Is there a name for this?
April 9, 2008 4:56 PM   Subscribe

Is there a name for this multilingual phenomena?

I was recently introduced to the concept of code switching, and inspired by another question posted earlier today, I decided to ask about something that I experience frequently, and wanted to know if someone can put a name on it (I am looking at you, Languagehat).
When recounting a story I have read, television I have watched, or a conversation I have had, I frequently have a hard time recalling what language I read, watched or spoke. For example, I could be telling a friend about a story I read on the internet, and when queried about what country/language the story came from, I simply cannot tell.
For the sake of background, I should note that I am actively and passively trilingual (I am a translator, hence the frequent use of various languages). I use/write/consume all three languages on a daily basis, thereby leading to a bit of confusion as to which language I am actually operating in. I hope this isn't too vague, but I wonder, what is it called when you don't know what language you did something in? I thank you in advance for any and all elucidations.
posted by msali to Writing & Language (7 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have a word for it, but I thought it might be interesting that I have the same experience, even though for all intents and purposes I'm monolingual. If I see a movie with subtitles, and then think about it months later, it often takes me a moment to remember that it wasn't in English. Or right now, if you asked me whether I saw "Princess Mononoke" dubbed, or with subtitles, I couldn't tell you for certain.
posted by lore at 5:49 PM on April 9, 2008

I also don't know if there's a name for this, but I've experienced the same thing, and also that often my memories of conversations take place in whatever language I'm most comfortable with at the time. When I was living in Germany, I would remember conversation with my mom (who only speaks English) in German, because for a while, I was more comfortable with German.
posted by !Jim at 8:03 PM on April 9, 2008

I can't think of a name for this phenomenon, but it definitely appears to be good evidence for the Language of Thought Hypothesis (, as you're storing the information/concepts in a "language" which is not one of the three natural languages you use daily.
posted by tractorfeed at 10:23 PM on April 9, 2008

Well, if there isn't already, we certainly are in need for one. Perhaps we could join aphasia (loss of language) and amnesia (loss of memory) and call it aphasamnesia.

This too, happens to me all the time. I am a translator as well, and I play in a band where there are four other people from 4 different countries, who all speak the same few languages. It used to happen a lot to us that we would start a conversation in a language and change to another without realizing. We didn't notice we did that it until there were people who were left out of the conversation due to not speaking one of the languages.

Good luck finding the word.
posted by micayetoca at 10:43 PM on April 9, 2008

I seriously doubt there's a word for this; why would there be? It affects a relatively tiny group of people, and those whom it affects can just describe it, as you did. There are words for only a very small subset of the enormous range of human experiences. Even in German.
posted by languagehat at 6:48 AM on April 10, 2008

Response by poster: Well, I asked "Ask a linguist", which I found, strangely, while trying to find Languagehat.
Interestingly enough, it was explained to me that what I am experiencing, in long term memory, is that we tend not to store memory as language, rather as meaning. One of the kind people at "Ask a linguist" added that part of this phenomenon is known as "semantic integration". Ultimately, when you store memory, not only could you forget what language you learned something in, but you can forget the "channel" as well (did you hear it, read it, watch it, etc.). Ultimately, it is proof that our brains do not store information and ideas linguistically. Not being a linguist myself, I don't have anything to back that up. These are just the answers I got. I find this whole subject fascinating. Thanks to everyone for weighing in.
Also, Languagehat, I read somewhere (and god knows I've already forgotten where), that there are more multilingual than monolingual people on the planet, so I must respectfully disagree. I think that my experiences are far more common than "a relatively tiny group of people". Again, I am no linguist, and have no statistical data to back me up, but I bet this phenomenon is more common than you may think.
posted by msali at 8:55 AM on April 10, 2008

Yeah, now that I think of it you may be right.
posted by languagehat at 9:48 AM on April 10, 2008

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