All bilingual/multilingual speakers know that it’s easier to listen and read than it is to speak and write. For example, although I love to watch Taiwanese dramas and read restaurant menus in Chinese, I still order my food and blog about my favorite dramas mostly in English. I also occasionally revert to English when people speak to me in Chinese. The instinct to do this has gone down significantly over the past year, but still… it happens.
Once my friends took this instinct and turned it into a game. The guy was from Panama. The girl was from Taiwan. And I am from the United States. We were at karaoke (KTV) together. The Panamanian dude spoke to me in Spanish. The Taiwanese chick spoke to me in Chinese. And I had to translate their conversation into English (which they both knew), so that they could communicate back and forth. Clearly, we could have just spoken in English, but it was a fun game, even though it didn’t last long and I got really dizzy by the end of it. I’m sure the people around us thought we were crazy.
The point of the story: Many multilingual people have conversations with each other while not speaking in the same language. It happens all the time (especially between generations). I noticed this first in Taiwanese movies and dramas. There is often a character who speaks Taiwanese (usually a parent or grandparent—but not always), and the characters around her respond to her comments in Chinese.
What a challenge to watch, especially since my Taiwanese is horrible! My biggest struggle with this was watching the drama Fated to Love You (命中注定我愛你). It made me realize that if your audience doesn’t understand one of the languages spoken, the entire dialogue feels kind of like you’re listening to one side of a phone conversation. A lot of dramas do this. So, it’s a big incentive to learn at least some basic Taiwanese.
I’m sure it happens with a lot of languages, and in a lot of cultures. But I wonder why. Any ideas?