Anglicisms and brain rewiring: « J’ai confronté ma mère dans la cuisine »

At first glance, the French quote in the title might sound acceptable to a French student studying English, yet it is not. While the words “week-end” and “management” have now been fully integrated into French, some verbs are still up for discussion. “Réaliser” in French, as in “prendre conscience de”, has borrowed its meaning from the English notion “to realize”; and even though it appears in the dictionary1, some French speakers still won’t accept it as being fully French. Some syntactic structures, however, the ones we call anglicisms, do not seem to be so acceptable.
As students of English, or early English scholars, I dare say, we are constantly in the presence of our language of choice. At university, where most of our classes are either taught in English, or about English media. In our personal lives, when we watch movies or videos on YouTube, read books in English… Due to its omnipresence, our subject is not only work-related, it is everywhere and contributes to our proficiency, and also, if we look even further, to the way our brains work.
In 1978, Albert & Obler2 studied the implications of bilingualism and defined two categories: on the one hand, balanced bilinguals, who “have acquired both languages from birth in a natural “‘one parent—one language’ setting”; and on the other, dominant bilinguals who “have been exposed to two languages consecutively, so that they have a mother tongue and a second language that they have learned later and possibly in a formal setting.” We, as advanced students fluent in English, accordingly fall within the second category. This distinction, however, implies two kinds of bilingual brains: one, balanced, with a single uniform language system, and another, dominant, with two separate systems. A fact which has been proven in a study by Peltoa et al.3 who used modern technology to show that “dominant bilinguals have two separate phonological inventories,” when balanced bilinguals have only one.
The question that should be raised at this point is: Why do we, dominant bilinguals, sometimes produce anglicisms in perfectly French contexts, while talking with French monolingual relatives or friends, when we should only be using the inventory of our mother tongue. Bylalstok et al., in their NIH study (Bylalstok et al., 20124) led experiments to study the problem and have found that this is not how things actually work; because of a phenomenon they coined ‘joint activation’. They state that while “A fluent French-English bilingual ordering coffee in a Parisian café has no reason to consider how to form the request in English. […] fluent bilinguals show some measure of activation of both languages and some interaction between them at all times, even in contexts that are entirely driven by only one of the languages.” In other words, for us, dominant bilinguals, the existence of two systems prompts us to tap into our ‘English brain’ (which takes time, sometimes provoking a slower reaction time when talking) even when the linguistic context does not require it, hence sometimes generating odd English syntactic structures while speaking French to your perfectly-oblivious-to-English mother…

1 Réaliser. (s.d.). Dans Dictionnaire Larousse en ligne. Repéré à http://www.larousse.fr/dictionnaires/francais/r%C3%A9aliser/66830?q=r%C3%A9aliser#66084

2Albert, M. L., & Obler, L. K. (1978). The bilingual brain: Neuropsychological and neurolinguistic aspects of bilingualism. New York: Academic Press.

3Maija S. Peltola, Henna Tamminen, Heidi Toivonen, Teija Kujala, Risto Näätänen “Different
 kinds of bilinguals – Different kinds of brains: The neural organisation of two languages in one brain” Brain and language. Volume 121, Issue 3, June 2012, Pages 261–266

4Ellen Bialystok, Fergus I.M. Craik, Gigi Luk “Bilingualism: Consequences for Mind and Brain” Trends Cogn Sci. 2012 April 16 Consulted at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3322418/


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