Different kinds of language proficiency

It’s funny how forms asking for your language proficiency use “native language” to mean “best possible proficiency”.

My native languages are Finnish and Swedish, but I’m out of practice with Swedish so my English vocabulary is way better than my Swedish. Though interestingly, speaking either Finnish and Swedish with someone give me a sense of emotional connection that’s lacking if I use English.

I feel I know English words better than Swedish, but Swedish words have a sense of subtle emotional nuance that’s missing from the English ones. So there’s a dimension on which my Swedish does feel better than my English, but it doesn’t seem to translate directly to fluency in the traditional sense.

Something like… the place in my mind that holds Swedish contains less stuff, but also feels like less effort to access.

Mark Lippmann once described “the felt meaning” as “the place your mind goes to when looking for words”. My Swedish place feels closer to where I am, and easier to go to, than my English place – even if the Swedish place is smaller and has more cobwebs around things, and once there, I may need to rummage around to find where the heck I put that one word again.

That sense of closeness also translates to increased emotional closeness when talking with someone in Swedish. Both Finnish- and Swedish-speakers feel like “my people” in some sense. With English, it always feels like there’s some amount of a chasm between us. We can communicate, and we can definitely connect in quite a few ways, but it’s always shouting over a chasm – even if its presence is sometimes easy to forget.

2 comments

  1. Israel Ramirez

    I grew up in a Spanish speaking household in the USA. My Spanish is now minimal but everything seems more authentic and has more feeling when said in that language. It took my English speaking wife many years to understand that if I responded in Spanish she should understand my response as more authentic and certain.
    So, my experience is a bit like yours.

  2. I’ve been wondering about that too. Most obvious example are swear words. In English, they don’t affect very much, even if it’s really crass humor that shocks native speakers. In your native language you’re generally much more squeamish.

    There’s a lot of literature on this:

    https://scholar.google.com/scholar?cites=17460185964534006954&as_sdt=2005&sciodt=0,5&hl=en

    In particular this paper:
    https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0963721414566268

    but the title overpromises.

    It also affects your moral judgment and choices:
    https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0079612319300238

    There seems to be some mild consensus that you’re more rational/cognitive/deliberate in the foreign language-which subjectively resonates.

    But then the drawback might be that one is less emotional – and living your private life in a non-native context might dampen the emotional experience of it (e.g. poetry might not be as meaningful).

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