Before leaving India in the late eighties, I could speak a bit of Hindi as my third language. English was the second language, and Malayalam my mother tongue. I wasn’t fluent in Hindi by any stretch of imagination, but I could speak it well enough to get rid of a door-to-door salesman, for instance.
This is exactly what my father (a confirmed Hindi-phobe) asked me to do during one of my visits home when a persistent, Hindi-speaking sari salesman was hovering over our front porch. By that time, I had spent over six years in the US (and considered my English very good) and a couple of years in France (enough to know that “very good English” was no big deal). So to get rid of the sari-wala, I started to talk to him in Hindi, and the strangest thing happened — it was all French that was coming out. Not my mother tongue, not my second or third language, but French! In short, there was very confused sari salesman roaming the streets that day.
True, there is some similarity between Hindi and French, for instance, in the sounds of interrogative words, and the silly masculine-feminine genders of neutral objects. But I don’t think that was what was causing the outpouring of Frenchness. It felt as though French had replaced Hindi in my brain. Whatever brain cells of mine that were wired up to speak Hindi (badly, I might add) were being rewired a la franciaise! Some strange resource allocation mechanism was recycling my brain cells without my knowledge or consent. I think this French invasion in my brain continued unabated and assimilated a chunk of my English cells as well. The end result was that my English got all messed up, and my French never got good enough. I do feel a bit sorry for my confused brain cells. Karma, I guess — I shouldn’t have confused the sari salesman.
Though spoken in jest, I think what I said is true — the languages that you speak occupy distinct sections of your brain. A friend of mine is a French-American girl from the graduate years. She has no discernable accent in her Americanese. Once she visited me in France, and I found that whenever she used an English word while speaking French, she had a distinct French accent. It was as though the English words came out of the French section of her brain.
Of course, languages can be a tool in the hands of the creative. My officemate in France was a smart English chap who steadfastly refused to learn any French at all, and actively resisted any signs of French assimilation. He never uttered a French word if he could help it. But then, one summer, two English interns showed up. My officemate was asked to mentor them. When these two girls came to our office to meet him, this guy suddenly turned bilingual and started saying something like, “Ce qu’on fait ici.. Oh, sorry, I forgot that you didn’t speak French!”