The Power of the Filter

Yesterday I encountered a middle-aged couple at a grocery store. At first I couldn’t make out what language they were speaking. I thought that it was Dutch at first, entertained the idea that it could be Frisian, then possibly even Scots English, until I made out the words to be…the standard English language that I had learned for almost all of my life.
Whenever I watch television or listen to the radio in Danish, I have to be careful if I go outside if I’m in a German-speaking area. The two languages sound very similar in their accents at times (although definitely not the same), and it makes my personal language filter very uncomfortable.
Even stranger: when I find myself studying one of my very rare languages (let’s take Northern Sami), and then I go outside on the street, sometimes I hear a language and I process it as though it were Northern Sami. Then I think to myself, “there’s no way they could have been speaking that…”
I know I’m not the only one who sees the usage of multiple languages like an automobile’s gearbox. Sometimes it can be easy to switch from one filter to another, but sometimes it takes time, or maybe even a few seconds to adjust. This can happen even when the language being switched to is one’s native language.
This is particularly frightening between languages which sound very similar (in my current collection, the combination of German and Danish are the worst offenders, although at other times in my life it seemed that some types of Iberian Spanish and of Modern Greek resembled one another in terms of phonemes and rhythms, and Estonian and Finnish sound almost the same to an untrained ear…or sometimes even exactly the same…)
But back when I was adjusting to multilingual life, I would be harsh on myself for not switching my filter at will. Then I found out that I was very far from the only one—and I think that it is particularly the case with those who have studied a lot of languages.
The filter exists not only with hearing, but also with speaking as well. Usually I need to collect my thoughts and pause for a second or two before I switch. Interestingly I find that the need for this little moment almost disappears when I am speaking very closely related languages and switch between them (Norwegian/Danish or German/Yiddish). But switching from English into Finnish requires a brief moment of “mental gymnastics”.
I don’t really know what else there is to be said on the matter. Sometimes the filter adjustment period can be very easily truncated, and it also depends on what languages you’ve been practicing or using. The most important thing, however, is to not to be discouraged if you take just a few moments in order to change your linguistic gearbox. In fact, if anything, it may be a sign of a busy and active mind!

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