I don’t watch TV much these days, and when I do, it’s mostly Netflix, which isn’t ‘proper’ TV, in the sense that you have to choose a channel and watch whatever is showing at that moment.
When I was a kid in the ‘seventies, I was an avid viewer, of course, as everyone was. Though there often wasn’t anything good on. There were just three channels in Britain in those days, and programmes of interest to the young were only shown at certain times of day.
Which meant we spent a lot of time switching channels, hoping (usually in vain) to find something worth watching. The news and weather would go on forever, but there was always the chance that there’d be something interesting afterwards.
To see if we were missing anything good in the meantime, though, someone had to get up, walk over to the TV, and press the second or third button.
Effort was required, though whoever could be bothered to get to their feet and walk a few steps (this was in the days before remotes) was rewarded with a soupçon of power.
Which button to press first? How long to linger before trying the other channel? For a few moments, before the rest of family began to complain, you could CHOOSE.
But back to language-learning. Those of you just starting out with a foreign language have a metaphorical TV which, for now, shows just one channel. Watch it, or go dig the garden.
Anyone who’s been studying for a while, in contrast, has two (or more) channels to choose from. Channel 1, which broadcasts loud and clear, plus another option or options, though these might be fuzzy or intermittent.
Back in the day, if there was something we really wanted to watch, we’d put up with a distorted picture and imperfect sound. Perhaps we’d squat right in front of the TV set, so as to be better able to make out what was going on through the electronic snowstorm.
Having two channels (or three) of TV, even if only one could be relied on to function correctly, was surely better than having no other options.
And so it is with languages. Even a modest level in Italian, is way, way better than none at all.
So you’re no genius at languages, but if you can walk into a bar in Italy and order a coffee with a certain panache, or even just buy the right kind of bus ticket, that’s a start.
Remember NOT being able to do these things? Just as you probably couldn’t do them now in Chinese or Tamil? Those channels don’t exist on your TV. But Italian is a button you can press.
I can ‘get by’ now in the languages I’m learning. Test me and the results might not show more than a B1 (intermediate), and with major gaps and weaknesses to boot. But it’s satisfying, nonetheless.
Reaching the stage at which you’re able to chat in your foreign language is a milestone, one to aspire to, and one be proud of when (if) you reach it.
Switching channels can be a pig!
I’m sure (I hope) it’s not just me. There are moments when I need to speak Italian (which I do most every day) and Swedish comes out, or Turkish, or nothing intelligible at all.
Or sometimes, when I’m speaking a language I know less well, I’ll use terms from another language by mistake, often without realising it.
My teacher will look politely puzzled, or just ask me directly what I mean. Oops! Done it again.
I’ve notice that there are psychological ‘cues’ that facilitate ‘switching’ between languages. For example, when you go to your Italian class or Skype your Italian teacher, your head will know that, when you open your mouth, Italian is the expected output.
If not at first, then quickly, you’ll find that a person or situation and a language become strongly associated.
This is very evident with bilingual children, who may find that they just CAN’T speak language A with parent B, so strongly is language A associated with parent A and language B with parent B.
I can speak Turkish with my Turkish teacher just fine when I see her online on Friday mornings, but when she walked into our (Italian) school the other day while I was sitting at reception, I was completely tongue-tied.
At reception I either speak English or Italian. My brain is used to switching, reasonably smoothly, between the two as required.
So with Ayşegül unexpectedly sitting in the client chair on the other side of the desk (rather than at the other end of a Skype call), fuses started popping in my head. I felt a fool and could barely say a word.
Both she and I can speak Italian and English well, but the ‘one person – one language’ default setting in my head is so strong that a change of context was enough to completely throw me off.
And I do a lot of practice! Given that I live in a ‘foreign’ country, am married to someone of a different nationality and have bilingual children.
Insomma, switching channels is hard. And just like a dodgy ‘seventies TV, is not guaranteed to work each time.
But it does get easier with practice.
Given time, our brains figure out which language goes with which situation and which person, and potentially that multiple languages can be associated with the same person or people.
It does need time, though.
Occasionally I have a drink at the Irish pub around the corner from the school.
Irish pub, English beer, English-speaking wife – I go up to the bar to order drinks and suddenly start to stutter!
If I had a beer after work EVERY day, my brain would figure it out pretty soon. Order in ITALIAN in this place! But because it’s a special treat, it hasn’t yet got the message.
Practice makes perfect. But it can take months or years for new ‘mental habits’ to bed down in your grey matter.
That’s normal. Chill.
You probably won’t ever be perfect (at anything). Your brain is an organic system not a German automobile.
But if you keep at it, you will get better.
Don’t forget to listen to Saturday’s EasyItalianNews.com bulletin, which is mercifully free of bad news from the European elections…