Switching languages

I used to marvel about how whenever I was in the company of other people from IIT Madras, I would instinctively switch to speaking “IITese“. Words such as “slisha”, “peace”, “rod”, and all others that I would not normally use in normal English when speaking to normal people would suddenly appear in my vocabulary while talking to others from IITM.

I used to consider myself special that I could discriminate thus, and make best use of the languages I know while not discriminating against people who didn’t understand one of the languages, such as IITese. I used to consider this great, but this bubble got broken when my nephew started talking.

This guy is half-Kannadiga, half-Marathi, with a Gult nanny and his parents speak to each other in Hindi. He is now three years old and for over a year now he’s been very comfortable speaking Kannada and Marathi, and to an extent Telugu, Hindi and English (which he’s learning in school) !  The most remarkable thing with him, though, (as with all other multilingual kids, I would imagine) is that he has mapped people to languages. For example, he knows that I speak Kannada and he speaks to me only in Kannada. And while talking to me if his father (who is Marathi) is present, he immediately switches to Marathi to talk to him. Across languages that are very different, he is able to switch easily and seamlessly and moreover know who speaks which language!

There is a downside, though. Once when his mother, who is “supposed to speak to him in Kannada”, tried talking to him in Marathi, he got really angry and wild and asked her to speak in Kannada! Our initial thought was he was being finicky, but I now think it is to do with parsing. When his mother speaks, he has his “Kannada parser” switched on, and if she speaks Marathi, there is a parsing error and it causes great stress on his processor to switch languages. And being a small kid, that makes him cranky and wild!

In other words, this can be considered as another case of Bayesian recognition! It seems like the human mind’s parsing of speech is influenced by the prior distribution of what language the speaker is speaking in. As the first few words come out, we firm up which parser to use, and then it is smooth sailing. For a kid, though, it seems like the prior distribution of parsers is “binary” (one 1, and the rest 0s), which is what makes the wrong speaker wrong language combo annoying for them!

Us human beings are smarter than we think!

One thought on “Switching languages”

Put Comment