Following on from BBC World Service's The Forum, where I have picked up a number of points listeners make on the programme's Facebook site, this thought occurs to me, triggered by something a bilingual listener said about the emptying out effect of repetition. (You repeat a word until it loses meaning, then, according my devised exercise, you use the word in ten different sentences to fill the word up with meaning again.) She tried it and thought it was quite an intense experience. My reply to the bilingual listener:
I think speaking more than one language brings that experience home. I speak English and Hungarian There is, I think, a transition moment in switching from one language to another before one language stops and the other starts. It takes a split second for the second language to fill up with meaning, the way a programme on the computer fills - but much faster than that. There must be a momentary between-languages condition.
When we came to England my parents wanted to speak as much English as possible, even though only one of them spoke English, and even then not altogether correctly. It was a kind of shock therapy supported by special English Language classes at primary school or before I started. I quickly learned English and equally quickly forgot Hungarian.
But what happened between the learning and forgetting is a mystery to me. I have no memory of it at all, and have sometimes thought it might be because there was no stable language in which to register the experience.
I wonder whether others find there is the same curious split-second vacuum when switching languages, a moment when meaning goes out of the window and there you are in outer space drifting away from the mother ship before somehow, you are yanked back in again?
I must see whether Pinker has anything to say about this. Or maybe Chomsky?