15 January 2012

The importance of context

So I've been living on an island for a while, and my contact with languages has been limited.  I spend most of my time speaking Gaelic and English, and sometimes a few words of Polish (phrasebook stuff -- I keep promising myself I'll learn the language properly, but I haven't yet).  I do still try to keep up with Spanish TV, and I sometimes listen to some French radio.

But I came back to the Lowlands for Christmas feeling pretty rusty in several languages.  The Spanish seemed to come back OK, but when I tried to speak to a Valencian guy, Pau, I just couldn't spit out the Catalan -- it just wouldn't work.

So anyway, I happened to be over in Edinburgh yesterday, and as it happened there was a meeting of the Catalan "Casal" to welcome the new committee, so I stuck around and went to it, dreading the act of trying to speak Catalan, but when I got there, it was really no problem.  OK, so a couple of times I threw in an accidental word of Spanish or French, and sometimes I ran out of Catalan, but for the most part I was OK.  People were speaking to me at a natural pace and I was following it.

The problem I had speaking to Pau was a matter of habit, of association.  I've spoken to him in Catalan on several occassions, but mostly I speak to him in Spanish or English.  Pau was not associated with a Catalan "context".  But the members of the Casal are explicitly and inextricably tied to Catalan in my head.  I've not met many of them previously, and I've not met any of them often, but when I'm there, I'm there in order to speak Catalan, and my brain's happy with that.

Up until someone asks me about daily life up on Skye, when even the simplest words start to get confused -- I couldn't even say "to go" in Catalan while thinking about the college, because the context held such a strong association with Gaelic.

This isn't my first experience of the context-sensitivity of language.

I started learning Spanish and Gaelic more-or-less simultaneously, and I did find it very difficult to talk about the Highlands and Islands in Spanish, and I found it difficult talking about my holidays in Spain in Gaelic.  Every time I thought about the Highlands, I thought of Gaelic, and every time I thought about Spain, I thought about Spanish.

The only way round this was to practice.  I can now talk about Spain in Gaelic, and the islands in Spanish.  Victory!

But let's go back to Pau.

The association of person with language is very strong -- it's very difficult to change the habitual language of conversation with any particular individual.  So sometimes you have to make a firm choice to speak a particular language with a particular person, or you'll find yourself speaking another one.

This is also the reason most people find it difficult to learn their husband/wife/partner's language -- they have an established relationship associated with a particular language.

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