But What About My Visa?

But What About My Visa?

When I was looking into the different German-speaking countries that offered semester study abroad programs through OU, one of the aspects about Austria that appealed to me was that it was a more unusual choice. Even compared to other European countries, Austria is pretty small at 32,000 square miles and a population 8.7 million people; Germany is about 138,000 square miles with 82.6 million people. For further comparison, my home state of Colorado is 104,000 square miles and has a population of 5.5 million people!

Size Comparison(The map shows Europe, with Colorado overlaid for a scale comparison.)

In my experience, most people don’t think of Austria very quickly when they talk about Europe. It’s fairly small and doesn’t have the international fame of the larger countries like Germany, France, Spain, and the UK (which I find ironic, given that it had one of the largest empires in Europe only a century ago). This made it feel more unique and off-the-beaten-path as a study abroad destination, while still allowing me to study in German for a semester.

However, something I never considered was that visiting such a small country might have some drawbacks on the administration side of study abroad. In order to live in Austria for five months, I needed to apply for a visa–no problem, right? Fill out some forms, hand over some cash, and I’d be good to go.

Except that for a visa to Austria, those forms include a fingerprint scan, and therefore the application must be conducted in person at an Austrian embassy or consulate. And since Austria is so small, there are only three such locations in the United States: in Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C. A visit to one of these cities on such short notice would have been way too expensive and impossible to fit into my school schedule, and a bit of research showed me that I couldn’t apply for a visa once I was in Vienna or Graz, so I started to panic.

Luckily, my Education Abroad counselor informed me of one other option: students from the US and Canada can enter Austria without a visa, and then within their first 90 days in the country, visit an Austrian embassy in either Slovenia or Germany to apply in person for a visa. So in order to stay for a full semester in Graz, I had to take a weekend trip outside of the country to Ljubljana, the capitol of Slovenia!

This ended up being a really fun adventure, since Graz’s branch of the Erasmus Student Network (an organization that arranges fun activities and local student “buddies” for study abroad students all over Europe) put together a trip for everyone who needed to go through this rather convoluted application process. We piled into a tour bus to drive to Ljubljana, where we handed in our paperwork and did the fingerprint scan, and then continued on to Trieste, a coastal town in Italy. Altogether, it only took us three hours of driving, yet by lunchtime we had already spent time in three separate countries!

Although there were some unexpected complications in choosing Austria for my semester abroad, I am so glad that I found a program to suit my unique sense of adventure! Obstacles like applying for a visa actually turned into wonderful opportunities with plenty of support both from the OU Education Abroad counselors and local groups like ESN. Don’t let administrative details dissuade you from finding a study abroad program that fits your interests!

Why Do I Melt in the Heat When No One Else Does?

Why Do I Melt in the Heat When No One Else Does?

Most people have heard the stereotype that Americans dress far more immodestly in the summer than many other cultures around the world. But it wasn’t until I studied abroad in both Japan and Austria that it really hit me how differently our country dresses when the weather turns hot.

For both of my study abroad programs, I packed clothes that were dressier or more fashionable than my typical American college student attire of jeans and a unisex t-shirt. I knew that I wouldn’t always blend in with the locals (especially in Japan, where my red-blone hair was a beacon in any crowd), but I wanted to try as much as I could.

I was successful to some degree, but… Kyoto in July is SO. HOT. And it is humid, every single day. And that was where the real difference came into play, because no matter how much dressier my wardrobe was, I couldn’t compete with the locals who somehow managed to wear nice, more fashionable clothes than me, and also not collapse in the constant, oppressive heat.

Even this felt like so much clothing!I would put on a nice shirt and matching shorts and head out into the day, and immediately feel my face turn bright red (yay for pale Irish skin) and sweat start dripping. As I mentioned in a different post, pretty much everyone carries a sweat towel to wipe their faces off, and I jumped on that bandwagon right away, along with carrying an umbrella for sun protection.

And then I’d get to campus, and notice all the female students and professors walking past looking perfectly put together in a silk blouse, cardigan, skirt, tights, and sun-protective gloves, with no visible signs of distress at all those layers. Men wore suits and button-up shirts and looked similarly unaffected by the heat and humidity, while I just stared in amazement and slowly melted into a little puddle.

winter-attireIn Austria, I ran into a similar problem. When I first arrived in Vienna I was quite proud of my “camouflage” attire: at least half the people on the subway wore jeans, boots, and a grey or black wool coat, just like me. I gave myself a mental high-five at my success, and throughout the semester enjoyed the fact that people would mistake me for a local fairly regularly. Even traveling to other countries in Europe, I continued to blend in (at least, until I had to ask for an English menu) because everyone was wearing wool sweaters and hats and scarves.

And then the weather in Graz started to change, becoming lovely and warm and a bit more humid than I was expecting, and I started shifting to a more spring- and summer-oriented How are you alive?wardrobe. And yet the locals just… kept wearing all those winter layers! It was MAY and 70°F girls were waiting for the tram in knee-length coats and oversized scarves! Which of course left me with an uncomfortable choice: do I reveal myself as an American by wearing actual shorts and tank tops, or do I once again melt into a little puddle as I try to keep wearing jeans and sweaters like everyone around me?

The similarity between my experiences in Japan and Austria is pretty surprising, and makes me wonder: how are people in other countries able to continue wearing so many more layers when the weather gets hot? Do they just have more practice, or is there some deeper reason behind my heat intolerance as an American?

Amy Eats Weird Food!

Amy Eats Weird Food!

Why, yes. Yes I do eat weird food. It makes life interesting; my motto has long been “I’ll try at least one bite of anything.” (Unless it is still moving. In which case, no. Not going there yet.)

As I have mentioned before, I am an adventurous person both in my travel experiences and in my everyday life. One really easy way to be more adventurous at home is to eat new foods–and I’m not talking about just having a strawberry smoothie instead of a banana one. No, it’s time to be weird!

I am lucky in that living in Colorado, I have easy access to a wide variety of unusual foods: my family grills bison burgers as often as beef, and it’s easy to find elk, venison, and quail at the supermarket. I’ve even had prickly-pear juice and rattlesnake (although just at a restaurant, not at our family friends’ house, where they catch the snakes on their property and then keep them in a cage until dinnertime!).

But traveling or living abroad provides a wonderful variety of weird foods, many of which you can’t find in the US! Here are the five weirdest foods I’ve eaten abroad (in no particular order):

fish-in-a-leafFish in a Leaf: quite simply, I ate fish and plantains out of a banana leaf while visiting the Embera tribe in Panama. This traditional food was cooked over a fire and then served; while not as shocking as some of my other food adventures, the phrase “fish in a leaf!” has become a joking catch-all phrase in my family for unusual or unique food.

squid-on-a-stickSquid on a Stick: thankfully labeled with a small “ready to eat” sign, since I didn’t know how to tell if it was raw or not. I did eat raw fish while in Japan, but in general I prefer my seafood to be cooked. It was a surprisingly great street-food snack! (I had another experience where a raw fish was served at a breakfast buffet, but I thought it was already cooked. This lead to a rather mortifying exchange with the hotel employee trying to explain, at my basic Japanese level, that it needed to be cooked on a small table-top stove and therefore should not be on the same plate as my scrambled eggs. Lesson learned.)

Haggis: made, as I had to confirm before I ate it, of sheep organs, onion, and oatmeal, and traditionally encased in the sheep’s stomach. A lovely description, I know, but it tasted surprisingly… normal. Like any other meat pastry. But with so many more interesting reactions than other pastries ?

ginger-rice“Ginger” Rice: which seemed tasty and neutral, especially compared to my first experience with sashimi (hint: raw fish tastes better if you dip it in the provided sauce instead of just… eating it). Then I looked at my rice bowl a bit more closely, and discovered that the rice was full of tiny fish that still had their eyes. And it is extremely rude in Japan to not eat everything you have been served, so… Yeah, finishing that was a bit tough.

black-puddingBlack Pudding: which you can’t actually make in the US, since it is illegal to buy or sell blood here! Yes, black pudding is made with blood. So is blood sausage, both of which I ate on my recent trip to England and Ireland, and both of which are actually delicious. As was the lamb liver that my black pudding came with. Who knew? ?

Eating weird food is an easy way to be adventurous in my everyday life, plus I’m always finding new things I never would have guessed I enjoy. And even if it doesn’t turn out to be my favorite dish, I always enjoy seeing my friends’ reactions to my culinary forays!

Thoughts Against the “Cultural Appropriation” Craze

I have a question about political correctness, specifically the current cultural appropriation craze. This issue has been bothering me for a long time, so I would appreciate honest feedback and opinions.Amy in Dirndl

In 2013 I studied abroad in Germany. Partway through my program, I told my host family I was interested in buying a dirndl, a traditional Bavarian dress. They were somewhat surprised but happy to take me to several shops and help me try them on.

I absolutely love the history and culture present in clothing like this, as well as the idea that even today you can just go into a shop and buy something with so much tradition. America doesn’t have anything like that. I rarely have a chance to wear my dirndl, but I’m still glad that I bought it because it’s so much fun to have.

So far so good, right? No problems yet?

(If there are, I’m sorry. It’s going to get worse.)

 

Then in 2016 I studied abroad in Japan. One of the program activities was to attend the Gion Matsuri, a huge festival in Kyoto. As a gift, we each received a yukata to wear to the festival and then to take home. This was, without a doubt, one of the highlights of the entire program. I could hardly breathe because of how tight the obi was, and I had to take uncomfortably small steps, but I loved every minute of it. I felt beautiful, and again, there was so much culture and history in the clothing. It was amazing.

The only reactions I received were positive ones. People gave me compliments, loved the way I tried to imitate a traditional hairstyle (even with pretty short hair), and could see how excited I was. Locals kept asking to take pictures of me because foreigners so rarely take part in these festivals, much less properly wearing a yukata.

 

And now let me ask you: WAS THIS ME BEING AN INSENSITIVE RACIST? Was I appropriating Japanese culture? I clearly don’t have a single drop of Japanese blood in my veins. I wasn’t born or raised in Japan. And yet I put on a yukata. I went to a festival in it.

HOW DARE I???

Well, let me tell you.

There is a very important difference between racism and cultural appropriation, and participative celebration of a culture. It’s all about intent: are you trying to make fun of something foreign to you, or are you excited about it and looking to take part in it?

This idea has been COMPLETELY OBSCURED recently. Everywhere I look, people are getting offended, pointing fingers, screaming about the insensitivity of the horrible white people stomping other cultures into the dirt. (It’s usually white people. If you’re going to get mad about something I say in this post, please don’t nitpick that detail. That’s not the point.)

And sometimes that’s true.  Sometimes people are racist, insensitive, wrong.  But—this is the important part—not always. Am I supposed to stay only within the confines of my own ethnic culture, and never explore or celebrate other ones? Me wearing a dirndl is fine, because I am ethnically German. But is the fact that my family only comes from Ireland and Germany supposed to limit me from ever taking part in other cultures?

Here’s another example. Anyone who has met me knows that I braid my hair almost every day, and I have for years. Braids are perfect for everything. You could wear them, say, while performing at a medieval fair. Or to be a classy student representative at the UN, or while hiking on Mt. Vesuvius, or even while touring Kyoto in sweltering summer humidity. I would know, because I’ve done all of those with braided hair—I have photographic evidence!

Gratuitous Selfie Braid Collage

But today, I found out that *gasp* I’m apparently a terrible, terrible person for braiding my hair like that. Because in terms of technique, there’s no difference between a Dutch braid and a cornrow. And I’m not black. Ergo I am not allowed to wear cornrows, ergo I’m not allowed to braid my hair this way, and doing so is an insult to black cultures all over the world. RIGHT???

Amy getting braidsExcept, why can’t I? When I was little and we went on vacations over spring break, one of my favorite things was to get my hair braided into—hold on now— cornrows. I remember sitting on this beach, when I was six years old, while this nice local lady braided my hair as tight as she could. I remember needing to hold my head really still during it, which was hard because it hurt to have my hair pulled so tight. But for a few weeks after that I had a fabulous set of braids, usually with a headband made of beads. I loved them. Nobody ever said that I was being culturally insensitive. So what if my skin isn’t the same color as the lady who did it? Why should that matter? She knew how to do an awesome hairstyle that I liked. My mom didn’t know how, so it was only something I could have when we went on vacation. End of story.

And yet a simple Google search of “cultural appropriation” will pull up an insane number of articles saying that any white person wearing cornrows, or other traditionally non-white hairstyles or clothing, is systematically oppressing ethnic minorities, shaming their cultures, capitalizing on their traditions, etc, etc. I’m not exaggerating here; this is what a 30-second search pulls up:

Headlines

To summarize those “horrible, oppressive crimes”: a girl wore a dress, another girl said she’s changing her musical style yet again, and a third girl wore braids. A woman’s art show was cancelled because her work looked “too indigenous.” A man sold a really expensive jacket. Realize also that those articles were all written in the past 10 days; that’s how much finger-pointing is going on right now.

How far does the mentality of “sorry, this is a club for our ethnicity only” stretch? I guess I’m not allowed to study Japanese either. Or Russian, or French, or Arabic, or Swahili, because I’m just an Irish-German-American girl. Maybe my claim on the German language is too thin as well—after all, I was raised American. How dare I presume to take ANY of those languages for my own use. Maybe that dirndl was going too far, too.

I sincerely hope everyone agrees that’s ridiculous.

We live in an increasingly international, interconnected world. An unavoidable side effect of that is that cultures will start to mix, whether through fashion, food, or language. The only way to NOT experience this would be to build a wall around each country in the world and prevent all contact with the outside, and to also ensure that everyone inside each wall acts only in a way that is deemed purely, acceptably “traditional.”

One country’s doing that right now. It’s called North Korea, and nobody is suggesting that we use them as a model for our own regulation of culture.

The mixing of cultures is something that we should celebrate, not get up in arms about. If I want to wear a yukata, then as long as I’m not using it to mock Japan, that should be fine. Same with braiding my hair or speaking German or adopting whatever aspects of foreign cultures I admire and want to emulate in a respectful, conscious way. That’s what it means to live in a global society.

And if I’m wrong, if everything I’ve said here is horribly offensive and behind the times and I actually need to stay within the confines of my own culture all the time from now on, I guess I’ve got two clothing options:

America

That’s right. Atha-leisure/flannel/baseball cap, or the American flag head-to-toe. Shown here, fittingly, while I was  literally on a ferry to see the Statue of Liberty, although bald eagles posing majestically in the background would be an appropriate accessory as well.

What a fantastic fashion statement that will be.

I’m Sorry, That’s Not German… Is It?!

I'm Sorry, That's Not German... Is It?!

Before I came to Austria, I heard warnings from several people that the dialect would be strong, that I would struggle to understand anything. Luckily, I also had a slight advantage: most American universities teach a variation of High German from Berlin, which is pretty extremely different from Austrian German. But I actually had more exposure to Bavarian German: I lived there with a host family for a month in high school, and when I worked as a translator for two young German boys, they spoke Bavarian German, and this is quite close to Austrian German.

The problem is that it’s not quite the same as Bavarian: it’s like someone took that accent, intensified it, talked only with a couple of marbles in their mouth, and then decided to just cut out half the words. But don’t worry about it, it’s still technically German, ready set go!

My first day in Graz, I actually felt really proud of myself. I met my assigned buddy from my new university, and he took me on a tour of the city. I told him right away that I would prefer to speak in German so that I could become more fluent, and he was happy to oblige. We walked all over the city, toured the campus, talked about our majors, and I had no problems aside from the occasional vocabulary question. He had a bit of an accent, sure, but it was hardly different from what I’d heard in Munich. I just had to convince my brain to flip all my German switches for the next five months and I’d be golden.

Then we ran into one of my buddy’s friends. And I swear they started speaking another language. Except it wasn’t another language: THAT was Austrian. After their conversation ended my buddy told me that guess what, he’d been speaking super proper High German this whole time, except that’s not how people talk to each other unless they’re in an academic or formal setting. No, I would usually be hearing the unintelligible jibber-jabber he’d just used with his friend.

Oh. Well then.

Thanks to my pre-semester German course, where our teacher like to go over some slang and expressions every day, I’ve managed to adjust enough to the dialect.  But sometimes I still feel hopelessly lost, usually when another student uses common slang with a heavy accent.

For example, in class we went over this tiny dialogue:

“Ich bin heute müde / I’m tired today.”

“Ja, ich ohnehin auch / Yeah, me too.”

Except that nobody actually says that last part like that.  They shorten the “ohnehin” into just “eh,” but then the collective Austrian public decided that the rest of the sentence was still too long so they say just “i e a.” Pronounced “ee ay ah” with complete sincerity, like three vowels is an acceptable substitute for a complete sentence.

Other times I understand the general meaning just fine but have to figure out from context what words are strictly Austrian. It took me a long time to realize that here, “net” is actually “nicht / not,” as opposed to “nett / nice.”

Overall the dialect has been a lot of fun; I smile whenever I hear words like “a bissell” instead of “ein bisschen” and “zwo” instead of “zwei.” I buy “Zwetschen, Marillen, and Paradeiser” in the supermarket instead of “Pflaume (plums), Aprikose (apricots), and Tomaten (tomatoes)”. I’m not sure how far I’ll get, but my goal when I return to the US is to be able to speak like a proper improper Austrian, marbles in my mouth and all. I think that would be really entertaining, although my professors might say otherwise!

Introduction to Shodo (書道)

Introduction to Shodo (書道)

One of the things I really loved about being in Japan was seeing how much culture is embedded into daily life.  I’m sorry to Americans everywhere, but we have no culture–not in the way that a country that’s existed for thousands of years like Japan does, at least.  Everywhere I went, there were temples, shrines, women dressed in formal kimono and yukata, traditional food, and common phrases that all reminded me of how different Kyoto was from my home.  I love to learn more about these customs whenever I can, and this semester I was able to when the Japanese club organized a short workshop to learn shodo, Japanese calligraphy.

Photo Credit to Australian Aikido Ki Society

Shodo is a traditional art form that most Japanese children are required to learn in elementary school, much like American kids take art classes.  Kids can also choose to join a shodo club in high school, participate in national competitions, or study it in college.  As with chado (Japanese tea ceremony), kitsuke (kimono wearing), and ikebana (flower arranging), many children take lessons after school or on the weekends, which helps to keep these highly traditional art forms alive.

That did mean, though, that all of the professors and exchange students who helped run the shodo workshop had far more experience than any of the American students.  I had assumed that, since I’ve been doing art my whole life and I love to write kanji, I would be able to pick it up fairly easily. Amy's ShodoUnfortunately, that was not really the case.  Writing complex kanji with a pencil is very different from using a stiff-bristled brush (held vertically, not slanted like a pencil) and ink, especially since stroke order is even more important with ink than it is with pencil.  After practicing only a few characters and over for about an hour, I finally wrote out the kanji for yuki (courage) and signed my name on the sign.

My kanji weren’t the prettiest in class (I heard that one of the exchange students had actually won several shodo competitions in Japan), I really enjoyed getting a taste of this beautiful art form.  In the future, I would love to practice more so that I can fully appreciate shodo.

MLLL Inter-Language Soccer Game

MLLL Inter-Language Soccer Game

It’s not often that students majoring in different languages can organize a single activity that appeals to everyone, but the MLLL department’s soccer game certainly accomplished this.  And it shouldn’t be surprising that the students got so involved in the game, since Germany, France, Spain, and Italy are famous for their national dedication to soccer.

Because German had by far the most students, the other three languages combined into one team for the game.  The players ranged from people who, like me, enjoy soccer but haven’t played much recently to those who play regularly on intramural teams.  Even some professors came to support their languages, some as players and some just to enjoy the beautiful afternoon.  Everyone felt competitive during the game, but there was also an air of fun surrounding the whole afternoon.

Because of how the teams were divided, we jokingly mentioned that the last time Germany faced off against the rest of Europe, it didn’t really end so well.  Maybe we should have taken that as an omen, because the Romance Language team beat us by a large margin.  But I had fun playing soccer again for the first time in several years, and since I didn’t make any embarrassing mistakes, I counted the game as a win for myself.

After the game, most of the students and many of the faculty members expressed interesting in making the game, or even an MLLL intramural team, a long-term tradition.  I hope that it will be, and I look forward to participating in the next tournament!

Austria and Delta Phi Alpha

Austria and Delta Phi Alpha

A few days ago I received an email from Delta Phi Alpha, the National German Honor Society, saying that I have been awarded one of their spring semester scholarships! I am so grateful for this honor, which will make it possible for me to visit the CERN particle physics facilities in Geneva and also travel to Munich to view the 13th century Parzival manuscripts.
I haven’t really posted anything about this yet, but next semester I will be studying abroad in Graz, Austria! I am so excited to be living in a foreign country for five months, especially one where I will be able to practice my German skills on a daily basis. Although it is a bit intimidating to be going to Austria, where they speak a different dialect of German than the one taught at most American schools, I can’t wait to challenge myself by attempting to live in German as much as possible. My university, Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz, has a buddy program so I can connect with local students as soon as I arrive in Graz, and I plan to make as many connections with Austrians as I can so that I can fully immerse myself in the culture.
Although I can’t actually register for my classes until I arrive in Austria, the courses I requested are going to be very different from my usual load. History of Austria, the Symphony in the 18th Century, and Japanese Art will all be taught in German, and I am looking forward to both taking classes in a foreign language and the fun subject material. But the course I’m most hopeful about is a graduate level course called Space Law and Space Policy, which will be taught in English. This course aligns perfectly with my future goal to live abroad and work in the space industry, so I really hope that I can take it!
Since the Austrian semester doesn’t line up perfectly with the American system, I have a six week winter break this year, which I am definitely not complaining about. I can’t believe that in less than two months I will finally be moving abroad!

Thoughts on Language Clubs

Thoughts on Language Clubs

Last year I wrote a post about language clubs at OU and why I think they can really help students become fluent in a foreign language.  I still do think they can be an important supplement to foreign language learning, and this semester I joined both the German club and the Japanese club. But after spending seven weeks in Japan over the summer, I’ve been reminded of the limitations of clubs like these.

The main selling point of language clubs–that they provide a low-pressure environment where students can practice their foreign language skills with students of varying degrees of fluency–is also one of their greatest drawbacks.  The reason is that pressure plays a huge role in forcing the brain to adapt to speaking and thinking in a foreign language.

While I was in Japan, our student “buddies,” professors, and program coordinators weren’t allowed to speak to us in English.  Some of them only know a handful of English words anyway; some buddies had spent a year studying abroad in Australia or America and were far more coherent in English than most of us were in Japanese, but regardless, everyone stuck to Japanese.  My high school study abroad program in Germany was organized the same way–my host father, a veterinarian, was perfectly fluent in English, but the whole family spoke to me in German except in a few instances when they defined a word for me in English.

I’m sure that I’ve said this many times before, but the pressure that comes from not being able to switch back into English is pure gold when it comes to learning a foreign language.  It teaches you how to talk around the words you don’t know.  It teaches you how to just keep talking comfortably and not let the pressure of being perfect get to you.  It teaches you that you actually know how to say far more than you think you do.  And as a bonus side effect, it teaches you kick-butt improv skills for games like Pictionary, Charades, and Time’s Up.

So, I’ve revised my opinion of language clubs to a certain degree.  They’re great for practicing what you’ve already learned and for meeting study partners or other students learning the same language.  But in order to really expand your fluency, to learn how to hold a long, comfortable conversation even if you don’t know all the vocabulary, you have to be in an environment where you can’t fall back to English as soon as you hit a stumbling block.  Yes, it’s easier to throw an English word or phrase into the middle of a sentence (“kono hon wa omoshirokatta kedo, um, character development wa amari yokunakatta deshita“), but it also doesn’t help your fluency grow at all; instead, it teaches your brain that it’s okay to give up and default back to English whenever you can’t remember a foreign word.

I’m not sure if there is any feasible way to create a completely no-English environment on a college campus so that students can speak foreign languages, but that would, in my opinion, be the best way for students to gain fluency.  Perhaps in the future, language clubs could help arrange meetings for students who would be willing to forgo all English for the day.  I’d especially love to see longer activities on weekends, like going to a restaurant, a bookstore, the zoo, or an event, where the students only speak the foreign language with each other!

Trilingual-in-Training

Trilingual-in-Training

Since coming back from Japan, my brain has had some rather entertaining struggles with adapting to three different languages living inside it.  Since they haven’t really occurred in a high-pressure situations, these struggles haven’t been a problem, but it’s odd to see how my brain is juggling them.

The most extreme occurrence was on the very first day of courses back at OU, when I ran into one of my German professors before class started.  I hadn’t really spoken any German in several months, since all of my focus was on Japanese over the summer.  He said hello and started a casual conversation about the class, the building we would be in, how hot the weather had been recently.  All easy topics, things I would normally be able to chat about with no problem in German, except that every single response I could think of was in Japanese.

I could feel my brain scrambling around trying to find something to respond with and managed to stop myself before I said “soudesuka ” or “hai,” phrases that I used all the time in Japan.  I did let out a few Japanese-style pause words, but managed to pull out a couple of stuttering German responses as we walked into the classroom.

I had read about this phenomenon before, but this was my first time experiencing it so severely.  Essentially, learning a new language takes up space in your brain.  If you’ve started to learn the new language really well, you can not only speak it more fluently, but you might also start to forget how to say things in your native language.

The reason for this is that our brains doesn’t really store words, like a dictionary.  They store concepts.  Somewhere inside your brain is the understanding of what exactly a book is, and what you do with books, and what books look and feel like.  As English speakers, we’ve assigned this concept the title of “book.”  When you learn a new language, you take the same knowledge and give it another title, in my case “Buch” in German, and then “本 (hon)” in Japanese.  Those three labels are now all associated with the same concept, so when I go to pull one of them out, I might accidentally grab a different one and then wonder how I managed to forget such a simple word.

(For an interesting article on this topic, visit https://www.wired.com/2016/02/being-bilingual-changes-the-architecture-of-your-brain/)

Over the past few months, I’ve gotten back up to speed with German.  But sometimes I will still be sitting in one language class and raise my hand to answer a question, and then suddenly feel my brain stall as I worry that the wrong language will come out of my mouth–and to be honest, sometimes I have no idea what language I’m about to say something in.  On several occasions I’ve decided to just start talking and see if people give me really confused looks because I’ve ended up in the wrong language.  Not the best tactic, but it’s worked okaySwitchboard so far.

There are some words and phrases that I just haven’t been able to keep straight since coming back from Japan. The analogy I like to use is as an old-fashioned switchboard in my head, my language switchboard.  When I was in Japan, I unplugged all of my German cords and dedicated them to Japanese.  I’ve continued to use the English plugs too, but once I came back to OU my poor little operator had to start juggling three different languages.  After a few classes, most of my cords were easy to reconnect to German, but a few are still on the Japanese board.  Which ones, you may ask?  Pause words, for the most part.  Japanese speakers love to use short little filler words, the equivalents of English “um,” “uh,” “hmm,” “really?” and so on.  German speakers do not.  In Japan, I had a whole cluster of cables being used for these pause words, and now that I’m back, I’ve had no reason to disconnect them for German equivalents, because I don’t really have German equivalents.

This has led to many, many instances where I start a German sentence with “eto . . .” (“um”).  I notice that I do it.  Some of my German classmates have looked at me confusedly and asked me about it.  But I haven’t really been able to get rid of that habit.  Today in class a German professor asked a question, and I immediately responded with the Japanese word for “no.”  I didn’t think about it at all–it just came out automatically.  Which is a good sign, in that it means that I’m becoming more fluent in Japanese.  It just also feels like I’ve taken a step sideways in my German skills, since I don’t always speak as smoothly as I know I can.

Overall I’ve enjoyed these minor slip-ups, because it means that I’ve really cemented both German and basic Japanese in my brain, and my brain is ready to flip back and forth between them.  I look forward to seeing what other interesting scenarios I might get into as a result of accidentally defaulting to the wrong language.