I remember when I moved to Montpellier and started learning French, people would ask me if I had started to dream in French yet. “That’s when you know that you can really speak the language,” they would say. Over time, two things happened: 1) I did start incorporating some French into my dreams, and 2) I realized how much of my dreams and thinking were not actually language related.
For those of us who grow up monolingual, I feel like we just default to thinking that the thoughts in our head and our mother tongue are one and the same, because we haven’t ever really needed to think in another language before. But I began to realize that while the linguistic, internal-monologue narrative in my head was in English, in both my dreams and waking life many of my thoughts are just visual or auditory. That I might be dreaming and seeing and thinking things, except those thoughts are mostly just the images, shapes, forms, and colors without having a particular language associated with them. A lot of times I wake up and am not even sure what language I was dreaming of, if any at all.
But today I was thinking about the parts of our thoughts that are clearly more language dependent: trying to communicate with other people. Since I haven’t ever needed to regularly speak any non-English languages concurrently, it has sort of felt like I have my native English language “slot” in my brain and then a foreign language “slot”. During middle school and high school, that slot was taken up by Spanish. When I was living in Germany, it was ‘rewritten’ to be German. And now it has been rewritten again as French. As I have progressed more in French than in either of the other two languages, it slowly feels that my French is evolving closer to the native mentality though. Or at least that I don’t need to spend as much conscious effort thinking of every word in basic conversations.
However, having landed in Costa Rica late last night, I’ve found myself today needing to try to remember how to speak the Spanish that I haven’t practiced in forever. Adding jet lag on top doesn’t help either. And when this happens, it feels more like my brain is a slot machine. Much of the vocabulary is still in there somewhere, but when I try to form a sentence each word spins like the reels of a slot machine, passing over all of the other languages in which I know that word before I can finally land on the one I’m looking for. So for each word I find myself mentally thinking “No, that’s English,” “No, that’s French,” etc.
I’m sure that over the next three weeks it will come back a little. And over the last few years I have become much better at figuring out how to reframe sentences in general when I don’t know a particular word. But in the meantime I’ll just take some time to relax and take in the view.