Tuesday, March 20, 2012


I just read an article about bilingual people and how they are supposed to have better cognitive functioning because they have to constantly code switch without much effort, resulting in the brain being used to multitasking and resolving internal problems on its own.

The article also said something about bilinguals' ability to 'suppress' one language altogether when speaking in an environment where another language is needed. This is true, because I imagine my mind being separated into different boxes, and there is a special box for each specific language. This means that whenever I'm within an exclusively French-speaking group of friends, only the French language box is activated and all the other boxes are suppressed, meaning even my subconscious (the voices in my head) is in French and somehow I'd magically adopt French gestures and facial expressions that I would never use when speaking any other language.

I never thought of this phenomenon as some kind of 'suppression', but now I reckon that it actually is. Sometimes after a long, long day at school, I'd go home and see my roommate but we wouldn't speak Malay straight away. We would exchange niceties in French and continue speaking in French for a little bit, then proceeding to Malay with French words scattered all over, before gradually switching into full Malay mode for the rest of the evening. I think this is the result of Malay being 'suppressed' for the whole day (for us both) so even though it's our mother tongue, it still needs warming up in order to converse efficiently.

It might seem extremely pretentious to see two fully Malay guys speaking French to each other for no reason, but I find it completely natural. We have friends hanging out at our place all the time and out of politeness, we make it a point not to speak Malay in their presence in order to make everybody comfortable. You know that feeling when you're wedged between two assholes who speak in a foreign language and you have completely no idea what they're talking about which makes you feel like they are talking shit about you? Yeah, we don't want to be those assholes, so we 'suppress' Malay when we have French guests. After a while, we ended up feeling very comfortable speaking French to each other even when there is no French person present.

Of course, Malay is a Godsend when you need to bitch about someone right in front of their face without them even knowing. That's really the coolest thing about multilingualism.

The drawback of being multilingual is you can lose your languages very easily, and it really doesn't take long to lose a language. A few months of non-practice are enough to loosen up language reflexes and automatism, after a year you'd lose a lot of vocabulary, and after a few years of non-practice your language skills get as good as bare metals in salt water. It gets rusty. I remember being a very fluent speaker of Sarawakian Malay when I was living there, and I was so good that none of my friends knew I was a Semenanjung kid until they came to my house and heard me speak with my parents. After moving away, it only took me a year to lose most of my Sarawakian vocabulary. Now I can't even understand half the things they say.

I don't know what the point of this post is. I guess I just got inspired by the word 'suppress' in the article because I hated the way it sounded, but finally realized there were no better words to describe it.

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