Assault and Butchery (linguistic interference)

I would imagine that a native Japanese speaker may cringe upon conversing with a Japanese-American.  Portuguese nationals may be appalled by Brazilian Portuguese.  There has been much jesting on the part of Britons that Americans have corrupted English.

Have you ever heard of linguistic (or language) interference?  Honestly, I never heard the term until July 2011.  What is it?  Why is it problematic?  Do you care?  Should you?

Linguistic interference has been described as the habitual transfer of first language (mother tongue) grammar onto the second language (target).  People who understand the grammar of the second language still struggle initially with its syntax.

The first three years of my life, I had a Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican child caregiver.  When we moved, my new caregiver only spoke English.  After I finished my 3rd year of Spanish, I went to Puerto Rico with my great-grandmother for six weeks.  Nevertheless, throughout my teenage and early adult years, language transfer affected me.  When someone asked me a question, at lightning speed I would translate the question into English, formulate a response in English, then I would translate that response into Spanish.

Some time ago, I interpreted a trial in a lower court.  It was small, and only the jury remained in the courtroom to deliberate.  Almost everyone sat in the lobby, awaiting the decision of the jury.  While waiting, I overheard two Spanish-speaking individuals.  During their dialog, one of them, obviously well-educated, mentioned the charge of assault and battery.  To my chagrin, the person called it asalto y batería.  My ears felt pressurized to explode.  When I attended the South Carolina Court Interpreter Certification Orientation in 2010, the instructor reiterated the necessity of avoiding false cognates.  False cognates are words which sound similar in both the source and target languages, but have different meaning.  She stated in no uncertain terms that assault and battery was NOT asalto y batería.  After my initial horror, I found humor in the expression.  Many people emigrate daily; some never learn the new tongue.  However, these same people learn new words and actually forget the correct term in the native tongue.  Perhaps those were words that never factored in their daily vernacular.

I dare anyone to roam the streets of the five boroughs of New York City and ask at least 100 Latinos of various ancestries how to say closet in Spanish.  In junior high school, Ms. Mulé taught the students that it was ropero or guardaropa.  During a visit with my grandmothers (both of whom at the time had spent a little more than half their life in NYC and preferred speaking Spanish whenever possible), I asked them for the Spanish word for closet.  Stumped, they stared at each other and pronounced “closet.” I was dumbfounded.  These two women couldn’t name the closet in their native language; linguistic interference at its apex.


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