Why is it that it takes no effort at all to think of and use your first language, but you have to constantly think about it and translate for your second?



I’m taking a German class and despite knowing a solid bit of the language, I still have to constantly think to speak and understand it. Why is that?

In: Culture

Think about how much language exposure you’ve had in English. Essentially the language centres if your brain are huge, efficient analysers and computers of English language. I’m talking the knowledge around individual words in terms of meaning, associations, grammar rules, level of formality/social use etc etc but also all the sound components for those words. You’ve also got the broader knowledge around how words are combined, due to such extensive exposure the language centre in your brain has learnt so many extensive rules on how you combine individual words and units of language to create infinite meaningful sentences. For example there’s rules around how multiple adjectives are ordered based on what quality they describe, this isn’t necessarily explicitly known by English speakers but generally followed as that is what ‘sounds right’.

Essentially to gain and portray meaning through German you are making sense of the words and sentences through mapping them to your established knowledge base of English.
The way we combine words in a language is complex and alters meaning extensively. To really understand this you need to be exposed to so much of the language for your brain to essentiakly learn through statistics what is expected of a sentence and the different roles words play in a sentence across contexts. Language learning is easier for children because the system of their native language is still going through this development so they are less “glued” to the learnt rules of english and have higher neuroplasticity for laying down the pathway for learning these rules.

It tends to be when people have high exposure and a deep understanding of the syntactic (grammar) rules of a new language they are able to produce and process the language as it’s own with meaning. Although the dominant language is often relied on for a long time.

TLDR; The language centre in your brain is so established with a shitload of knowledge on how to process and produce meaningful English language that your knowledge base of German cannot compare and you’re therefore relying on the framework you have of how language works (in english) to understand German.

* When first using a language it takes considerable time and skill to learn to use it.
* It literally takes years to being speaking and many more years to develop into a fully fluent human.
* Once you learn a language that way, your brain relies on pattern recognition.
* For example, when you read a sentence, you are reading each letter and putting them together one-by-one to figure out what the words are, you are seeing entire words as one symbol that represent a concept to your brain.
* The different in learning a second language is that you very aware of the process involved as you have already developed cognition.
* With the first language you are learning about the world and how it works right alongside learning the language.

I believe you think in the language in which you learn about things. For example I’ve learned most basic things in my native language, so those things I do tend to have to translate, but I’ve learned my job using mostly english resources, forums and such and when I’m working I think in english, there name of concepts I don’t even know in french and sometimes when I’m talking with co-workers I have issues just forming a sentence in a french way because I come up with the essence of the sentence in English.

Compared that to for example numbers, which are like the first things that I learned when I discovered english, well for some reason these still make very little sense to me. You can have someone with a moderately thick accent talk about a specific subject and I’ll follow along just fine, but have someone perfectly say $4.35 and I’ll have to almost count on my fingers for some reason…

Not that it answers the question though, but I always thought this was funny ^^

Depends how you learn the language.

The ‘natural way’ is the way you learn your mother tongue, by being completely immersed in the language itself without any other language to reference it off.

When I was younger, my family moved to a country that spoke a different language. I eventually became fluent in that language and didn’t have to translate in my head. I could just swap languages and my thoughts would be in the other language.

Learning small parts a few times a week like you would do in class will just enable you to translate between languages, you don’t *learn* it per se in the same way you do your own.

Offtopic: viel Erfolg beim Deutsch-lernen. Es ist nicht leicht, ABER es lohnt sich. Du kannst bald alle Philosophen und Psychologen und frühen Mathematiker und Politologen im original lesen. Nietzsche zum Beispiel! Schopenhauer. Marx. Freud. Gauss. Die Reisetagebücher von Alexander von Humboldt!! Goethe und Schiller. Fuck, selbst Bach, Mozart und Beethoven werden besser klingen.
Halt die Ohren steif 😉

I wouldn’t say this is correct. I am Hungarian and it is my mother tongue. I talk to people in Hungarian on a daily basis at work, with my family ect. Whenever I’m consuming media, it is in English. This has been the case for so long, that both languages come as completely natural to me. I don’t have to think about either, it is kind of like a switch inside my brain to which language “mode” I’m in. The main point here, is that you can reach a level of knowledge and exposure to your second language that it just as natual as the first. The best way to reach this is exposure and constant use. After a while it will become second nature, just like with anything you’ve done for a long time. For example, you don’t think about using basic utensils like a spoon, fork or knife. But when you get handed a pair of chopsticks, you will have to actively try and use them. If you keep using them for long enough, it will come just as naturally as the other ones did.