Translation and Interpreting in 150+ Languages
Is learning a language like riding a bicycle?
May 4, 2010 - By: - In: Language - 12 comments

Now, riding a bike, that’s something you don’t forget, no matter how long you’ve been off two wheels. A few years ago we rented some bikes in Amsterdam and, even after all those long years without two wheels between my legs, I found I could still push a pedal or two around and about the canals. Now, I was no Lance Armstrong―probably peddles and chews gum at the same time―but I hadn’t been able to ride and chew before either.  The same thing is true when it comes to language acquisition. Once learned, you don’t forget, or at least you don’t forget as much. Languages learned during childhood and later lost nevertheless leave their tread marks on the neural pathways of the brain decades after the language is no longer spoken. According to researcher at the University of Bristol in the UK, adoptees and immigrants who have no memory of their native tongue retain at least some information.

Linguist Jeff Bowers and his team found that early learning leaves an indelible imprint on the ability to perceive the sounds of a language. They discovered that persons who were exposed to Zulu and Hindi early in life could distinguish the sounds of those languages readily even after not hearing or speaking the language for years and years, even though these childhood speakers had forgotten their mother’s tongue many years past. In contrast, adults who had never spoken those languages were unable to hear them. So it’s easy to imagine that those who have lost a language will find it easier to pick it up if they need to. Language leaves deep ruts in the grey matter.  Karen Schrok writes in Scientific American Mind that “because memories are neuronal connections that get reinforce with regular access, so the findings mean that even connections that have not been re-accessed for decades do not disappear completely.”

Personally, I find this a little frightening―seems it means I’m going to have to donate my brain to science, since it’s pretty clear that I am an exception to this rule. I have the habit of using “umbrella” and “rainbow” interchangeably, and I still can’t tell the difference between Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino. And Japanese…forget it. All those long days of study spent pouring (beer) over my kanji books, the endless hours reciting Japanese verb endings in the university language lab, and all those arguments lost to my Japanese wife were for naught. Now, like the waters of Basho’s poetical frog pond, which I’ve forgotten, my Japanese language skills are still. Strange thing is, for years, I had no idea. For years. For a long time I thought my Japanese was still pretty good. But rather than take personal responsibility for my poor study habits, I hold my father-in-law responsible.

I was a Japanese New Year’s prisoner trapped in my father-in-law’s house. During the Oshogatsu New Year celebration, which lasts for days, there is absolutely nothing to do but watch TV and sit around eating tangerines, and I don’t have the attention span required for television viewing. My father-in-law and I and another less familiar relation were sitting around curled up under the kotatsu (a kind of heated coffee table covered with a blanket and the only way to keep from freezing your tail off in a Japanese house in those days), having a pleasant chat in my fluent Japanese. At one point, I noticed that Dad was following up on everything I said, kind of elaborating on it, expanding it, explaining it…then it hit me like a squirt of tangerine juice in my eye.

“You’re translating for me!” I accused, waving a tangerine skin at him.

“Oh no, no I’m not. I’m just commenting…” I was ready to spit a seed at him, but that’s considered rude in Japanese society.

I turned to our visitor. “Does my Japanese make any sense? Can you understand what I’m saying?” A pause. She had that cornered look in her eyes.

“Well, sure, generally speaking, yes.” Now that’s the literal translation from Japanese, but what it really meant was, “I don’t have a clue what you are saying.” A brutal revelation, which I expressed to my father-in-law in hopes that he could explain how I felt to our guest.

I wasn’t really upset, but grateful. Over the years, as the mighty edifice of my Japanese ability crumbled to dust, my father-in-law had hung on to my meaning, becoming the last man in Japan who could understand what I was saying. Or thought he understood. My wife would laugh at our conversations sometimes. “You guys think you are having a conversation, but you’re talking about two completely different things.” Despite severe cognitive decline in his later years, in our last hospital bedside conversation, I was able to get him to tell me where he had hidden his stash of home-made plum wine. Shows what my wife knows. It’s the thought that counts!

Any other stories on the lack of language retention? If I recall correctly, I’m not the only one with this problem.

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