Speaking German is Like Driving a Car
Historically, Finland’s political relationship with Sweden has been, to put it mildly, tense. I was discussing this issue with a Finnish friend recently, and it seems that many Finns actively dislike their own ability to speak Swedish, and much prefer to use English. [Update: see also the comment below] There seems to be something similar going on in Switzerland, too. Having recently moved to Geneva, I have found that the French-speaking Swiss, despite having a relatively high level of German, tend to prefer speaking English as their second language instead. This impression has been further confirmed by discussions with others who have moved here, as well as locals themselves. Supposedly, the case is the same for German-speaking Swiss and even more so for the Italian speakers (I have no idea about the Romansch, but supposedly they fall back on German).
Bilingualism, like many things, is complicated. In the same way as many other psychological phenomena, it exists along a spectrum, rather than being an either/or question. There is, therefore, great scope for research into how it works. I have a personal interest in the matter (see below), but it seems to fascinate even monolinguals.
Yesterday, the British Psychological Society‘s Research Digest blog reported a recent study of bilingualism in Finland. Using vowel sounds which are considered (perceived, even) as distinct in Finnish but identical in Swedish, the researchers found a significant difference between two kinds of bilinguals:
- “balanced bilinguals”, who had been brought up speaking both Finnish and Swedish from a very young age, and
- “dominant bilinguals”, who had been brought up in Finnish but had learnt Swedish from secondary school (age 12) and had very high mastery of it (a notion most foreign to many Brits and French I know!)
The use of Finns to study bilingualism is an insightful choice. The patterns of bilingualism highlighted above are stable and distinct. Trying to study bilingualism in a community such as British expats in Strasbourg (my own background) would prove trickier, because of the variation in children’s ages for acquiring the second language, what they speak at home, what kind of school they go to etc. There is a huge grey area here. Indeed, I would very much doubt whether there is a precise, predictable age at which children lose the capacity to become a balanced bilingual, when the first language becomes the dominant one for good. There are just too many variables involved. For example, if a child is exposed to more than one language for the first “few” years of their life, but then – for whatever reason, such as a change of home – only one, how much of the influence of the second language is lost? How easily does it return?
As for me, I was brought up bilingually, speaking English at home and French at school from age 3. Later, in secondary school, I started learning German. Thus, I am a balanced bilingual with respect to French and English, but dominant when it comes to German. Although I am reasonably fluent, and some people call me trilingual, my relationship with German is fundamentally different from that which I have with French and English. Of course, speaking two languages to start with has made it easier to learn a third, but I don’t think I will ever know German like I know French or English. It’s like the difference between riding a bike and driving a car.
The analogy goes a long way. In the next paragraph, you can replace every instance of “riding my bike /cycling” with “speaking English/French”, and all mentions of “driving” with “speaking German”.
I can go for months or years without cycling and still remember how to do it, almost without thinking. My driving, on the other hand, needs a bit more maintenance and concentration, partly because I haven’t been doing it for quite as long. I ride my bike far more often than I drive. Cycling is something I just picked up* from my parents when I was very little, whereas driving, involved many hours of lessons and some stressful exams, both for theory and practice. I even have paperwork to the effect that I can drive. I can improvise whilst cycling, and am much more comfortable with last-minute, high-speed, tricky manoeuvres. Occasionally, though, it does go wrong. I remember riding a friend’s bike in the UK once, when I went flying over the handlebars because the front and rear brakes were on the “wrong” way round. That, like cycling on the opposite side of the road, is like getting confused with linguistic false friends, and – even worse – false false friends [post to follow]. Sometimes when driving, I have to check the route on a map**. They even have maps online now!
** for “map”, read “dictionary”.
Of course, there are some aspects of driving/cycling where the language metaphor breaks down. For example, cycling is a lot more exhausting than driving, whereas I get tired a lot faster speaking German than either of the other two. But there is one more aspect of similarity:
I have never driven after drinking alcohol, but if it’s anything like what happens when I try to speak German under the influence, it would probably involve crashing into a cyclist!