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Faulty Language Selection
Faulty Language Selection
Topic Rating: +1 Topic Rating: +1 (1 votes) 
San Antonio
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Hi, Martha and Grant!


I listened to your latest AWWW podcast and enjoyed it as usual! Thanks for the great work you do.

One topic was especially interesting because of my personal experience: faulty language selection. Like Amanda, I wondered if I was the only one who experienced that.

Some 35 years ago I began studying Spanish in junior high and took it throughout high school. I continued my studies in college, majoring in the language and studying a semester in Mexico in 1986 at about age 20. I met a Mexican woman and eventually married her (sadly, we’re now divorced) and have spoken Spanish nearly every day since then. I consider myself fluent in Spanish reading, writing, and speaking—in fact, I occasionally dream in Spanish.

In 1990 I studied Brazilian Portuguese for Spanish Speakers in graduate school. Because of the similarities to Spanish, I caught on very quickly, but unfortunately, I never really had much opportunity to practice. I never totally forgot it, but I can’t say that I ever was close to fluent.

Then about five years ago, I decided to learn Japanese at the local community college where I work.

I found Japanese very challenging compared to the Romance languages I previously learned, but what I found most frustrating is that when I struggled to find the correct Japanese word, or to conjugate the Japanese verbs, I always reached for a Portuguese word or verb conjugation—never Spanish! Until your broadcast, I just thought I was weird. I couldn’t understand why my brain wanted to default to a language that I didn’t know nearly as well as English or Spanish. Now I understand!  

Thanks for your show. Keep up the great work!

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Howdy there!

I was sort of relieved to hear about this “faulty language selection” business as I am a person who has been annoyed by it over the years. I am a native American English speaker. I moved to Mexico for a couple of years when I was in my early 20’s. I became quite fluent in Spanish before returning to the USA. Later, I married a Danish woman and moved to Copenhagen. I have now been living in Denmark for 13 years and am very fluent at Danish… My issue is that when I want to speak spanish nowadays, I am constantly feeding myself words in Danish. Danish interference in Spanish is not helpful as the two languages do NOT overlap!  

I have noticed this phenomenon for many years, but have never met someone who knew exactly what I meant until now.

Thanks for putting a diagnosis on it Martha and Grant.


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I have had similar problems to amanda. I was born in Istanbul Turkey, and grew up there learning “street” turkish from the neighborhood kids. I went to an american school, and took a little french as well. I returned to the US at age 11 and continued the french throughout highschool. To this day I will periodically wake up in the middle of a dream in Turkish where I cannot come up with the Turkish word only the French word. Oddly I occaisonally have the reverse problem. The dreams seem to be triggered by hearing one or the other language.


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I have lots of similar tales.

When I was in college, while a beginner studying language #4, Russian, in class we were asked to respond extemporaneously in response to a question or topic spoken in Russian. I remember being quite nervous about the quiz. When my turn came, I was thrilled that I understood the question perfectly. I formulated a response and began to speak. When I finished, I thought that it wasn’t nearly as difficult as I feared it would be. My instructor looked pleased. Then she said in Russian “Excellent response. Now try it in Russian, instead of French.”

A few years later I worked with a French colleague. We would converse regularly in French until one fateful day. Due to faulty language selection, somewhere in the middle of a sentence, on the word for “man,” I switched from French to Chinese. I realized it only when I saw horror on her face. From that day forward, despite my continued speaking to her in French without incident, she would respond to me only in English.

I’ve also had a few experiences in foreign countries, when I didn’t recognize English (my native language) when spoken to me. Also, when asked for the English word for some common objects, I sometimes couldn’t readily come up with the English, although I had the word in a few other non-native languages.

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How come American’s speak English and not American, and Mexicans don’t speak Mexican but Spanish even though there’s a lot of differences between the two? Rather than Brazilian-Portuguese wouldn’t Brazilian be more apt? Maybe this should be a whole new thread. I’m always teasing my American friends with that and and ‘Mer’kin’izms!  

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