Do You Feel the Language?

Do you speak a foreign language? I bet you do. Do you feel the language? This is a more interesting question! Think about it for a while. Is there any gap between you and the foreign language that you speak? Not sure? This is my test: say the following sentences that refer to senses and emotions:


  • I feel really great today!
  • Lemon tastes sour.
  • This is a green beautiful tree.


Now, say the above sentences in your native language. Do you feel any difference? If you’re Polish, listen to the Polish and the English version of Charlie, Charlie by Ania Dąbrowska. Do they feel the same? They don’t to me.


One day in December I realized that I speak English fairly well but I don’t really feel it. I found this discovery very enlightening and wanted to share it with you. Why would that be useful? I think I can now better understand English-speaking people and imagine the things they talk about. I hadn’t been able to do that before. Understanding another person is crucial in communication. Is it useful for you? Maybe. As always, you’re the judge. Let’s look at the whole thing and dissect it.


Let me tell you my story. I’m Polish and I moved to Canada over 2 years ago. My native language is Polish and I used to speak Polish for at least 20 years (I don’t remember when I said my first word; probably my mother doesn’t remember that either). Most of my memories are in Polish and I love that language. When it comes to learning a new language I’m not a genius nor a slow learner. I’ve been learning English since elementary school. In the meantime I picked up some German and taught myself Swedish (thanks Lina!) and several programming languages. Most likely there is no difference between you and me. We’ve got the same mental capabilities.


Learning a native language is an interesting experience. When you learn a language as a child you don’t study grammar, you don’t do listening exercises, you don’t write essays, you don’t take any tests, yet you learn how to speak and be understood. You just do it! How? You do it by practice and by associating words with actions, things, and emotions.


Language defines who you are and allows to express your personality. Each language expresses certain concepts. Different languages have slightly different concepts. For example, I still haven’t found any good English equivalent for Polish załatwić or Swedish lagom. When you learn a native language, you learn something that your ancestors invented. Later, as you grow up, you introduce new words and use some of them more often than the others. You express yourself in a certain way and this is how others perceive you. Do you see where it leads to? The language identifies you… in a way. What is more, others identify you with what you say. There is a very small gap between you and the language. That’s the reason why you feel bad when others criticize your ideas.


Now, let’s look at the process of learning a new language. First, you pick up some words and phrases. Later, you mechanically repeat them and react to scripted phrases of others. Your brain works like a computer. If someone provides an input, you know what to output. If you can’t recognize the input, you say WTF. What is the next step? You become more creative, play with the language and feel comfortable when talking to foreigners. At some point you internalize the language. You unconsciously think and dream in another language. What? You think in another language?


As far as I remember I started thinking in English several months after I moved to Canada. Most of my interactions were in English, which had a very negative impact on my Polish. I used to chat with my parents for only 40 minutes a week over Skype. Considering that there are 10080 minutes a week, I spent only 0.4% of the time speaking Polish. Chatting with my friends on Gadu-Gadu or Facebok wasn’t helpful. 66% of the time I was communicating in English (sleep excluded). It sounds ridiculous, but I got worse at the language that I had been using for over 20 years! It’s a shame, but sometimes I run out of words when speaking Polish. Then I need to stop for a sec to come up with a Polish translation of an English word (the same happens when speaking English). Of course, after a week in Poland my brain rewires itself and switches to the Polish mode.


What is the next stage of picking up a language? It’s about feeling the language and embedding it into your feelings. Imagine learning a new language, e.g. Spanish. Do you immediately feel it? Unlikely. You start feeling the language once you’ve got enough cultural background and gazillions of hours of interactions with local human beings. I still have problems with feeling the English language. When someone tells me that something is awesome, I mechanically understand that the person has positive feelings towards that thing. I, however, don’t immediately feel the awesomeness of that thing! If the same situation happens in Polish, I do feel niesamowitość (awesomeness) of that thing. Weird, isn’t it?


Feeling a foreign language is a matter of time and effort. I realized that I can live with barely understanding the language but not feeling it. After several more years in Canada I would eventually internalize the language. Do I have to wait that long? No, I don’t. I believe it is possible to speed up this process by consciously trying to feel what the other person says. How? I try to imagine what the other person has on their mind. It is not easy but eventually narrows the gap between the language and my perception of the language.


Thoughts or comments on that topic appreciated!

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