Languages are like keyboards
I’ve previously compared the difference between being bilingual and fluent in a foreign language to the difference between cycling and driving a car. It struck me today that it’s also a bit like switching between different keyboard layouts. At work, I use a Swiss QWERTZ keyboard, which is handy for when I need to write something in French or German. At home, however I have a UK QWERTY keyboard (and I use AllChars for the occasional accent.)
Every time I turn up to work, or go home, my brain has to switch. Most of the keys are in the same place, so I can do my almost-touch-typing, but occasionally something goes slightly wrong, and I have to check. For instance, Z and Y switch places, which makes the “undo” shortcut (CTRL Z) far less convenient; the ! symbol is miles away from its UK position, too. (“Shift 1″ produces a + symbol). ‘ and / are also in odd places.
Gradually, I’ve been getting used to the new positions, and I find myself making ever fewer mistakes. I think these key moves are analogous to false friends in languages. Sometimes, I get paranoid about where the letter A is, thinking that if I’m using a foreign keyboard, it must be a French AZERTY one (statistically the more likely option over the course of my lifetime). This is comparable to the phenomenon of what I call “false false friends”, which I will write a separate post about some other time (remind me?).
I wouldn’t be surprised if the neurological activity associated with switching between languages were to be quite similar to those involved in being “fluent” in different keyboards layouts. I think that would be quite hard to test, though.
Making a little mistake while typing is more likely when I’m tired, or if I’ve been using one keyboard for a relatively long time. It’s the same case with languages – when I’m tired, or I’ve been constantly using one language for a while, I find I tend to make more mistakes when I switch to another. A further parallel: these mistakes are usually minor, and the people reading/listening to me can usuallz tell what was meqnt.