This is going to be one of those nerdy posts about linguistics. Go ahead and skip it if they bore you (though you may be missing out!).
So I know I said I'd try to do these Nerdy Hour posts every week, but they require more time than I imagined, so clearly that didn't happen. I also said I'd be researching ESL-related topics for us to discuss, but I decided to look into something more relevant for us foreigners living abroad rather than for our students.
You see, when my friend Mary was here visiting last week, I realized just how much Portuguese is affecting my English. There were countless times when I couldn't remember an English word, or when I used the wrong word, or when I used some weird Portuguese-based grammar.
Instead of getting too embarrassed about it, I decided to research why the heck my brain is letting Portuguese run the show so often. I remember learning in college that when students start to learn a new language, they'll temporarily "turn off" their first language (a.k.a. Language 1, or L1). This process, called inhibition, was proven by studying word recall in students just after they got out of their foreign language classes. After an hour or two of Spanish class, it was harder for the English speaking students to remember English words. But I never learned anything about the long-term effects of L2 fluency on the L1.
So for my research, the terms I used to find articles were "language immersion" "effects on L1" and "L1 inhibition." I found some interesting stuff. The short story is that learning a second language changes the way your brain is organized, so sometimes you can't remember where you put things!
First, I learned from this article that you can learn things from a new language using two methods:
1. Associating the new word or grammar with the L1 word or grammar (pure language translation)
2. Associating the new word or grammar with the more abstract concepts that represent them in your brain
As you become more fluent in a L2, you start using method 2 a lot more. Basically, you stop relying on your first language for translations, and start associating new words and info with concepts. This is important because language information is stored in one part of your brain, while ideas and abstract concepts are stored in another. So as you become more fluent, you start "saving new information" to a different part of your brain.
Some really amazingly fun and awesome neurolinguists decided to study exactly how and where this happens in the brain. In their study, they made some helpful conclusions:
*There are 2 distinct parts of your brain: parts for each language.
*There are also communal regions of your brain that are shared and activated by both languages. (I think this refers to the concept regions that the other article talked about.)
*There are more parts of the brain that are for your L1 than for your L2.
*A lot of these L1 regions are set at a very young age. They don't change and your L2 cannot affect them. It's as if your brain marks off part of itself just for your first language.
*In bilingual kids, the regions that are distinct in adults overlap. Basically, bilingual kids have fewer distinct parts, and fewer regions reserved for only the L1.
*The older the participants were when they learned their second language, the more variety the researchers found in which parts of their brain they used to "store" the L2. So basically, when you're younger, you use predictable parts of the brain to store your L2. But the older you are when you start learning, the more "creative" your brain has to be to save the new language information.
So I combined the information from these two studies and thought of a helpful metaphor. You see, I think that we can imagine our brains as a series of buckets. We've got a bucket for our L1 (English, for most of you), and a bucket for our L2 (Portuguese, for most of you). At first, when you start out learning your second language, it's easy to keep the buckets organized. Sometimes you have to cover up your L1 bucket so the contents don't confuse you. As you start seeing connections between the languages and start understanding words and ideas as abstract concepts rather than just words, you start throwing things into a giant mixed bucket.
better and faster at solving problems, paying attention to things, and resolving conflicts. So next time you say some funny thing in your native language that's clearly the result of your second language, feel better knowing that this little slip-up means you're making your brain more awesome and more complex.
I think there's another factor that causes us to make mistakes in our first language, especially for those of us married to people who speak English as a second language, and for those of us who teach English. It's simple: You hear consistently different English all day! You're essentially hearing a different dialect of English. Imagine if you were an American who moved to England. After a couple of years, you'd certainly start to pick up lots of British slang and even some British grammar preferences. I'm arguing that the same thing happens to us, who hear "Brazilian English" all day. If you hear people use the verb "to combine" instead of "to schedule" 50+ times, you might, eventually, start to say it, too.
So yay, your turn! Is your second language messing up your first language? Any funny mistakes you've made? Comment away!
EDIT: Here's some more proof!