). Pinker goes out of his way to say that “different” does not mean “worse” and could in fact mean “better”. Unfortunately, he does not seem to understand how such theories are invoked in real life. If you think about it, it might not be all that far from Pinker’s “better angels” to claiming that lower pay for women is quite alright because money is a “guy thing” that women are not interested in, not that this is a negative statement about them of course. (One U.S. politician claimed just that recently. I could google it if needed.) I assume that this is not what Pinker intended, but he really should stop and think about it sometime.

  15. This was in The Globe and Mail today:

    Karsten Steinhauer, the Canada Research Chair in Neurocognition of Language, has discovered lent his expertise in new technologies such as electroencephalography (yes, it’s a word!) to bust a few myths as well: namely, that only children have the capacity to learn a new language. It turns out that adult brains have similar capacities, but it’s the method of training – specifically, immersion – that determines success. Like riding a bike or playing tennis, practice makes perfect.

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