When does a language go on autopilot?

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Re: When does a language go on autopilot?

Postby tungemål » Tue Mar 23, 2021 10:19 am

I'd say from around B2.
I think autopilot means that you can read books easily, even if you look up words. You don't "study" grammar, but might look up something you're unsure of when you have to write something. The languages I've got on that level would be Norwegian, English and probably German.

Norwegian: I almost never hear words I don't know - but it does happen. Actually last month I looked up one word I was unfamiliar with - it was nidbilde. Sometimes I look up grammar - something that's impossible for me to remember is the difference between lenger and lengre.

English: I seldom encounter words I don't know, but it definitely happens when reading books. I usually look them up in that case. Since I've been using English for more than 30 years I'd say it takes a long time before you are "finished". Then again, I haven't really studied English after I left school - I've only used it (autopilot).

German: I encounter unknown words, but I understand the meaning from context. When writing German I usually look up grammar to (try to) get it right. Still, since I can comfortably read and listen to German I consider it autopilot.
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Re: When does a language go on autopilot?

Postby jeff_lindqvist » Tue Mar 23, 2021 4:51 pm

What tungemål said. Our similar language background makes English a good example of autopilot. For me, it has been a combination of solid foundation, exposure and interest. Whether B2 is the level, I'm not sure. In another recent thread I wrote a post about how long it took before I felt comfortable using it - actively. That's different. I still think that there was some degree of autopilot, but on a passive level.
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Re: When does a language go on autopilot?

Postby Iversen » Tue Mar 23, 2021 5:57 pm

I have previously written that being able to think in a language is the nearest thing to the notion of being on autopilote I could think of.

Now I have thought some more and have come up with more precise definition: a language has gone on autopilote when you start thinking in it without explicitely asking your brain to do so. In my case I could experience this with Danish and English, but also half a dozen other languages if I am on holiday in a suitable location and have been bombarded with the local language all day long - however it would normally not happen when I'm at home. Here I have to ask politely: please brain, speak French (or Italian or German or whatever) to me... and then it does so without too much fuzz. With Slavic languages or Greek or Latin I almost have to beg, and then it only follows my wish until the next distraction comes along.
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Re: When does a language go on autopilot?

Postby kanewai » Tue Mar 23, 2021 9:17 pm

I've always thought of it in terms of, when does a language become sustainable? Meaning, when can I read (or speak, or listen) without trying too hard, or having to continue to study. And also, when can I take a break and not have everything deteriorate rapidly?
It's not the best term, and "autopilot" actually captures things better.

If I had to match it with a level, I'd guess it would be somewhere in the B1 to B2 range.
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Re: When does a language go on autopilot?

Postby Lisa » Wed Mar 24, 2021 12:12 am

My B1/B2-ish Spanish reading kept going with no attention and little deterioration for close to a year, but then the slow progress on German got to a stage where I could read normally, and I started worked on grammar and getting more engaged; and rather quickly the Spanish deteriorated. So there also might be the additional factor of depending on what else you are doing.

I have to learn a new word in English every so often, but I don't consider that maintenance. E.g. to understand some comments at work, I needed to learn reify and idempotent; but I have to bite my tongue now if tempted to use them. Communication requires that the other person or reader understands what you are saying... seems unkind to use words that almost no one will understand, even if they express perfectly what you want to say.
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Re: When does a language go on autopilot?

Postby EGP » Wed Mar 31, 2021 10:07 pm

Iversen wrote:a language has gone on autopilot when you start thinking in it without explicitely asking your brain to do so.


I find it amazing that there are people whose minds switch without being asked. I wonder how a thought experiment would look to measure such a switch. Problem is that when you think about switching then you have already thought about it.

How about setting an alarm to ring at random points in the day and at that point you get reminded to write down which language you are thinking in?

Although I am bilingual, I would say that I am 100% thinking in English unless I am engaged in using the other language.

Maybe it depends on your thought context?

Say, I think of an X-girlfriend from Macedonia, I think of her name and instantly the synapses fire up that cluster of language... 'Snezana' 'ubava' 'Ohrid'

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As for the term 'autopilot', I relate it negatively to the only time I use it: explaining why I just drove down the wrong street. :lol:

I prefer 'the first time you dream in another language' as being somewhere around the intermediate level. You have been engrossed in it enough that the mind ends up organizing all those thoughts encoded in that language.
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Re: When does a language go on autopilot?

Postby Iversen » Wed Mar 31, 2021 11:15 pm

EGP wrote:I find it amazing that there are people whose minds switch without being asked. I wonder how a thought experiment would look to measure such a switch. Problem is that when you think about switching then you have already thought about it.
How about setting an alarm to ring at random points in the day and at that point you get reminded to write down which language you are thinking in?


II find it quite natural, and I don't need an alarm. I just think about something, and then the thought strikes me that hey, I'm thinking in English and not Danish. Sometimes there is an explanation, sometimes there isn't.

When I write here at Llorg I'm usually writing in English, and then it is of course natural for me to think in English (outside my log, where I try to write in all my languages) - but sometimes while I'm cooking or walking in the streets or whatever I also notice that I have switched to English without noticing. And then I may continue or switch back to Danish - or decide to switch to some other language like French or Portuguese or German (English shouldn't be allowed to have all the fun!). On the other hand I'll be thinking in Danish when I read my daily newspaper or visit my mum.

As for autopilot it is for me a word from the world of airplanes - the precise equivalent would be NOT to think consciously about anything while performing some trivial task, but just let your thoughts wander - and then you suddenly realize that your brain has changed the altitude without asking for permission.
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Re: When does a language go on autopilot?

Postby Elizadoo » Sun Apr 11, 2021 3:22 pm

That's a really good question, and one I might be able to answer, at least in my experience. BTW, I am a newbie,and this is my first post. I am so glad to find a community of others who are like myself!

I'm a native English speaker, learned French in elementary school (1 hour a day), as we lived close the US/Canada border. Those early French lessons and pronunciation have stuck with me.

In high school I took 4 years of Spanish. Came out with.....not much. Fast forward to age 25, I took 2 classes in college. It was reading, only. I finished with a 'meh' level of understanding, like, I could write a simple letter.

4 years ago my husband and I retired, moved to Mexico. Although as a child he attended Spanish school (!) in Key West,Florida, and he has a perfect accent, his grammar and vocab is atrocious. In Mexico he gave up speaking; plus he was 70 and just too tired.

So the burden fell on me to communicate. I had to deal with the maid, the gardener, the pool service guy, the water delivery, etc etc every day, in 100% Spanish. Shopping, banking, government offices, the postal service, doctors...90% in Spanish. Back in my house I spoke English, read, watched TV, in English. Spoke to my expat friends in English. But, that was it. Overall, I would say I was engaged in Spanish 4 hours a day, in one way or another.

While in Mexico I never opened a book to officially study Spanish. I used translation apps on my phone, read notices, bills, signs. I listened, I spoke. I made gazillions of mistakes. But I didn't care. I always prefaced my speech with "sorry, I am learning Spanish, please correct me if I say something wrong." I listened to responses. I learned.

By the end of year 3 I could speak very well. I could switch between lower-class usage (maid, gardener) to higher-class usage with my doctor. I never had to stop and think, unless I needed a certain word. My accent became more nasal (lower-class Mexican=scrunch the upper lip and speak through the nose). I could read a newspaper. I could understand 98% of lyrics being sung on the radio. Ditto for telenovelas, TV soap operas.

We moved back to the USA, in Florida. It is heavily Spanish-speaking here. When I go to the store I hear Mexicans, Guatemalans, Hondurans speaking. I understand what they are saying, I don't have to think/translate in my head. I can reply to them in everyday Spanish--which takes them by complete surprise, as they are not expecting a 60 year-old Caucasian grandmother type to start rattling off 'street Spanish'.

Since June 2020 (hello, coronavirus!) I began studying Chinese, informally. I watch 3-4 hours of C-dramas a day/night. I play around with apps on my cell phone and tablet, I do the equivalent of a worksheet a day, I do characters on a whiteboard. I do not force myself! If I want to study a certain topic that day, I will spend 20, 30 minutes on it. I always, always, pay close attention to the TV shows I watch,l listen (and replay) to hear pronunciation. I watch mouths and mimic. Walk around the house repeating new phrases. For me, it is fun. My husband thinks I am crazy.

To answer your question: I haven't lost much, if any, Spanish. I may have to turn the switch in my head, so to speak, when surrounded by Spanish speakers. It takes a minute or two to get into that mode/go into that room in my brain/become that persona again. But it comes back. Chinese doesn't interfere, it's just another of my personas.

Thanks, everyone, for being here.
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