I had noticed this six months ago when I was yet again submerged in a sea of Bengali, during a trip to Calcutta to meet Amit’s family.
By “this” I mean, I noticed that my language skills in Bengali had suddenly improved in something like a quantum leap. I still made mistakes, but at times entire sentences (mistakes and all) tripped off my tongue without my having consciously thought about them. After struggling sporadically for nine years to become coherent in a language I had acquired only as an adult, it was a pleasant surprise.
Unfortunately, it didn’t last long and up to the current date I was back to stumbling along minus the quantum leap. I did wonder why it had happened and why it had stopped happening, but I put it down to good mood (we were on holiday), feelings of self-confidence (it was before the infertility business got going), practice (the Aunt had been staying with us briefly) or other such indefinable influences.
Now, I notice it’s happening again.
One of those indefinable influences I had sort of vaguely attributed my improved Bengali language skills to, was my German language skills, which in those days were not too bad, all things considered. Now that I’m back to studying German, could it have again had a positive effect on my Bengali? Sounds strange, but perhaps it is not entirely unbelievable. After all, learning a language means forcing your brain to work in a vocabulary and grammar it is not used to. The way we’re taught German, we’re made to attempt to think in German, as opposed to thinking in English and trying to translate (which never works). So, once the brain is forced out of its comfort zone of English, could it be that it explores impartially pathways in Bengali and German?
(BTW, I don’t think there’s been any impact on my Hindi language skills, probably because I learnt Hindi as a child and have a certain level of fluency and assurance in that language, comparable to my English. I don’t have any difficulty understanding or framing sentences in Hindi; the only thing I need to improve is vocabulary.)
I have read that people who learn languages as adults generally find it easier to pick up successive languages once they have mastered the first few. This is true even of entirely unrelated languages. It seems to work for me as well, because, though I am struggling a bit with German, it is nothing like the enduring battle of nine years that I’ve had with Bengali. It is particularly easy to tell the difference when I listen to native German or Bengali speakers. It’s a bit like listening to the radio softly when you’re driving in heavy traffic… you can hear the voice saying something, but unless you really focus on it, it just washes over you like so much background noise.
For many years, I had to pay 110% concentration to someone addressing me in Bengali, to pick out key words and try to make sense of what they were communicating. The trouble often was, I might catch the key words, but would not be sure about who was doing the action, whom it was done to or on, and other such crucial bits of information. The difference, for instance, between, “Did he tell you everything?” and “Did you tell him everything?” – Even if I catch “he” “you” “tell” and “everything” – which is a lot to catch in such a short sentence – I might still not be clear on what I’m being asked and how I should respond. It has led, times without number, to awkward situations.
In German, I have come to, and largely crossed, the same level of comprehension in a much shorter time. I still have to concentrate like hell when listening to the teacher (who seems to make no allowances for our relatively rudimentary language skills when she addresses us in 100% Deutsch) – but having done so, I do manage to pick out the key words and usually even manage to figure out who did what, and to whom. Sometimes, I end up translating long and complicated instructions for my table-mates – usually capturing the essence more-or-less accurately. Now, if only I could paraphrase in German instead of translating to English… (sigh) That, surprisingly enough, is something I can do in Bengali, even though I usually make a hash of it.
I do wonder sometimes whether my Bengali is better or my German. Right now, it’s a bit of a toss-up – I think my fluency in Bengali is better, and perhaps my vocabulary, but I’ve never had any formal training in Bengali, so definitely my understanding of grammar is stronger in German. Then again, I can’t really read Bengali. Perhaps, someday, I’ll improve at that too. After all, if learning a second language as an adult makes the first language stronger, then learning a third language should make the first two stronger, right? Hmmmm… let’s see – shall it be Spanish? Mandarin?? Greek???