As if speaking a foreign language wasn’t complicated enough, I usually find it especially hard to code switch fluently within one conversation. On a day to day basis I don’t have too much trouble here in Taipei because my social life is fairly compartmentalized. I speak Chinese all day long outside of my home, and only use English to Skype home with my family in the morning or at night to chat with my American boyfriend.
This past week, however, has been a different story. The hostel where I live became packed with highly social tourists and the common room became a mix of Korean, Japanese, Mandarin, and English. Some of the people spoke only one language, a few spoke two, and then there was me. I am native to English, my Chinese is not too shabby, and several years ago I studied Japanese. Now I would not dream of claiming at this point in time that I can speak Japanese, but hearing it triggered my memory and I was able to stumble through some small talk.
Upon hearing me code switch between three different languages others in the room began looking to me to translate. I was not a good translator. As I said, I don’t really speak Japanese and the constant code switching was actually making me forgot how to say things in English. By the end of the night I was exhausted. My head had literally begun to hurt from the effort.
I walked over to the door of the balcony for some fresh air right when someone new walked in. Introductions were made as well as inquiries into his language ability. I normally would have introduced myself, but I was too tired to care at that point. Then I heard a couple of people trying to explain who I was and claiming that I could translate – giving more credit than was due – and so I cut them off and said, (in Japanese) “I studied Japanese in college but” (in Chinese) “now I study Chinese and so I forgot how to speak Japanese.” During this all the English speakers had that look of confusion on their faces, waiting for translation and so I immediately translated it into English without missing a beat.
The funny thing is that when I try to seamlessly code switch like that I can’t do it. I will forget words or mix up the languages. In this case though, I didn’t even think about it, I just spoke the language appropriate to the person I was directing my comments to. It actually felt natural.
Perhaps my brain can do better without me