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Sunday, July 02, 2006

Bilingual Continous Partial Attention

I notice how much I procrastinate when I have to write something in Portuguese. And when I say procrastinate I mean really procrastinate. That's the same whether it's a short email or a report. I hum and hah and often end up just not doing it, regardless of how important it is. It's worse when I'm deeply involved in a workshop or piece of writing in English. At those times it becomes harder to write in Portuguese, maybe because of the shift in attention I need to make.

I suspect that operating with Continuous Partial Attention is harder to do in two languages because you need yet another piece of partial attention to be able to change gear between languages.

But it's not just about the language otherwise I could write what I wanted to say in English and then translate it (or even pay a translator). I can't write in English to people I have a relationship with in Portuguese. Not unless that is how our relationship developed. Saying that makes me realise how relational writing is for me, even for writing that on the surface looks quite functional.

As I write this I realise that what I'm saying is not entirely true. There are some people I can write to in Portuguese without a split second hesitation. I wonder why that should be? There are two people in particular I'm thinking of, one of whom is my orientadora (supervisor) with whom I have never had a conversation in English, who I write e-mails to in Portuguese, and who reads all my stuff in English. I have a similar linguistic relationship with the other person. If I think about it, what they both have in common is that they take it for granted that we speak Portuguese and that the sense-making is a joint enterprise between the two of us. I think they are good listeners and sense-makers.

But there must be more to it than that and now I'm curious. What is it that makes some people easier to talk or write to in Portuguese than others? And what is going on as we pay Continuous Partial Attention to things in more than one language? What do we need to be able to do in order to do it better?

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