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Vocabulary Items – The Squatters of the Brain

By Kateřina Fuková

Look at the picture below. Imagine you are having a conversation in your native language and your talking partner asks you what the image depicts. Your brain would instantly know the correct answer and let you say it out loud at once – if you are a native English speaker, it is a ‘cat’. If your mother tongue is Czech – like in my case – you see a kočka, and if it is Vietnamese, you would call this ‘con mèo’.

Whatever your first language (L1) is, this image is strongly connected to, or maybe almost interchangeable with, the couple of letters and sounds that make up your language’s variant of ‘cat’. It seems like a very natural process of transmitting what we see with our eyes to the brain, and sending it out again through the mouth.

But what if this bizarre chat – pun totally intended – about animal doodles was not led in your L1, but a certain second language (L2) you are learning? The information must surely take a bit of a different route when you are having this discussion in English. For example, Turkish intuition might be screaming kedi, but you likely end up succeeding and saying ‘cat’. How we get from our L1 word to its L2 equivalents has been a discussion in linguistics for many years, especially recently since multilingualism has seen such an increase in the last century or so. Contemporarily, experts give a variety of possibilities of how this way from one word to another could be happening in our heads. Let us consider the individual options in the context of an English L1 and a Māori L2 – let us keep the ‘cat’ and therefore employ the counterpart ngeru.

Giving languages their space

Especially in the early stages, many second language learners will need to think of the word in their L1 first, in order to reach the corresponding element of the target language. Some linguists think this could possibly be a general pattern for any route. The information travels to where you store your English words to pick up ‘cat’ and then takes a bridge from there straight to where you keep ngeru in the Māori store. This kind of hints at the fact that you keep your English words somewhere else than your Māori words.

In a similar manner, languages might be completely disengaged in the mind, each totally separate from the other, but without any interaction between them at all. That would mean that if you see a cat, knowing the word ‘cat’ will not help you – or make you – think of ngeru, as this realisation is independent of your native word. You would have to think of it without the connection. That sounds pretty rough.

A multilingual mishmash

More likely, there is some overlapping contact between the bundles of words we keep in our heads. In a perfect world, we would have one space for all languages we know. ‘Cat’ and ngeru would then be bound together so closely that with one, the other comes instantly, and vice versa. The words are of one entity, together in a little bubble of meaning. Realistically, this complete integration is rather unlikely – but in contrast, a partial overlay seems highly plausible. Some words might be connected and symbolize the meaning equally, and some not – therefore, we must try a bit harder a look where they are hiding.

Recent studies have really been arguing for the credibility of the last proposition. One finding showed that we likely do not “turn off” one language, when communicating in another, meaning they must be rather close to each other for this to be possible. This proximity could also be supported by the fact, that sometimes by learning an L2 we also change our L1. All one’s language regress and progress as one studies them. This surely would not be possible, if our mind kept the ability to speak them in very different places.

What if they leave me?

Nevertheless, either of these options remain very hypothetical because we have still not figured out a way to measure and access these internal routes empirically. It is only a theory, indeed, and one with some flaws, already. One might point out that this supposed principle somewhat assumes that learning new words is a one-time thing, which it obviously is not. Sometimes you need to be in contact with a vocabulary item up to 100 times, in order for it to finally stick, and even then, I guarantee you a very high chance the word will not stay with you forever. Since there is so much dynamism in the process, I find it hard to believe this potential for change would not project into how the stores of words are maintained.

Regardless of which theory is more likely to be true, one thing is sure already. Engaging in multilingualism – in this case, having to figure out how to find what you need in the mess you have created for yourself – does not only increase your skills of a linguistic sort, but in entirely non-linguistic disciplines, too. Your efforts improve your abilities to learn and control other stuff way past the scope of languages making you perform statistically better than monolingual speakers on top of that. Needless to say, this fact adds some extra points in the friendly competition of past time and learning activities. If you study languages, your brain will be getting better and better, it will stay healthy and support you endlessly!

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