A computer’s operating system is the interface between the hardware and the user. When you type on the keyboard or click the mouse, the operating system sends the appropriate commands to the computer hardware. The operating system, or OS, is what makes it possible to operate and interact with a computer.
Most of us use one operating system. Windows and Mac OS are the two most common ones. There other operating systems out there, too. Unix is the OS that most internet servers run on. Whichever OS you use, most of us only need one.
Some people need to work with multiple operating systems. Website developers, for example, need to test their websites on every popular OS to make sure that it works correctly everywhere. Those people have two choices: either they have a different computer for every OS that they use, or they can use something called a virtual computer.
Virtual computers allow you to run multiple operating systems on the same computer hardware, at the same time. For example, I use a Mac at home, but sometimes I need to use Windows. There is a program called Parallels that allows me to run Windows inside Mac OS. It works very well. I boot up my computer, then run Parallels, which is a computer program. Parallels then boots up Windows inside Mac OS. I can actually run Windows and Mac OS at the same time. It’s very convenient.
However, convenience has a price. An operating system is a complicated program. It uses the computer’s CPU and memory. If you have two operating systems running at the same, time, the computer’s hardware has to work extra hard. The common experience of virtual computers is that it is slow. It works, but it works slower than if you were only running one operating system.
What does this have to do with my brain? Well, it feels like I’m running a virtual language system in my brain. I’m currently in the process of learning Vietnamese. I’m not good enough yet to operate in Vietnamese naturally. It feels like Vietnamese is a separate operating system in my brain, running parallel to English. Whenever I have to work in Vietnamese, my brain has to allocate system resources (brain cells) that I was already using to do things like breathe, or walk and chew gum at the same time. The result is that my brain works slower in Vietnamese than in English.
Usually, when someone asks me a question, I can respond very quickly. A conversation with me in English might go something like this:
You: How are you?
Me: I’m great. I had a delicious breakfast, and I’m ready to get to work.
You: Good to hear. What would you like to do?
Me: I was thinking about tackling that project we didn’t quite finish last week.
In contrast, the same conversation in Vietnamese might go something like this:
You: How are you?
You: I said how are you?
Me: … good. thanks. …
You: Uh, OK. So what do you want to do now?
You: I said what do you want to do now?
Me: … uh … uh … continue work?
I would not want to have a conversation with my Vietnamese brain. Too painful. I don’t know how my teachers can stand me. They have the patience of Job. They need it.
Eventually, through a process called automaticity, I will get faster. I won’t need to consciously devote as much cognitive resources to using the language. There is only one way to achieve that: practice.It isn’t something that you can cram for at the last minute. It takes constant work. You have to build up the ability to use the language without thinking about it. It’s boring and it’s hard and it hurts. But it’s the only way to get there.