Switching from Russian to Chinese.

A piquant description of a situation familiar to anyone who has studied various languages and has to toggle from one to the other, from The Amur River: Between Russia and China, by Colin Thubron (Harper, 2021), courtesy of Joel at Far Outliers:

Next morning, the day before I cross to China, I lock myself in my hotel room and prepare to ease into the language that I learnt poorly more than thirty years ago, and have rarely spoken since. My Mandarin notes and textbooks, squashed into my rucksack, spill out like ancient scripts, still covered in my tutor’s red biro, and stained with the rings of coffee cups. Beyond my window, through an opening in the shoreline flat-blocks, a section of the Amur gleams, with Heihe lying beyond under a clouded sky. A Russian patrol boat is crossing the gap.

The only sounds in the room are my own. I return to my makeshift table. It’s a relief to leave behind the complexities of Russian grammar, the dual aspects of verbs, the exacting cases of nouns, the sheer length of words. Chinese, which lacks verbal tenses, genders, even the singular and plural, seems suddenly, radiantly simple. I shift my table to the light of the window and the glint of the Amur, and my exhilaration rises. The vocabulary flows back. Sometimes I have the illusion that I am not remembering, but learning anew. I anticipate the stark thrust of Mandarin replacing Russian wholesale. A change of language feels like a change of person. Sounds and structures dictate emotion. New concepts emerge, while others die. I have the illusion that I become more aggressive in Mandarin, and that my voice descends an octave. Perhaps I will need this. I have no idea what dialects may be coming my way. Yet for a long time I hear Mandarin returning, and imagine all will be well.

But as the hours go on, this happy remembrance stiffens. The unfamiliar structures start to weigh on me. There are words I have clean forgotten. Perhaps it is all too long ago. The blessed existence of Western borrowings (in Russian there are many) is all but absent. Mandarin is a tonal tongue – its words change meaning with their pitch – and the language turns, in my memory, to an echo of discordant gongs. I remember finding it easier to speak than to understand: the reverse of what I wish. Suddenly I miss the pliant beauty of Russian.

By evening a self-induced dementia has set in. When I go down to the hotel restaurant I mistakenly ask for the lavatory in Mandarin, then order a meal in Russian and chat to the bewildered waitress in a deranged mixture of both. Often my poor grasp of either leaves me suspended in mid-speech. I have no idea what is going to come out of my mouth.

Joel recounts his own similar experience involving Romanian and Chinese; I have had it happen with French and Spanish.


  1. Once back when I was a Mormon missionary, I was out contacting on the streets of le Mans, when I ran into an Austrian who naturally spoke German.

    I don’t remember what he talked about – only how completely stuck I was on my end trying to get German, let alone English, to come out. Never mind my year as an exchange student in West Germany, nor my later Praktikum in Munich, French was doing an insanely effective job of blocking my German. I remember lying in my bed that night, despairing that my near fluent German would never return.

    Now several languages later, I’ve grown to expect the wrong languages to bubble up at the wrong times, not only in my foreign languages, but in my native English too.

    After a year of nugatory efforts in Croatian, I find my Italian and Spanish in tatters – and they were always unhappy bedfellows anyway, always getting in each other’s way. So, I’ll probably kickstart Spanish next for practical reasons, backburner my Italian, and move on to some other language – maybe Czech – just for fun.

  2. Stu Clayton says

    But as the hours go on, this happy remembrance stiffens. The unfamiliar structures start to weigh on me.

    This is a phenomenon experienced by male highschoolers. So embarrassing in class.

    The best way I have found to get a grip on these switch slips is aim for clean breaks. That means sticking to each language for as long as possible, whether reading or speaking. In other words, self-disciplne helps. Even Madonna must practice.

    Edit: Feel free to replace the singer’s name by a more up-to-date one. There are singers called “Taylor Swift”, “Brad Pitt” and “Adele”, but I know nothing about their music, nor whether they practice much. At any rate they are not reported as wearing conical titprops on stage, so that’s one count against them.

  3. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    This problem is much more obvious with some people than others. My Spanish and French are nowhere near as fluent as my wife’s English and French, but I am never confused about which one I’m trying to speak, but she does all the time. The first time we were in Italy together I was impressed with the ease with which she could communicate with random Italians: she would ask directions in Spanish and they would reply in Italian, and mutual comprehension was virtually complete. After years of living in France she can no longer do that, because French is the language for speaking to people you don’t know. Even in Spain and Chile she has been known to address waiters and hotel employees in French. Our daughter, who is effortlessly trilingual, is never confused.

  4. David Marjanović says

    I’ve had French and English block each other, as well as Russian and Chinese.

    A change of language feels like a change of person.

    That seems to be a neurotypical thing. It’s often been reported, but I lack it entirely as far as I’ve noticed.

    my voice descends an octave

    That, on the other hand, may well be real simply because languages come with “cultures of speaking” that include different pitch ranges.

    Particularly noticeable is the NativLang guy on YouTube who makes great videos about historical linguistics and can pronounce just about anything – but everything that isn’t English he pronounces with a Japanese voice, i.e. a lot deeper than his English voice (and by default Tokyo intonation, I think). Japanese is his first foreign language.

  5. John Cowan says

    turns to an echo of discordant gongs

    This is a resonant phrase, but not very coherent. Gongs that aren’t concordant aren’t gongs at all, just metal plates that go thud when you hit them.

  6. Stu Clayton says

    # A gong [note 1] is an percussion instrument originating in East and Southeast Asian. Gongs are a flat, circular metal disc that is typically struck with a mallet. They can be small or large in size, and tuned or untuned.

    Gongs produce two distinct types of sound. A gong with a substantially flat surface vibrates in multiple modes, giving a “crash” rather than a tuned note. This category of gong is sometimes called a tam-tam to distinguish it from the bossed gongs that give a tuned note. In Indonesian gamelan ensembles, some bossed gongs are deliberately made to generate in addition a beat note in the range from about 1 to 5 Hz. The use of the term “gong” for both these types of instrument is common. #

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    It’s not quite the same as when you are *deliberately* trying to shift from L2 A to L2B and/or back again, but when my mother first tried to learn Japanese as an adult she found all sorts of forgotten vocabulary from her high school French classes bubbling back unbidden to the surface and to some extent impeding her ability to memorize whatever new Japanese vocabulary was in that week’s lesson. And I take it that that’s a pretty common experience.

  8. I had a somewhat similar experience when I travelled to Poland for the first time. I was generally able to speak Polish, but every now and then my memory threw up Dutch words instead of Polish ones.
    I also had and still have interferences from Russian, but that’s less strange, as both languages are close.

  9. David Marjanović says

    And I take it that that’s a pretty common experience.

    Huh. I only get those languages blocking each other’s retrieval that I started to learn around the same time.

    Polish : Russian :: Spanish : Italian. If you hear them, you can immediately tell which is which. And yet, and yet.

  10. Even Madonna must practice.

    Edit: Feel free to replace the singer’s name by a more up-to-date one.

    And up to that point I was mulling whether it was a typo for Maradona.

  11. Maradona doesn’t need to practice any more.

  12. Sad, but true. But I took it in a spirit of timeless present. “If a mountain doesn’t go to Mohammed, Mohammed goes to the mountain”.

  13. but I know nothing about their music

    Most Popular Song Each Month since January 2010

    This might be useful.

    For nostalgic purposes there is also

    Most Popular Song Each Month in the 60s

  14. The last sentence is, indeed, a surprise to me. I know tam-tams well enough, but would no more think of them as gongs than I would think of drums so, despite the mere physical resemblance.

  15. Even Madonna must practice.

    Edit: Feel free to replace the singer’s name by a more up-to-date one.

    I’m afraid for me, ‘Madonna’ goes with ‘child’ — presumably not who you mean/I’m not as up-to-date as you. I’m thinking less up-to-date: Ella Fitzgerald or Maria Callas, Janet Baker.

  16. Stu Clayton says

    I know tam-tams well enough, but would no more think of them as gongs than I would think of drums so…

    Reportedly they’re called chau gong in China. Gong Basics – Comparing 18″ and 26″ Chau Gongs.

    Here is a chau gong on offer under the section “Dream Cymbals” at the Custom Drum Shop.

    GT translates chau gong as “tribute”. There must be a connection with this from the WiPe: “Traditionally, chau gongs were used to clear the way for important officials and processions, much like a police siren today.”

  17. When I was taking Russian via Skype, some part of my brain kept insisting on using Japanese word order. Strangely enough, this never happened with a live teacher.

  18. William Boyd says

    One of my best friends from university days and beyond was already quite adept at French (the whole 9 yards) when he and I first met in a mid-level undergrad Spanish course. Where I on occasion struggled with what native speakers of Spanish wished to convey, Charlie rarely if ever failed to comprehend. By contrast, when conversing in Spanish, somewhat often his Spanish came out more “frenchy” (e.g., “question” instead of “pregunta”)–admittedly a minor fault.

    Decades after university life, after earning a couple of teaching degrees, Charlie was teaching a range of subjects in both of his S2s at a multi-language secondary school in Columbus, Ohio. I still admire how he put his language skills to use as he endeavored to cultivate the same in his students.

  19. Most Popular Song Each Month since January 2010
    I wasn’t surprised that I knew more of the 60s stuff than of the 2010s songs – after all, even though some of the 60s songs were made before I was born, that was the music I grew up with. More interesting (to me, at least) that the percentage of 2010s songs I recognized fell off a cliff after 2015. There are reasons for that as well; our daughter moved out to university in 2016, and her taste moved on to indy rock. That just showed me how much my knowledge of current pop music was mediated through her.

  20. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Next morning, the day before I cross to China, I lock myself in my hotel room and prepare to ease into the language that I learnt poorly more than thirty years ago, and have rarely spoken since.

    I’m reminded of the time my wife and I were invited to dinner by an older colleague who had retired. He hated going anywhere other than in his own car, which he loved to drive. He never took a plane or even a train if he could avoid it. He had driven with his wife (who was Russian by origin) from Paris to Peking. I don’t know whether they crossed from Russia to China at the same place as Thubron, but quite possibly they did. However, his wife, who was fairly contemptuous of the work ethic in her former country, was particularly contemptuous of the border region. She said that on the Russian side there was nothing, no fields, no agriculture, no evidence of human activity, but as soon as they got into China there were fields everywhere and no usable land wasted anywhere.

  21. I had a friend who learned languages as a kind of hobby. Her ideal holiday was something like going off to spend a few weeks in Prague to learn some Czech. She spoke about five languages fluently and a number of others at a learner level.

    She told me that the way that she got into a particular language was to imitate the body language of native speakers. The very first thing, before grammar or vocabulary.

  22. Body language is an under-emphazised part of language study.

    In my mind, my native language and my foreign languages are somewhat separate. For most of my life, my languages have been sorted in order of skill, so my brain would reach for a foreign language I knew better when not finding the word in the language I’m really looking for. Nowadays, there is some chaos and I have more experiences like the examples from the border crossing. The good thing is that I’ve become better at code switching with time, and I can now speak several languages in the same sentence, including both my native language and foreign languages.

    When going to a foreign country, it takes some time to reset the local language. It can take up to a couple of weeks to get it right and stop the wobbling. Not like setting a new language on your computer or mobile phone!

  23. I used to experience my Russian blocking my German all the time. But living in Vienna, where I use both fairly often it has become much easier to switch between them. Like any skill, Übung macht den мастер.

  24. David Marjanović says


  25. @DM:

    [A change of language feeling like a change of person] seems to be a neurotypical thing. It’s often been reported, but I lack it entirely as far as I’ve noticed.

    I’m autistic and I experience this.

    (I have no idea how would one control for ‘feeling like a different person’ vs ‘feeling that the availability of different set of communicative resources radically changes how one can make one’s personhood intelligible to others’, though.)

  26. David Marjanović says

    That’s different – you don’t seem to feel that your actual underlying personality changes, only how it comes across to other people.

  27. There’s a complicated feedback loop there between “how you come across to others”, “how that perception makes you feel” and “how your feelings affect your disposition”, though. And a personality is just a probability distribution over dispositions as far as I’m concerned.

  28. I experienced this a couple of years ago in Choibalsan. I met a German who was married to a Mongolian. Thought I would speak to him in German, I did. Despite my level being quite wretched, Mongolian was the language I was currently learning, so everything came out as…. Mongolian. Very frustrating and humiliating.

  29. Lars Mathiesen says

    On the rare occasions when I fall to contemplating the making of a complaint, I find myself preparing little speeches in Swedish. Even if the complainee is Danish. I might make a point about the respective cultures, but it would also come out in Swedish so I won’t. Life is better without complaint.

  30. It has happened to me with Swedish and French. It is a bizarre experience to remember a word then not be able to figure out whether it’s a Swedish or a French one. The two languages of course sound and feel very different, but when a word swims up into my consciousness it might be subtly gallicised or swedicised on the way. And of course Swedish has a multitude of French loan words, like paraply from parapluie.

  31. Swedish has a multitude of French loan words

    And the occasional word from the (roughly) opposite direction: våg -> vague.

  32. For those who know Russian, a 26-minute interview with Sana Valiulina, in part about how she grew up in Tallinn in a Tatar family and spoke only Tatar and Estonian till she was six, when she started learning Russian from Pushkin’s fairy tales; she studied Norwegian language and literature in Moscow and moved to Amsterdam in 1989, and now writes mainly in Dutch. I can’t imagine what her mental linguistic landscape is like! (She says she loves Estonian and enjoys speaking it but has never tried writing in it.)

  33. Neal Ascherson reviews Thubron’s book for the NYRB (I don’t know why they’re only getting around to it in late 2022). A Hattic passage:

    The Chinese counteroffensive ended in the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk, then a stockaded river fort, where the ambassadors of Peter the Great and the emperor Kangxi met in competitive magnificence. Neither side spoke the other’s language, “so the negotiations were conducted in Latin by two Jesuits attached to the Chinese court, and by an erudite Pole for the Russians.”

    And a couple of striking paragraphs about Thubron’s experience:

    It was a journey he was lucky to complete. Thubron is today Britain’s most accomplished and admired travel writer. He is also brave. He was in his eightieth year when he met his escorts for the first lap: a thoughtful Buryat from Ulan Bator, the Mongolian capital, and two weather-beaten Mongol herders. They saddled up and set off, the horses stumbling in the treacherous marshland, and almost at once things went wrong. Thubron twisted his ankle and then, days later, lost his balance and fell heavily on his side. Next his horse bolted, unseating him and dragging him by one leg: providentially he was wearing a sodden old sneaker that flew off and released him. At seventy-nine, such injuries are no joke. He broke an ankle bone and two ribs and suffered sometimes agonizing pain for the rest of his journey. But after some hesitation, he decided not to turn back. This was the nadir of his expedition: “I knew I was weakening…. Sometimes I caught the horsemen looking at me and I thought I could read their minds: How long can he last?

    At Sretensk, which used to be the port where land travelers coming from the west transferred to a fleet of river steamers, Thubron meets serious trouble. He is still in grim pain, hardly able to walk, and has been waiting for a boat for five days when the police pull him in. Who do you know here? Why are you here anyway? You have misused your visa. Arrest and expulsion threaten. But then, after many hours and telephone calls to the provincial capital, an inexplicable smile breaks out on the face of his “Medusa” lady interrogator, and he is released. A boat eventually arrives and carries him downstream.

  34. If they hadn’t chanced on Latin, what other language would have been a plausible bridge? Because Russia’s eastern expansion was so fast and had been so recent, the obvious later Russian–East Asian bilinguals wouldn’t be available. Likewise Qing China did not reach as far west as today. Maybe Arabic?

  35. Persian or a Turkic language might have been feasible.

  36. John Cowan says

    Rereading this page makes my relieved for my monolinguality. At least I never mistakenly speak English instead of English.

  37. How would you know?

  38. David Eddyshaw says

    Indeed: I have often noticed you inadvertently lapsing into English, JC.

  39. Neither side spoke the other’s language, “so the negotiations were conducted in Latin by two Jesuits attached to the Chinese court, and by an erudite Pole for the Russians.”

    Just ran across a remarkable parallel:

    In Manila, skirting angry Filipino crowds, the entourage motored to an apartment building that, unlike City Hall, had survived the liberation relatively intact. The Japanese received a pointed message from the conqueror: they were not present to negotiate. Their purpose was simply to learn the specifics as to the terms of surrender and protocol of the impending ceremony. Keeping himself remote from the discussion as befitted a budding emperor, MacArthur allowed his intelligence chief, Major General Charles Willoughby, to conduct much of the meeting. Willoughby asked Lieutenant General Kawabe, vice chief of the Imperial Army, what language they should speak, to which the multi-lingual general replied, “German.” That suited Willoughby – he had emigrated from Germany as a child in 1910.

  40. Per Wikipedia:

    Charles Andrew Willoughby (March 8, 1892 — October 25, 1972) was a major general in the U. S. Army, serving as General Douglas MacArthur’s chief of intelligence during most of World War II and the Korean War.

    Willoughby is often quoted as being born March 8, 1892, in Heidelberg, Germany, as Adolph Karl Weidenbach, the son of Baron T. Tscheppe-Weidenbach and wife Emma Willoughby Tscheppe-Weidenbach of Baltimore, Maryland. This was disputed by Frank Kluckhohn of The Reporter (New York Journal) in 1952, and there remains uncertainty as to both his birth name and lineage.

    It is certain, however, that Willoughby emigrated from Germany to the US in 1910, and in October 1910 he enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he served with the 5th Infantry, initially as a private, later rising to the rank of sergeant. He was honorably discharged from the army in 1913.

  41. David Eddyshaw says

    “Willoughby” is really trying much too hard.

    He seems, like many a spy, to have been a major-league fantasist and self-reinventer.
    Also altogether a nasty piece of work, politically and professionally. And responsible for the amnesty for the unthinkably evil men behind Unit 731.

    What a shit.

  42. jack morava says

    what DE just said

  43. He received the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus from Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Italian government. In the 1920s Willoughby was an admirer of Spanish General and future dictator Francisco Franco, calling him the “second greatest general in the world”. He met him in Morocco and then delivered a speech to him at a lunch in Madrid. He was toasted by the Secretary General of the Falangist Party.[…]

    MacArthur affectionately referred to him as “my pet fascist.” Willoughby’s “vitriolic, paranoid, and frequently fantastic” notes included antisemitic insults towards Beate Sirota Gordon, who helped write the Constitution of Japan.

    What a charmer.

  44. David Marjanović says

    I’ll just express some doubt about the existence of an Adolph with ph in Germany. Though there is at least one Ralph in this country, so who knows.

  45. Dmitry Pruss says

    Master of reinvention. Passport application (when he was being transferred from Puerto Rico to Caracas as a military attaché) says, born in Heidelberg, Germany. But no certificate of naturalization is attached, as it would have been required. Instead there is a statement from Attorney General’s Office of War Dept. shedding no light on his origins or citizenship. And no naturalization paperwork can be found in the regular databases. Lots of records actually claim that he was born in Pennsylvania

  46. Fascists are good at reinvention; they’ve had a lot of practice by now.

  47. Кассационный военный суд, который находится в Новосибирске, отказал в реабилитации осужденному за госизмену солдату Великой Отечественной войны Сандару Валиулину. Его истории посвящен документальный фильм и роман, изданный на нескольких языках. Как сообщает «Новая Сибирь», дело рассматривалось в закрытом судебном заседании. – Дело рассматривалось по существу в закрытом заседании. В суде прозвучал доклад судьи, выступление заявителя, мнение прокурора, поддержавшего заключение военного прокурора Центрального военного округа, – сообщили в суде. Об истории Валиулина стало известно благодаря роману, который написала его дочь, а также вышедшему в последствии документальному фильму. Мужчина родился в 1922 году в Москве, а в 1941 был призван в ряды Красной армии. В 1943 году попал в немецкий плен и был завербован, но дезертировал и сдался в плен к американцам. Там он работал переводчиком. В 1945 году Сандар Валиулин вернулся в СССР и был осужден за госизмену на 10 лет с поражением в правах на 5 лет. В 1955 году бывший военнослужащий освободился и женился на девушке, с которой переписывался 9 лет. Позже семья переехала в Таллин.


  48. В 1945 году Сандар Валиулин вернулся в СССР

    My question is, did he go back to the USSR of his own free will or was he one of the many forcibly repatriated?

  49. Christopher Culver says

    The Willoughby case reminds me of another German who reinvented himself as an American, with some linguistic interest to the story: Eric Hoffer the mid-twentieth-century public intellectual. Quite a rabbit hole: no evidence that he set foot in the USA until he was in his thirties, when he took up a series of menial jobs, and he spoke with a German accent all his life. Yet his prose reads like the work of a native speaker. Did he secretly have some posh background like Nabokov that got him English in childhood? Did he simply read vastly and have a natural gift like Conrad? Or did he have native English speakers who could polish his imperfect prose like supposedly Jerzy Kosiński did?

  50. My question is, did he go back to the USSR of his own free will or was he one of the many forcibly repatriated?

    There is no question, they dreamed of staying in the West and even kicked the Soviet representative out of their camp, but their fate was pre-determined in Yalta

  51. J.W. Brewer says

    The wikipedia profile of General Willoughby fails to mention his alleged significant role in various iterations of the alleged conspiracy or conspiracies to kill President Kennedy, but apparently his name is often included in the dramatis personae for such narratives.

  52. “I’ll just express some doubt about the existence of an Adolph with ph in Germany.”

    At least 942 males bearing the given name Adolphs have been buried in Germany (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/search?firstname=Adolph&middlename=&lastname=&birthyear=&birthyearfilter=&deathyear=&deathyearfilter=&location=Germany&locationId=country_8&memorialid=&mcid=&linkedToName=&datefilter=&orderby=r&plot=).

    Even if we allow for the possibility that a certain number were born elsewhere, it is hard to believe that the number would be so low that we could call Adolph a rare given name in Germany.

    For the given name Ralph, the number in Find a Grave is 368 (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/search?firstname=Ralph&middlename=&lastname=&birthyear=&birthyearfilter=&deathyear=&deathyearfilter=&location=Germany&locationId=country_8&memorialid=&mcid=&linkedToName=&datefilter=&orderby=r&plot=).

    Bear in mind that Find a Grave lists far fewer than all the people born in Germany, however defined.

  53. J.W. Brewer says

    Consider, z.B., this German wiki-article that begins by naming its beatified subject as “Adolph Kolping, auch Adolf Kolping.” https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adolph_Kolping Separately, I imagine copy-editing practices as of a century ago were such that it might easily have happened for a German fellow usually referred to as “Adolf” in German-language sources to be referred to as “Adolph” in English-language sources without any need felt to add an asterisk or footnote noting the emendation.

  54. David Marjanović says

    Even if we allow for the possibility that a certain number were born elsewhere, it is hard to believe that the number would be so low that we could call Adolph a rare given name in Germany.

    Judging from that site, it was not unheard of in the mid-19th century, but very rare thereafter.

    “Adolph Kolping, auch Adolf Kolping.”

    That may indicate that the form with ph is so rare most people simply assume the form with f.

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