On Language Order and Interference in Language Learning

Six summers ago (for it’s already the beginning of summer in Bishkek) my American roommate at my Peking study abroad program and I were in the great Xinhua Bookstore at WangFuJing when we were approached by a French guy looking for a French copy of The Little Prince. Both of us spoke French, and had studied it far longer than we had studied Chinese. But a curious thing happened – every time we tried to reply in French, we found ourselves speaking Chinese. Somehow the intensive study of Chinese had temporarily taken over the “foreign language” section of our brain – when we tried switching to a language other than English, we automatically, unthinkingly, switched to Chinese. (And in the end, all three of us discovered that we could all speak English; communication difficulties resolved).
Last year, while traveling in Kazakhstan right after I left China – my first time in three years that I was in a country where I had to communicate in a second language other than Chinese – I noticed another interesting phenomenon. At this time I spoke a smattering of elementary Uyghur (related to Kazakh enough to be somewhat mutually intelligible, at least enough to cover basic communication needs; at one time both languages were considered ‘Turki’ or “Eastern Turkish” though they have since developed significant phonetic differences), and I had just started studying Russian on my own. When I tried speaking to someone in Russian, but didn’t know a word, I would unconsciously submit a Uyghur word. And when I was speaking Uyghur, I would sometimes stumble into Chinese. But never did I go from Russian to Chinese, or at any time experience interference from English. It seems I had a chain of second language interference: Uyghur to Chinese, as I had learned Uyghur in China (and in Chinese, using a Chinese textbook in a classroom with Koreans classmates who also spoke Chinese); and Russian to Uyghur (as I was learning Russian in a geographical context that also supported ‘Turki’).
The Russian-Turkish language situation is now a bit flipped, as I’ve forgotten most of my Uyghur (it slipped into and was devoured by Turkish), and my Russian is better than my Turkish. This past weekend E, his co-worker-and-distant-relative, and the latter’s local girlfriend (a Kyrgyz woman who speaks fluent Turkish and, as she works at the Turkish university, now barely uses Russian for everyday affairs) went to Taverna 12 Kaminov in the mountains. The girlfriend knows Turkish, Kyrgyz and Russian, and the co-worker only Turkish, so naturally all of them spoke Turkish all weekend. When addressed, I might understand what was being said, but I would almost always reply in Russian, so the girlfriend and I would have these odd dialogues where she’s speaking Turkish to me, and I’m responding in Russian (a language she knows, but is less comfortable speaking).
What we can make of all of this – first languages do not interfere with second languages as much as previously supposed. Instead, it appears that second languages are stored in different areas of the brain than first languages, their use is triggered by different associations (I might write more on this later), and a speaker may develop a linguistic order among their second languages. My computer currently won’t go online (the wifi is out and cable doesn’t work with my American machine), but when it does again I’ll upload links to a few articles I read in a linguistics class last winter that explain some of my experiences with more scientific depth.
This notion – that first languages don’t interfere that much with second languages – doesn’t seem to hold up in all circumstances though. Taking China as an example – from years of teaching English in China and editing papers in China (including a decent number of graduate student dissertation introductions and abstracts) it would seem that Chinese, and Chinese grammar and figures of speech especially, do heavily influence Chinese-speakers’ English speech and writing. I would argue, however, that this is because in China English is (though this is changing – perhaps I should say ‘was’) taught like other school subjects, and not as a distinct thought system. Thus Chinese students don’t develop a different mindset for thinking in and producing English.

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