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My Default Language

I’ve been living in the U.S. for two years now, an experience that continues to teach me lessons about myself. The latest: Apparently there is such a thing as a default language, and it can change, which makes things really confusing.

I remember the first time I had to speak English, after arriving to the United States in 2003. We went to Times Square in New York and decided to grab a bite at a Pizza Hut. Right before ordering, I realized I now had to speak English—the order taker would not understand me otherwise. At the time it was just the first of many exciting and new experiences during that year.

Last year in May, I returned to Germany for the first time after moving back to the U.S. some nine months earlier. I took the train from Zurich airport and when I arrived in Constance I decided to get fresh rolls from a bakery at the train station. Right before it was my turn, I had to consciously tell myself to now speak German, that the person on the other side of the counter would probably not cope well with an order in English.

It was then that I realized that I apparently have a default language that I instinctively fall back to when talking to people I don’t know, in daily life situations. I never really thought about it before because German was so dominant, and I never spent enough time abroad that English would have the chance to catch up. Now, with fairly frequent changes of context, it has become very apparent. And I enjoy observing it!

When I dream, or think of, situations or people I know in Germany, I dream in German. When I dream of people in America, I dream in English. When I think of situations or projects at Automattic or in the context of WordPress, I think in English. So I noticed I switch my default language, based on the context. Not a very ground breaking discovery, you may think.

But! It amazes me how much or how little change of context is necessary to switch my default language. Yesterday, while staying in a hotel in Germany, it was enough to watch a seven-minute clip in English to also address the maid in English, who wanted to come in to clean my room. Last week on the other hand, the “German context” was so strong, that even speaking English a lot with British friends for most of the week did not change my default language.

I’d love to know how people experience that phenomenon who grew up bilingual, or if they experience it at all. And if it changes when switching to a language they learned later in life! So many questions.

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5 thoughts on “My Default Language

  1. Philip Arthur Moore says:

    Same with Vietnamese, mate. It all centers around context. I even find my personality changing depending on my current default. I’m sure you find the same. Great read.

  2. Things like this fascinate me. I really only know one language so I can’t experience this for myself.

    However three of my children are in, or starting, early French immersion in school. I see this default with them depending on where we are.

  3. I find myself continuously switching from Frisian to English to Dutch and vice versa. Not really sure what happens in my dreams, but in everyday life I switch my language to whichever one is required just like that.
    So, for my family Frisian is obviously my primary language, but for work it’s English and Dutch. I guess what I’m trying to say it that I probably don’t have a primary language as such, but more a language per situation(?).

    Whenever I’m in a country where I don’t speak the language I’ll revert to English for obvious reasons.

  4. It’s funny because I don’t have the same experience as you. My brain always uses my mother tongue to process information, because that’s the first language I learned.

    For me the default language is whatever the person I speak to uses. As I have been speaking different languages all my life, there’s no context switch needed. I can start a sentence in French, switch to Luxembourgish, then German and back to French again without even having to pause.

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