Multilingualism as a Kaleidoscopic Experience: the mini universes within

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Multilingualism as a Kaleidoscopic Experience: the mini universes within

Elka Todeva

1. Introduction

All my life I have loved watching multilinguals in action. I have seen many, minors and venerables, collars blue and white. In a more detached way, the linguist in me has always been intrigued by polyglots like Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti, the Oxford English Dictionary editor James Murray, writer Anthony Burgess, and the enigmatic hyperpolyglot, Ziad Fazah, with his alleged mastery of more than 60 languages.

Having moved to a country with an incredible richness of languages, yet amazingly monolingual ideologically, I am thrilled when, in the streets of New York, I hear English drowned in a sea of other languages. In this linguistic mecca, and in other places within earshot of people engaged in multiple language conversations, I eavesdrop shamelessly. Hearing fluid code-switching fills me with awe, a touch of envie noble, and curiosity about how the speaker got there.

This is the story of my personal journey in the land of language acquisition and learning, a vast territory forever offering captivating glimpses into human psychology, culture, different worldviews, and intricate identity negotiation. It was in my genetic blue print perhaps to be a lover and explorer of languages. One of my maternal great grandfathers was very language savvy. In 1762 he wrote an influential book appealing to his countrymen to honor their mother tongue and not disown it by using Greek in key social domains. Fluent in several languages, another great grandfather was appointed advisor to a Turkish sultan. I embarked on my own journey totally unaware of all this. It was many years later that my parents, my brother, and I started talking about our family history. In hindsight, this seems difficult to fathom, yet mine is not an uncommon story of linguistic roots not immediately celebrated and acknowledged.

2. Summary of my language learning experiences with a biographical sketch

To give the reader an immediate idea of my language learning profile, I am going to use a framework from Block (2003: 34). It does not reflect the more nuanced and complex nature of some of my learning experiences, but it is a useful graphic organizer.

+ Classroom

  1. 2

X as a foreign language X as a second language

  • Language + Language

in community in community

  1. 4

Self-instructed Naturalistic language learning

X as a foreign language

- Classroom

The languages I have had experience with and studied to various degrees fall into these quadrants as follows:

quadrant #1: English, Russian, French, Italian, Norwegian, German, Spanish, Latin, Greek

quadrant # 2: Spanish

quadrant #3: Norwegian, French, Spanish, German

quadrant #4: Japanese, Norwegian, Serbian, Croatian, Czech, Polish, Macedonian, Greek, Spanish, Romanian, English, Russian, German

My love affair with languages started with French at age ten. I always took my mother tongue, Bulgarian, for granted, the way one takes a healthy body for granted. You are not even aware of it until you experience a problem.

I am not exactly sure what first attracted me to French. Most probably a combination of things: Johnny Hallyday, Nana Mouskouri, Adamo, and Charles Aznavour were on the air all the time and the neighborhood kids and I never had enough of Louis de Funès and his Le Gendarme de Saint-Tropez series. I was perhaps also influenced by the fact that my parents’ generation and the generation before them had all learned French at school. I never visualized myself using the language in any particular way. Still it had a magnetic pull for me that I found difficult to resist.

Succumbing to its allure, I started taking French at a local community center. All education was free when I was growing up. Still, I envied young people “from the West” who seemed able to take on summer jobs and learn a foreign language “on the spot”.

At eleven I added Russian as a mandatory school subject. It had a different flavor as a language but I loved the fact that I became fluent very fast by using massive lexical transfer from my mother tongue. Russian grammar was very different from the grammar of my L1 but its clear logic made it a joy to learn.

At fourteen, I started attending a five-year English language school in Bulgaria, where we went from absolute beginners in September to taking all subjects in English by Christmas. Apparently we were given powerful learning shortcuts because my entire class transitioned smoothly and effortlessly into academic English. All the instructors, with one exception, were non-native speakers of English. The method used in the school at the time can be described as a rather eclectic combination of communicative language teaching, audio-lingual method, a solid daily diet of vocabulary, and contextually grounded focus on form with a consistent emphasis on quite sophisticated metalinguistic awareness through the introduction of various linguistic concepts and terms. English was my primary language of instruction with Russian and French also part of the curriculum.

Torn between my loves of languages, photography, music, and mathematics, at age nineteen I became an English major at the University of Sofia, Bulgaria, with Italian as my minor. With its marble staircases, statues, and mahogany walls, my alma mater felt like a temple of learning. Temples are peaceful, serene places but they have a touch of solemnity as well. Having to take Latin for two years, therefore, seemed like a perfectly appropriate thing to do. This solid dose of Latin greatly facilitated my English and Italian studies and convinced me further that human languages have a strong internal logic and a propensity for coherence.

A short course in Greek also boosted my ability to decipher and learn new words, including new words in my L1. As is known, for centuries Greek had a strong lexical influence on other languages through the academic world. When one is made aware, as I was, of some frequent and productive Greek affixes and roots, hundreds of words from different languages become easy to segment and understand. See, e.g. philanthropy < philos "loving" + anthrōpos "human being">, philology < philos "loving" + logos "word">, philogyny < philos "loving" + ginia/gyny "woman (as in gynecology).

Aware of the English “~er word formation pattern, I instantly internalized the word philographer = a person who likes to collect autographs. When I tried to type the word russophile as another word which easily found its way into my lexicon years ago, my computer marked it as problematic. It turned out that ‘russophile’ was not included in most on-line and regular dictionaries I checked while working on this paragraph. The beauty of it is that analogy and morphologic awareness counterbalance low frequency and facilitate the acquisition of any lexical item. Compare russophile with the analogous anglophile/bibliophile/francophile. To me, such a “morphological analysis” not only facilitates and expedites learning but allows a fascinating, deeper understanding of the words we add to our lexicon, e.g. philosophy < phil
os "loving" + sophia "learning, wisdom">. Morphology < morph “shape/form” + logia “study of”> helps me with my spelling as well. My familiarity with the morpheme ‘philos’ takes a burden off my memory. I never have to wonder if ‘philosophy’ is spelled with “i” or “y”, despite tempting interference from words such as ‘physical’ or ‘phytotherapy’, for instance.

Knowing some Latin and Greek not only made thousands of English words semantically transparent to me but, as an added bonus, later I knew that I could risk using many of my Latin and Greek words in Spanish and Italian since these words had already proven their transferability potential with English. Compare, for instance, philologia, agronomia, astronomia (Latin/Greek) with philology, agronomy, astronomy (English), with philologia (Italian), filología (Spanish), agronomía (Spanish), agronomia (Italian). As a multilingual, I was getting many such “free rides” and was empowered significantly. I was in a position to activate word formation patterns in my mental lexicon after minimal exposure. Having developed an eye for recognizing slight variations, I did not need much input to figure out, for instance, that the Spanish suffix ~ción is quite similar to the English ~tion, or that the Spanish ~miento more or less corresponds to ~ment in English and ~mento in Italian. I will revisit the process of pattern recognition in the next section where I will go deeper into what Schmidt (1995) refers to as ‘system learning’.

The reader has noticed, no doubt, that quite a few of the languages in my repertoire appeared in several of Block’s quadrants. This is because I started many of my language learning experiences in a classroom, ‘non-naturalistic,’ setting, and it was only years later that I could continue my studies with natural immersion in a country where a particular target language was spoken (e.g. English in the USA and Spanish in Mexico). Norwegian was an exception in this respect. First I had a chance to spend several months in the country as a visiting scholar and then I took a Norwegian language class in Bulgaria.

The nature of this progression – starting with non-naturalistic learning and later experiencing naturalistic immersion – impacted my learning dynamics in a number of different ways. I will use English as an example here. I developed a rich English vocabulary in Bulgaria, much of it highly specialized because of my work as a simultaneous and consecutive interpreter at conferences whose topics ranged from seismology to aeronautics, ballet, and patent rights. My spelling was excellent as we were regularly encouraged to explore various spelling patterns in class. The schooling I went through also helped me develop analytical abilities allowing a faster and easier understanding not only of the workings of English, but of the other Germanic, as well as Romance, languages I studied.

On the flip side, I spoke with an accent and my English was marked at times by what some call spelling pronunciation. Furthermore, I knew words like procrastination, hypoglycemia, and holography, but I was unsure of or lacked some basic everyday expressions that one typically learns within days when naturally exposed to the language. Also noteworthy, my English “deteriorated” significantly during my first few years in the U.S. This was my first immersion in an English-speaking country after over twenty years of studying and using the language in non-English speaking environments. After people in Michigan started questioning my usage or simply failed to understand me at times (they changed my torch (BrE) to flashlight, /ga:lə/ (BrE) to /geilə/, and repeatedly had problems with my honey, hotpot, and chamomile), I found myself ‘playing it safe’ and reducing my English to a subset of what I actually knew. I started avoiding words containing sounds I realized I had problems with, words with pronunciation variation, or words that had served me well at home and abroad but did not seem part of the core of American English such as the word ‘philately’, for instance.

The description of my language background will be incomplete without mentioning Japanese since, in its case, for the very first time I was naturally exposed to a new language over an extended time period, 1995-1999. Excited about the novelty of the experience, I made a conscious decision, which I deeply regret in hindsight – no grammar books and no classes, just sheer immersion in the language!

Being a strong visual learner, but not knowing any kanji, hiragana, or katakana1, in a sense, I was initially deprived of visual input that could trigger any tangible learning. Experiencing a major information overload, my brain tuned out substantial amounts of written input, particularly during the first few months of my stay in Japan. Also, I could not use language transfer the way I had with the Romance, Germanic, and Slavic languages in my repertoire. I just picked up typical intonation contours and the general melody of the language, which was a deviation from my usual progression with a new language. Another early language component that I acquired was myriads of expressions which keep the communication channel open, e.g. 1) ah soo desu ka?, 2) honto (ni),? 3) kawaii, 4) kawaiso, which, depending on the situation, can be translated in English as 1) I see, no way, gee, 2) really, no kidding, 3) cute, cool, great, lovely, 4) poor you.

Spending my days with gaijin colleagues2 at work, I had few opportunities for real, meaningful interaction in Japanese. Men seemed to have better luck in this respect. My male colleagues became pretty fluent chatting away over sake and Kirin beer in the local izekayas. My mostly female Japanese friends consistently switched into English and it was mainly strangers, vendors or fellow travelers, who allowed me to put my limited Japanese to use.

I had massive exposure to Japanese through TV, but the lack of truly comprehensible “negotiated input” substantially slowed down my acquisition process. Using contextual clues, I just learnt numerous common ritualistic expressions, a considerable portion of them as unanalyzed chunks. Not surprisingly, because of its high frequency and semantic transparency, the weather forecast terminology became the first solid unit in my Japanese.

Wrapping up this overview, I can imagine how some may look at my experiences with languages as elitist and atypical. By universal standards, mine has been a life of many opportunities indeed. Yet, in my own country, my family was “bez privilegii”, i.e. one of the unprivileged ones3. My parents did not belong to the communist party and were considered ideological marginals because of ironic and cruel historical circumstances beyond their control. As a result, we were all deprived of certain job opportunities and were adversely affected in innumerable subtle and not so subtle ways. Upon graduation, for instance, I was denied the opportunity to go to England despite a British Council grant I had received as the top student of my class. I allow these forgotten and forgiven, deeply buried memories to surface simply because I want to draw attention to the fact that it is only when moving beyond categories (e.g. white, middle class, American, Eastern European), that we arrive at a richer and more realistic picture of things. Coming to the United States, I soon found out that most Americans had never had an opportunity to travel and study languages abroad, the way I had assumed. After talking to more and more people, and becoming aware of their various misconceptions, I wished I could tell everyone that it is not true that those of us behind the Iron Curtain were deprived of books, tapes, and films from around the world. In fact, because of heavy subsidizing of the arts by the state, the average person in Bulgaria could enjoy literature and music accommodating any taste. Furthermore, education was a great equalizer, offering everybody free access to knowledge. Widely encouraged and supported language learning was just one such opportunity for all.
3. Cognates, pattern recognition, and system learning

I will start the more detailed exploration of my language learning with two anecdotes of recent experiences I had with Spanish and Serbian. The aim of these anecdotes is to illustrate the way cognates expedite my learning. In the cases described, my combination of languages made possible massive amounts of positive transfer. I would like to point out, however, that I am always on the lookout for cognates even with typologically unrelated languages. In fact, I consider it a sweeter learning victory to be able to identify any not too easily recognizable cognates, e.g. the Japanese rabureta (love letter) and pasukon / pa-sonaru konpyu-ta (personal computer).

Stranded at Miami airport for three days because of severe weather in the North East, I spent many hours in the bookstore at my terminal. The Spanish section of the bookstore saved me from boredom and frustration since this language had been a priority item on my learning agenda for years. Browsing through the books on display there, I learned countless new words through a game like cognate-hunting experience. It involved probing into every single one of my prior languages, both distant and close to Spanish. I fished out colibri (humming bird) and canela (cinnamon) with the help of my native Bulgarian, a Slavic language, while other lovely words such as vida and unicornio added new melody to their relatives from French, Italian, and English.

Two months later I had a similar bookstore experience in Belgrade, Serbia while waiting for a bus connection for over thirty hours. Mercifully, this one was supplemented by many conversations with delightfully talkative people, from shoeshine boys and sleek businessmen to fashion conscious women and a bear trainer. Finding a good bookstore, I did my routine of flipping through books and magazines, actively looking for cognates. My multilingual mental lexicon immediately kicked into action. I had instant success with some words, while others pushed my language detective work to the limit. Compare the easy бестселера [bestseller] with одштампан [printed or published], deciphered with the combined help of German, Bulgarian, and some far-fetched English.

Drawn to analyzing any kind of language input, from graffiti to menus, I always look for cognates first. Latin is a tremendous asset in this respect. Given the history of its (vocabulary) expansion, English is an equally powerful ally to me as a learner. Having borrowed an unprecedented number of lexical items from French after the Norman conquest, English itself was not a difficult language for me to learn because I had already studied French for years. Later on, my advanced knowledge of English in turn helped further my mastery of French.

Tapping into one’s prior linguistic knowledge becomes quite easy once one learns, with experience, to see beyond phonological and graphological variations. Through the years I realized, for instance, that even though my L1 is a Slavic language, it shares many words with French, Italian, English, and German. Some of this shared lexicon is the result of direct borrowing from these four languages, while another part came from Latin. This multi-language lexical unit awareness greatly facilitated my vocabulary learning in Spanish. Many of these shared units were “marked in my mind” as Latinate, which meant that I could risk using them in Spanish with a high probability of success. Some like to object that this has more to do with use rather than acquisition. As argued in Breen (2001) and Larsen-Freeman and Cameron (2008), this is a false dichotomy. We learn language through using it, testing tentative hypotheses. In fact, as many know from experience, the approach ‘learn first, apply later’ often results in what Larsen-Freeman (2003) calls the inert knowledge problem.

Pattern recognition is another significant factor in my learning, both within a single language and across languages. It took little exposure to the language, for instance, for me to build the hypothesis that I can form words in Spanish with ~dad and ~çion recognizing their similarity to the productive English suffixes ~ty and ~tion, respectively.

An important clarification is called for here, however. Reflecting on my language learning processes, I have repeatedly become aware that I employ patterns and positive transfer very selectively. I will briefly explore the English ~ity vs. the Spanish ~dad pattern correspondence to illustrate what I mean by selectivity here. I will not hesitate at all and will readily integrate a word like ‘oportunidad’ in my Spanish lexicon given that the English word “opportunity” sounds Latinate to me and given that I am aware of cognates of this word in several other languages, including my L1, Bulgarian. Cf. e.g. oportunist (Bulgarian), opportunisme (French), opportunista (Italian), oportunistiy (Russian), oportunist (Romanian). On the same grounds, I will boldly integrate other similarly patterned words into my Spanish: e.g. brutalidad, extremidad, identidad, profanidad, seguridad.

I would be very hesitant, however, to try and coin a Spanish word out of ‘oddity’, for instance. To me, ‘odd’ and ‘oddity’ feel very Anglo-Saxon. For starters, they are short words, unlike all the ~ity/~dad words in the previous paragraph. Furthermore, doing a split second search, my brain cannot find a single cognate of these two words in any of the languages I have studied so far. ‘Oddidad’ does not even sound right to me. Therefore I reject it as a possible unit in my developing Spanish.

Since I started thinking about this personal narrative and started monitoring my thought processes more closely, I noticed that I showed hesitancy with the ~ity ~ dad pattern on two occasions. In some casual conversations in Ecuador recently I needed to use translation equivalents for the English words ‘uncertainty’ and ‘rarity’. Even though both had roots that I could positively identify as Latinate (cf. e.g. the French certainement and rareté), there was something that bothered me about these words and I shied away from coming up with Spanish coinages following the general pattern illustrated above, namely raridad and uncertainidad.

It was above all the prefix “un” in ‘uncertainty’ that did not seem right. Again in a split second decision-making, my brain could not retrieve a single Spanish word that I knew which started with the negative prefix “un”. In fact, the “quick scan” came up with counter evidence only: unhappy – infelíz, unbelievable – increíble, unemployed – desempleado. Resorting to the classic strategy of avoidance, I recast my sentence in a way that avoided the word ‘uncertainty’ altogether. It gives me some satisfaction that while writing this paragraph I checked an English Spanish dictionary and found out that my linguistic intuition was right. The translation equivalent the dictionary offered was “incertidumbre”, a word definitely not following the more regular ~ity → ~dad pattern!

I would like to point out here that many Spanish words, like some of those described earlier, became part of my vocabulary through a process of pattern projection rather than through input exposure. For instance, knowing that the English ~tion generally corresponds to the Spanish ~ción, I came up with words like felicitación and simulación when I felt a communicative need to use these words. Such a mode of lexicon expansion is not unusual. We humans all do it. Pinker (1999) rightly notes that words which follow productive regular patterns often have no history. Only patterns and rules exist. We need some concrete tokens to deduce a rule but once that rule is acquired, we do not need all the forms that follow this rule to be stored in our mental lexicon in order to understand and use them. A rule creates a regular form and then that form can be thrown away, because the rule is always around to create the form again the next time (cf. Pinker’s examples oinked and out-Gorbachev’d with my oportunidad, promoción, and quite recently, Harrymania and Potterphobia).

In my view, my heightened sensitivity to linguistic patterns, often perceived on the basis of limited input, reflects a significant difference in the way mono- and multilinguals learn languages. To explain what I mean I will use Schmidt (1995). He considers awareness as key for learning and sees it in two forms: “noticing” and “understanding”. Noticing involves conscious registration of a linguistic item and is thus defined as “item learning”. Understanding, on the other hand, involves the recognition of a general rule or a pattern and refers to a deeper level of processing that can be defined as “system learning” (Schmidt 1995: 29-30).

I will use examples from two language domains to illustrate how almost instant system learning differs from a much more gradual item-to-system learning. While learning Spanish, a monolingual English speaker may notice, for example, that Hispanics often drop sentential subjects. In a natural acquisition setting, it will take perhaps some substantial exposure before this monolingual person truly understands the implications of this initial noticing. If a bi- or multilingual learner of Spanish is already familiar with the pro-drop phenomenon, it will take far fewer examples for him or her to realize that Spanish is a pro-drop language like many others, e.g. Russian, Bulgarian, Japanese, Romanian, and Italian. As a linguist, I needed even less data since the heavy marking of the verb in Spanish, in my mind, qualified it as a classic pro-drop language.

My second example is from the area of pronunciation. Through feedback in the form of teasing, I soon realized that, unlike my L1 or German for instance, English does not allow final consonant devoicing. Compare the German “Guten Tag” pronounced /guten tak/ with the English ‘tag’ and ‘dog’, which are very different from ‘tack’ and ‘dock’. Once I gained awareness about the impermissibility of devoicing with regard to two pairs, namely g / k and b / p, I realized that I had to apply this new rule across the board to cover d / t, z / s, and v / f as well, cf. rib  rip and kid  kit. One can say, in other words, that I achieved quick understanding (in the sense of Schmidt’s definition) covering a vast pronunciation territory. I hasten to say, however, that to this day I am not in complete control of this final voiced / devoiced consonant opposition. If I do not monitor enough, I pronounce ‘bid’ and ‘bit’ or ‘god’ and ‘got’ very much alike. Things tend to be a little better with words like ‘bead’ and ‘league’ as the length of the vowel gives force, or shall I say “gives voice” to the consonant following it.

I will finish this section by mentioning a study by Tomlin and Villa (1994) as it helped me offer a finer representation of the processes impacting my language learning. Drawing on cognitive science research on attention, the authors contend that noticing may not be as critical a factor as alertness, orientation, and detection. They define alertness as an overall, general readiness to deal with incoming data. Alertness can work independently or modulate a second function – orientation. Orienting attention commits attentional resources to sensory stimuli. Having attention oriented toward some aspects of language increases the likelihood, but does not guarantee the activation, of yet another function – detection, the latter being a cognitive registration of particular data. Detected information then becomes available for further cognitive processing.

The learner model Tomlin and Villa (1994: 197) propose looks as follows:





Hypothesis Formation

Input Utterance

As someone always excited about learning a new language and interested in achieving better mastery, I could say that my brain is typically in a high state of alertness. Furthermore, my prior language knowledge and my linguistic background allow me to orient my attention to specific features in the input, which I may be getting incidentally or seeking deliberately. This orientation to particular structures, as argued by Tomlin and Villa (1994), facilitates detection and allows faster hypothesis formation.

Also noteworthy, however, as was made clear with several examples discussed in my narrative, at times I start with a hypothesis, based on prior knowledge and pattern projection rather than on specific input. It is only after this initial hypothesis formation that I proceed to confirm or disconfirm it by orienting attention to a particular aspect of the target language input. In other words, by anticipating things, my learning proceeds in a way that can be captured through the following modification of the above model:





Initial Tentative Hypothesis

Hypothesis Confirmation or Rejection

Target Language Input

Corrective Feedback (Negative Evidence)

My final hypothesis about a TL feature can be shaped through either (1) or (2) above, or both. All learners of an additional language, mono- and multilinguals alike, have some initial hypotheses even before getting relevant confirming or disconfirming input from the target language. I believe that these pre-target-language-input hypotheses (PHs) are a subset of what materializes as positive or negative transfer. Presumably, a multilingual learner is in a position to generate more PHs, particularly when acquiring typologically related languages. Equally important perhaps, these PHs are more likely to result in acceptable TL outcomes as, in a way, many of them have already demonstrated their cross-linguistic viability. Consider again some of the cognates and word-formation examples I shared earlier, or my pre-input hypothesis about Spanish being a pro-drop language, where the heavy verb marking lead me to this hypothesis even before I had had an opportunity to notice any subject omission in my input.

4. My learning across language levels

I have always loved exploring the grammar and lexicon of languages. Pronunciation, however, has never been center stage for me with any of my languages so far. I can think of several reasons for this lack of interest in pronunciation: a/ I have always had more of an ‘instrumental’ rather than an ‘integrative’ motivation for learning languages (Gardner and Lambert 1972), b/ My accent is part of my identity, c/ Since I started my first foreign languages in a non-naturalistic environments at an age past the assumed critical period for pronunciation, I must have realized, subconsciously perhaps, that I was unlikely to ever speak a language totally accent free. Thus my energy was redirected to what must have felt like more achievable and worthwhile goals.

With all my languages I make an effort to have the phonemic features right, i.e. those features that are meaning distinctive. In English, for instance, I try to pay attention to the distinction between short and long vowels, e.g. dip vs. deep, knit vs. neat (a non-existent contrast in my L1), and I put some effort into my interdental consonants to avoid accent fatigue in my interlocutors or communication breakdown, cf. e.g. then ≠ den, thin ≠ tin. I typically disregard most phonetic features, however . The latter give me a foreign accent, my unaspirated initial “p”s and “t”s for instance, but seldom interfere with communication.

I fail to hear many of the above-mentioned distinctions in normal speech. My awareness of features that I do not have in my L1 comes primarily through visual input or contrived audio input. By contrived input I mean all the cases when an interlocutor or an instructor specifically enunciates a sound to make it more salient for me, e.g. deed (vs. did – short /i/). For sheer comprehension, my sensitivity to contextual clues compensates for my deficiency of perception.

It is difficult to describe the many dimensions of my acquisition of grammar given the limited space of this narrative. I will touch upon some aspects of morphology acquisition in the next section where I will go into some of the challenges Spanish morphological endings have been posing for me. Here I will offer just one example which probably captures experiences characteristic of other multilingual learners as well.

By learning multiple languages I soon became aware that individual languages segment and organize reality differently. Indeed, one rarely witnesses a complete one-to-one correspondence between similar grammatical categories from different languages. Even when we have the same category in two languages, their scope may still be different. Both Bulgarian and English have present tenses, for instance. The fact that English subdivides its present tenses into Present Simple and Present Continuous, while Bulgarian possesses just one present tense, precludes any easily grasped correspondences.

Given the low likelihood of complete cross-linguistic correspondence, I focus on figuring out the meaning and scope of a new language category rather than making attempts at transfer and counting on the possibility of one-to-one correspondence. This usually prevents me from false starts and orients my attention to contextual and other clues, which help me with the understanding of the category under study. To take tenses as an example again, when trying to figure out the verbal system of a language, I pay attention to adverbials and other situational and contextual clues. Put differently, using these clues, I try to grasp the semantics of a particular tense rather than opting for an L1-n –> TL tense mapping.

To move on to pragmatics, the main challenge for me is norm interpretation. What I mean by this is that at times it is difficult to distinguish between a feature of the target language and the speech characteristics of particular individuals or communities. I will use as an illustration the conflicting input I was getting with regard to turn-taking in English. Initially, I was taught that unlike my L1, or French and Italian for that matter, English embodied a ‘monochronic’ culture. Monochronicity is generally described as a tendency to have one person speak at a time while polychronicity accepts jump-ins and parallel contributions, without viewing them negatively as interruptions (Hall 1959). Monochronicity is not exactly what I experience with quite a few American friends in New York. Many other native English speakers of Southern European heritage are not very monochronic, either.

I have experienced similar norm interpretation challenges with some other categories in the areas of pragmatics, such as the intricate art of hedging.

Finally, I will comment briefly on the graphological component of language. As already indicated, my exposure to different languages has fostered in me an ability to recognize slight pronunciation or spelling variations (e.g. ~tion/~ción). My experience with the Japanese syllabaries katakana and hiragana, on the other hand, sensitized me to the fact that even the slightest modification in a line’s slant or a squiggle can have a dramatic effect on one’s ability to process written input. Driving around in Japan, I often failed to read a store sign or a restaurant banner because the ‘letters’ were fatter or more rounded than what I was already used to. Now as a language learner and language educator, I have much more empathy for people struggling with the written word. Just try to imagine the challenges faced by a non-Roman alphabet person if offered no assistance in recognizing as identical the following few symbols: E E Є ε е or а а A .


. Productive vs. receptive skills

One of the questions that I always find difficult to answer is “How many languages do you speak?”. Often asked this question, I find myself prefacing my answer with “Well, I have formally studied quite a few languages and have a high level of comprehension in still more’. Then, as a rule, I explain that English and Russian are perhaps the only languages I speak fluently, in addition to my L1, of course. I often wish people would ask instead ‘How many languages can you read in?’ or “In how many languages do you have decent listening comprehension?’ but I guess we humans tend to show more interest in more tangible outcomes.

Not surprisingly, my rich language learning experience assists me tremendously in breaking the code of new languages, particularly if they belong to a language family from which I already know one or more languages. Things are quite different on the productive plane, however, at least as far as accuracy is concerned. It is often exactly my ability to make good use of contextual clues and my ability to resort to massive positive transfer that prevent me from achieving accuracy. My learning of Spanish is a case in point. Assisted by English, Italian, French, Latin, and Bulgarian, I have very high listening and reading comprehension, ranging from 50 – 99% depending on the topic. My productive skills, however, have been a source of frustration for quite a few years now.

When exposed to Spanish, both in a naturalistic and in a classroom environment, for the most part I immediately grasps the meaning of what I am reading or listening to. This is done, however, primarily through salient markers such as temporal adverbials, for instance (e.g. Yo visité a mi mama ayer/Yo visitaré a mi mama la próxima semana). Swain (1995) and others describe this as semantic, as opposed to syntactic, processing. My brain recognizes numerous morphological markers and extracts their meaning but this seems to be accomplished through a fleeting registration with no retention which could eventually lead to control and internalization. As a result, for years now, my accuracy on the morphological level has been lagging behind. Usually I create a false impression about my mastery of the language by mumbling most noun and verb endings. I have a harder time ‘faking it’ in writing where my lack of accuracy becomes more easily apparent.

For some reason, my high motivation and consistent efforts to focus on form do not prevent me from slipping into primarily semantic processing. Grammar books and massive input also make little difference. My vocabulary is enriched but my retention of most morphological markers remains at a low level. For seven years now, I have had numerous opportunities for interaction with native speakers, going to Mexico on business. The sound images I carry in me from constant conversations with people help with certain morphological endings but others still remain a challenge.

6. Emotions and multilingualism

Finally, I would like to pull the curtain a little to allow a glimpse at the intimate dance between my languages and my emotional responses to my universe. The first “in”-sight will involve three of my very different languages – English, Bulgarian, and Japanese. When thinking of Japan, a country that I have basked in and come to love dearly, I activate different words of reference. When feeling nostalgic about the temples, shrines, and the Zen gardens there, my very vivid memories activate the Japanese word for Japan, Nippon. I mentally use the Bulgarian word Yaponia when I think of the feminine side of Japan, which I associate with things like maiko-sans, geishas, kimonos, pearls, tea ceremony, and calligraphy. This internal linguistic switch is influenced by the fact that, to me, the Bulgarian word has a typical feminine morphological ending “a”. Nippon, on the other hand, is a classic masculine name to my inner ear because of its consonant ending. Nippon therefore is the word activated first in my mind when I think of Japan’s samurais, sumo, or its beautiful swords. As if this was not already enough linguistic emotionalism, I like to use the English label Japan when I think of the country’s efficiency, modernity, and significant international presence through its electronics and cars. I love being in the company of people where I can externalize these preferences and switch back and forth between Japan, Yaponia, and Nippon.

I have similar experiences, both internally and externally, with all my languages. Quatro formaggio pizza makes my mouth water while four cheeses pizza leaves me unmoved. Only the English jerk captures all the things one associates with a real jerk. None of my other languages offers a word that comes even close. I need a pile of words to express the physical and emotional wellness of being encapsulated in the Japanese giant of a mini word, genki. I wholeheartedly agree that when learning the subjunctive, one surrenders to a world of “… mystery. Of luck. Of faith interwoven with doubt. It is a held breath, a hand reaching out, carefully touching wood. It is humility, deference, the opposite of hubris.” (Morano 2007:121).
7. Conclusion

Finishing my narrative, I am aware that, unlike other people’s stories, mine has shown only the joys and pleasures of mastering languages, revealing little loss or pain. This is because all my experiences constitute what the research literature, in its detached way, defines as additive, as opposed to subtractive multilingualism. Indeed, with each language I have studied or briefly explored, I have felt enriched and blessed in new ways. Lacking ongoing contact in my mother tongue, at times I struggle for words. As a former active simultaneous interpreter, I am painfully conscious of some significant lexical gaps in my L1 for things that were not part of the world I left behind almost seventeen years ago4. Every time I go home, it disturbs me to see the extent to which English has ousted my mother tongue from signs, menus, billboards, and even typical Bulgarian souvenirs and handicraft. Emotionally at least, my mother tongue still feels safe and honored, but now as an alternative means of expression and a handy secret language, which gives me a soul saving vent for all sorts of unmentionables.

I am also aware that I have told this story speaking with several voices – that of a perennial and always enthusiastic language learner and that of a linguist, SLA researcher, and a language educator. To some extent, this polyphony is unavoidable because it is often my linguistic and SLA background that shapes the way in which I process input from a particular target language or determines the speed with which I understand a particular language structure. At the same time, through the years, my language learning experiences have often guided my research interests and offered helpful insights for my teaching. I believe that by encouraging more stories from multilingual learners and a better cross-fertilization between learners and those whose job is to study language and language acquisition, we can end up with a richer theory, which in turn can inform much better teaching practices and more rewarding learning.

 I dedicate this article to my parents, Boris Todev and Nevena Todeva, and to the late professor Andrei Danchev, a colleague, mentor, and a friend.

  1. Kanji, hiragana, and katakana are three mutually complementary writing systems in Modern Japanese

  2. A Japanese word meaning ‘foreigner’ or ‘outsider’.

  3. This was a term more or less officially used until November 1989.

  4. It will be interesting, on the other hand, to see how the wide availability of input in numerous languages in addition to one’s L1 (most daily products and medication in Europe these days come with labels in over a dozen different languages) impacts the way people process input and go about breaking linguistic codes and learning languages. The human brain has long been shown to be highly sensitive to analogies and patterns. The juxtaposition of linguistic material from different languages in labels and signs is very likely to stimulate increasing amounts of subconscious, and for some people at least, more conscious comparisons.


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