Working in three languages

I was musing the other day on the difficulties of working in three languages. That morning I was answering emails in English to my graduate students, in German to the organizers of a session at the conference in South Tirol this summer and in French to the professor organizing the teacher preparation courses for the French cohort. Someone entered my office and I had to ask them to wait while I concentrated on the right wording of the email in French. Those of you who live and work in three languages know the challenges. Researchers recognize that multilingual people use their languages for different purposes and therefore have areas (“domains” to quote Fishman) in which they work in one language and not another. However, some of us, for a variety of natural or artificial reasons, do the same work in more than one language. I facilitate teacher workshops on drama pedagogy in either English or German. I teach language classes in German or French and undergraduate teacher preparation classes in English or French. So, in one domain, I need to have the same vocabulary in all three languages (or at least in two of three). This can be really challenging as one is always stronger in one than the other and sometimes you don’t realize your shortfalls until you are in the middle of a sentence! Take, for example, an undergraduate class in French that I taught in January. I took great pains to prepare the classes, but during a spontaneous reference to something the students may have been exposed to in the lecture from another class, I started saying “Dans votre. . . ” then I got stuck. I wanted to say “lecture” (in French), but that word in French means “reading”, like reading a book. Immediately I thought of the German word “Vorlesung”, but that actually does mean “reading” because, I surmise, it came from the days when professors sat at the front of the lecture hall and read to their students from a paper or prepared notes. So the German word was no help. I asked the students. They (also mostly advanced¬† second language learners of French) said they didn’t really ever use that word and so nothing came to mind. So I did a circumlocution and said “classe de x” and moved on. Working in three languages keeps me humble and always adding to my knowledge, but there are times I wish people could see a sign on my head that read “she really is trying”. (Oh, by the way, the word I was looking for is apparently “cours magistral” – very impressive sounding word – I have connotations of the king presiding).

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