Fabricating the Known from the Unknown
27 Oct 2007
This past week I started studying Spanish again after not studying or using it for over 7 years. I really didn’t know how I was going to do in my one-on-one lessons, considering my teacher would use only Spanish and I was expected to respond in Spanish. In my high school days I was reasonably fluent, but that was over 10 years ago.
It turns out that I did OK. I understood probably 95% of what my teacher said, and I managed to express myself. Sure, I blanked on words, I screwed up conjugations and prepositions, and had to pause for uncomfortably long periods of time while I reached back into the recesses of my mind and fished around for the Spanish I needed. But it really wasn’t so horrible, and it was good to be that struggling language student again.
I am sure that 7 years is enough time to completely forget a foreign language, but I think I know why I haven’t completely forgotten Spanish. The main reason is that I made a conscious resolution not to forget Spanish.
You see, when I graduated from high school and started at the University of Florida I was fairly fluent in Spanish, but I was tired of studying it, and I had never used it for real communication (i.e. in a Spanish-speaking environment). It was for that reason that I started studying Japanese and basically quit Spanish. I made a sort of decision about Spanish then: “I don’t need this anymore.”
Only two years later, after an amazing experience in Japan, I decided I did still want my Spanish, but was shocked at how much I had already lost. It was as if my brain had overwritten the old, unwanted Spanish with Japanese. I spent my third year of university reclaiming what I had lost, and a summer in Mexico to ground it in reality and bring it to life.
After that, I basically stopped using Spanish and shifted to Chinese, but I gave my brain a command: don’t lose this again. And I really haven’t, even if my Spanish is not even close to fluent anymore. But I’ll drag it all back to the front of my brain, chunk by chunk, and I’ll get there.
But a funny thing happened after my Spanish class on Thursday. I was on the subway and walking through the streets of Shanghai, and I could swear I was hearing Spanish all around me. Just random words, not coherent conversations. If I’d listen carefully and concentrate, I’d hear that the people around me were speaking Shanghainese. But it was as if my brain, trying hard to please me, was conjuring Spanish out of unintelligible (to me) Shanghainese noise. Rationally, I knew they weren’t speaking Spanish, but through my brain’s cognitive slight of hand, I just couldn’t stop hearing it. I couldn’t turn it off.
I’m back to normal now.