Changing the chip

There is a very popular expression these days in Spain; you hear it everywhere:



It literally means “To change the chip”. Metaphorically it refers to a computer chip in the brain.

I occasionally meet up with a group of locals here in Spain who are learning English. They enjoy the opportunity to practice their speaking and listening skills with each other and with this native speaker (!). It is a very informal affair – we just meet in a bar and talk away.

On Friday night I was chatting to one guy, in English of course, and then I turned to ask for a drink at the bar. Instinctively I began to ask for that drink in English, and when I realised my error I had to make the conscious decision to switch into Spanish mode. In other words, I had to ‘cambiar el chip’.

This is a most interesting expression as, for me, it says a lot about language acquisition.

The situation I found myself in at the bar reminded me of how often Spaniards are impressed by the ability of my two kids to switch instantly from Spanish to English, absolutely automatically, with no thought process between the two. Now that’s what I call being bilingual!

It also reminded me of the similarity between humans and computers…

What happens when you watch a TV program? If you like that program you become absorbed in its content. In other words, what it outputs is inputted into you. You are literally ‘programed’, in the same way a computer is when a program is inserted into it.

Is there any difference between this form of programing and that which takes place in language learning? If I don’t have the information store (vocabulary, memory, grammar knowledge perhaps) then I am unable to output – speak – a foreign language. But if that information comes my way – through language lessons, travel to the country, practice with native speakers – sure enough I can express it.

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