Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Return to bilingualism: Like tuning a piano

While I was developing my Italian in Padova last year, I came up with several metaphors of bilingualism, summarized here (and one more, here). All of these have to do with acquiring a second language in the context of living that language (e.g., me learning Italian in Italy).

A few weeks ago, I spent 10 days in Madrid, the last few of which involved having a great time with two, dear friends who joined me from Padova. These wonderful ladies were my travel companions to London last year, where I, ironically, had my most intense Italian language immersion. Thus, one year later, I had the chance to revive my Italian to travel with my friends in Spain.

A common metaphor for picking up a skill we have abandoned for a while is that it's "like riding a bike". However,  after much thought, I have decided that reviving a second language is not like riding a bike. You don't just jump right in and speak like you did, at the height of your language proficiency, one year before (although some people argue in favor of the riding a bike metaphor; Google "language like riding a bike" and you will find both perspectives).

So today, interestingly, while I was actually riding my bike, I came up with a better metaphor for reviving a second language: It's like tuning a piano.

Since I've never actually tuned a piano (or played one, for that matter), I looked up how to do it so I could make some comparisons. Basically, when you think of tuning a piano, you think of a fairly challenging, time-consuming process, right? This is because a standard, modern piano has 88 keys, each of which is linked to 1, 2, or 3 strings that vibrate at specific frequencies to make the sounds we hear when the piano is played. Pressing a piano key causes a hammer to strike the strings, causing them to vibrate. The frequencies produced are amplified by the soundboard and resonate inside the wooden frame. When the key is released, a damper comes down and stops the vibration of the strings. Don't forget, a piano also has foot pedals which serve different functions, for example, to simultaneously lift all the dampers, or to produce a softer tone.

In short, like a language, a piano is a complex, dynamic instrument that, to be played correctly, involves the coordination of multiple functions and systems. It seems that, with all this complexity, there are lots of opportunities for something to break down (a key, a string, a hammer, a damper... ); again, just like language: phonology, morphology, semantics, syntax... .

Basically, after a year without speaking much Italian, meeting up with my Italian friends in Madrid made me feel like an out-of-tune piano. It was very difficult to remember words, coordinate number, gender, and verb morphology, and form smooth, fluent sentences. I didn't just hop on and ride the bike... I had to slowly and patiently refine my phonemes, adjust the morphemes, and tune up my grammar, sort of like tuning a piano that has been out of use.

As you might expect, tuning a piano requires specialized tools and a specific procedure; however, the tuner ultimately relies on her ear to adjust the instrument. Again, to parallel this to second language revival, it is possible to take a systematic approach to regaining previous linguistic proficiency; however, jumping right in (like I did with Italian in Madrid) might not allow this luxury. Instead, the speaker must rely on previous knowledge and understanding of how the language works, to piece together what remains and rebuild.

Fortunately, after a couple of days and, in spite of continuous mix-ups, I felt pretty comfortable speaking (mostly) Italian again. In fact, it became difficult to speak Spanish, as Italian became the language inside my head. I think this is because my brain realized I needed more practice. Wait! Practice. Isn't that how you learn to play the piano???

The Spanishized version of the Italian, dish, gnocchi (note both the spelling and plural morphology). 

Spices and teas from around the world at Mercado San Antón, in Madrid.
If only we could speak the languages of all those flags! 


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