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Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse

Cognitive load (2)

I mentioned last time a nerve-racking experience of code-switching between Spanish and Japanese, which, given their huge disparities, did not make it easy (or fun) for me to alternate between them simultaneously and spontaneously on a social function (pub night), though it did give me a massive headache…! One may surmise that, all things being equal, the complexity in code-switching positively correlates with the linguistic distance between the languages in alternation, and there is probably an element of truth here. However, it is by no means straightforward switching between closely related languages either, since I have switched between Western Romance languages (also on a social function, not to mention at the same LSA institute in 2011– God bless the LSA!) and, massive fun though it was, it was not easy, since the problem here is not the linguistic discrepancies which take up much of one’s cognitive energy but rather the highly similar yet subtly different microvariations that often than not trick you into making grammatical mistakes. It is very natural in these circumstances to assume too much similarity and say unnatural, even if intelligible, utterances. In second language acquisition, this is commonly known  as ‘false friends’ i.e. apparent and superficial similarities that are actually different. To give a famous example: Spanish sensible and sensato do not mean what they seem to English speakers, since sensible really means ‘sensitive’ and sensato means ‘sensible’- a very common mistake committed by no other than myself in my early learning days of Spanish. In foreign language learning, therefore, it is much better to start from scratch and revamp the entire language, since it is not always easy to decide how much or how little to assume. This is certainly the case with Romance languages, which share a great deal in common but also quite a lot of differences which distinctively characterise each of them. In the conversation where I was switching between Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, I remember a particular turn where I was asking questions and I had to be very careful with choosing the word for ‘why’, since although there is a pan-Romance way of expressing ‘why’ as *per quod (Spanish por qué, Portuguese por quê, French pourquoi, Italian per chè etc), in the context of saying ‘how come?’ (circumstantial explanation rather than causal explanation i.e. clarification for background rather than motive/intention) these languages all use different terms: while Spanish por qué more or less does the job, Italian uses come mai   which is distinct from per chè, and French and Portuguese usually employ the cleft construction here: (Ptg) como é que…, (Fr) comment est-ce que… lit. ‘How is it that…’. Pretty cool non-etymological correspondence, but also annoyingly tedious from a language learning perspective since just as one thought that one could simplify Romance by assuming across-the-board generalisations one discovers that there are many subtle shades of meaning that are realised differently in different cognate languages. Such joys of the Romance languages, yet also such pains in getting to grips with them. It is a different game playing around with these closely related languages, since it is not about making sharp and rapid U-turns in the highway of one’s brain but rather learning to swerve and sift zig-zag through the tiny cavities of one’s neurological circuits without hitting anything. Learn the rules of the game before even daring to win.

PS: those of you who are interested in reading about this may consider reading my grammatical notes on Chinese dialects (Mandarin/Cantonese) which also display similar microvariations which I have spent my whole life thinking about and have indeed done some cool code-switching in. Recently, I have also published an article on Asia Times some sociolinguistics of China. Please get in touch if you are interested.

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