Marja-Leena Rathje
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language leak

I must still be thinking about accents and language and identity because this article caught my eye and really struck a chord. A study says that languages 'leak' into each other in subtle ways:

While linguistics experts are reluctant to talk of a 'third language' being formed in the brain of an immigrant, studies are now beginning to show that the brain does find it difficult to completely compartmentalize two distinct languages without merging them in subtle ways, says U of T linguistics professor Ana Teresa Pérez-Leroux.

What we are finding is that we don't and can't have complete separation between different languages in our heads. Yes, you can become very talented with your acquired language but there will always be a kind of window in our brains where one language will always 'leak' into another.

For example, a fluently bilingual speaker may say something in almost perfect English with the exception of one or two words or word structures from their mother tongue infiltrating the sentence. One instance is a person whose native language is German and who has mastered the English language saying something like, "I to the dining room go.
(via mirabilis)

My own experience is that this language merge isn't always so subtle, especially amongst the less educated working class immigrants. As regular readers know, I'm an immigrant, but I learned my second language as a child going through school. I was always very aware of the struggles with English that my parents' generation of Finns and other immigrants experienced. Something very interesting happened to many of the Finns (and I believe this happens in other languages too) - they developed amongst themselves what became called "finglish", a mixture of English and Finnish. They would take an English word and add a Finnish ending to it, usually a vowel. For someone who was unfamiliar with it, it sounded hilarious and puzzling. Long ago, I bookmarked an actual article about finglish as practised in the US. Some of the examples given are unfamiliar to me so they must be locally variable.

One time we were visiting with some family in Finland, at the same time as some other older relatives from Canada happened to also be there. My young Finnish cousin, who knew English fluently, was listening to their speech with a puzzled look on his face. He commented to me later that we was amazed that they could not speak English correctly nor could they speak Finnish properly either! Funny yet sad.

Marja-Leena | 20/08/2005 | 6 comments
themes: Finland, Estonia & Finno-Ugric, Linguistics


Such mixed languages are born amazingly quickly. In Cyprus young Finnish men in United Nations peacekeeping forces started mixing Finnish, Greek, Turkish and English.
pita bread ='kepurukkanen' (exact translation: 'kebab mitten')
goat= 'kepu'(kebab)
I was sunbathing on the roof in my free time.= 'Olin supana peltipiitsillä.' (exact translation: I was a supa(=invented word to mean 'free', from 'souvenir') on a beach made of sheet of metal)

this is interesting. sort of along the same lines, i've noticed that my dad, whose native tounge is norwegian, mixes languages quite a lot when he converses with his brother or his wife, who is also norwegian. and of course, it's always amusing when he starts speaking to me in norwegian, fully expecting me to reply in kind, which is impossible. another thing i've noticed, especially as he gets older, is that he unconsciously reverts to his native language when he is tired or stressed. i don't remember him doing this when i was a child but it makes perfect sense that he does it, iyswim.

Anna, those are very interesting and amazing examples of how four languages could mix. I suppose that is sometimes how new languages form, hmm?

Karen, I observed the same in my own late father - he forgot much of his English in his last year when ill. He would talk in Finnish to my husband and our children, who know only a little Finnish. I sometimes wonder if I might revert to Finnish too, in my old and decrepit years, but I think not because it's weaker than my English.

I think there are two reason for mixing languages in one's speech.

If you don't have time or possibility to really learn a foreign language, you pick at least some expressions or words.

People who are fluent in several languages may pick words and expression that seem to fit best each situation.

Each language has its own rhythm and those of us, like me, who lack rhythm cannot easily acquire new languages, expecially the ability to speak them.

Hi Buster and welcome! Rhythm, or a lack of it, as a basis for ability to learn language - that's an interesting concept. I wonder if any studies have been done on this?