10 Daily Struggles of Learning a Third Language and Beyond

Posted on 22. Dec, 2014 by in Language Learning

Guest Post by Jakob Gibbons

On my blog Globalect, I share thoughts and stories about language, travel, and the many places where the two intersect. Lately my focus has been on language learning, as I’m working on my third language (Spanish) while getting ready for my upcoming backpacking trip through Latin America. I learned my second language (Dutch) in about two years, which already made my head a confusing place to live, and now as I’m working on rapidly learning language number three, it’s starting to look like an Escher painting in there.

Here are 10 daily struggles I’m going through at the moment that most language learning addicts will frustratedly recognize from their mental I-seriously-can’t-evens with learning a third language (or a fourth, or a tenth…)

1. After getting used to cycling through two different words for the same thing, you suddenly have to search through three or more.

“Could you hand me that… uh… you know… beker? Right there? You know, the, um… beaker? No? The… wait… taza! Oh, no… That thing you drink water out of.”

Suddenly your head is lost in a maze of the English words you use with your friends and family, the words for the same things in a few other languages, and their awkwardly literal and nonsensical translations back into English or cognate almost-the-same-but-no-not-really equivalents (like ‘beaker’ for Dutch beker, which just means ‘cup’). Suddenly simple social interactions are absolutely exhausting.

2. You fill in sentences in one foreign language with words from another (and don’t even realize it).

Sometimes it’s like your brain is a cramped two-bedroom apartment. The master bed is obviously for English (or whatever your first language is), but all the newcomer languages get shoved into the same crowded guest bedroom instead of getting rooms of their own up there. Voulez-vous aller à la Bekleidungsgeschäft? Because French and German are basically the same thing at the end of the day anyways.

3. Prepositions plague your entire existence.

I spent about ten minutes staring at question number 2 on Transparent Language's Spanish Proficiency test, reading it as "Rosa and Miguel from ____ cinema" (Dutch 'van' = 'from') and muttering angrily about how the question just didn’t make any sense.

I spent about ten minutes staring at question number 2 on Transparent Language’s Spanish Proficiency test, reading it as “Rosa and Miguel from ____ cinema” (Dutch ‘van’ = ‘from’) and muttering angrily about how the question just didn’t make any sense.

Prepositions are usually tiny two- and three-letter words, and a lot of them are such basic combinations of letters that they appear in many different languages and mean different things. En means ‘and’ in Dutch but ‘in’ in Spanish. De is ‘the’ in Dutch but ‘of/from’ in Spanish, which is van in Dutch, but that same three-letter word means ‘they go’ in Spanish. Spanish uses contra for English ‘against’, where Dutch uses tegen, but tegen could also mean ‘by/before’ as in ‘by nine o’clock’ (tegen 9 uur) or ‘to’ as in ‘talking to’ (praten tegen), whereas in Spanish you never finish a paper contra las dos or hablar contra un hombre.

Once you’ve got three or more languages all staking their own claims on these mini-words, not only do you start mixing them up between languages, but you suddenly wonder if your English uses of words like ‘to’ and ‘at’ sound right to other native speakers.

4. Your phone’s autocorrect goes absolutely berserk.

Autocorrect attacks in the middle of my Spanglish conversation. My poor phone is as confused as I am.

Autocorrect attacks in the middle of my Spanglish conversation. My poor phone is as confused as I am.

Suddenly every text message is bi- or trilingual without you even meaning it to be, even though it makes zero sense. “That’s so cool, omgeving!” “Have you heard the new señor by Taylor Swift? It’s zo catchy, I cuánto get it out of my head.” Your friends start screening your messages for foreign characters and eventually give up trying altogether.

My phone insists that every time I type ‘btw’ for ‘by the way’, what I really meant was btw-verhoging, or ‘increase on value-added tax’. Each day my cómos and dondes are seizing territory formerly reserved for my comes and donderdags (‘Thursday’), so that no text in any language is complete without at least a cameo from each of the other two.

5. You invent really weird false cognates (that no one understands unless they speak all your languages).

Dutch-speaking Spanish learners (or the other way around) get the gifts of gratis and parasol, but just about any other resemblance between the two languages is a social landmine waiting to be detonated. Dutch duur looks a lot like Spanish duro, but you can imagine some of the odd sentences that would come out of confusing these two words meaning ‘expensive’ and ‘hard’. I’ve asked for a carta at a restaurant in Barcelona (kaart is ‘menu’ in Dutch) when I simply wanted a menú, which was fairly harmless, but you certainly don’t want to fall victim to using the Germanic side of your brain to order a váter (a refreshing glass of toilet) in a restaurant in the Spanish-speaking world.

Somewhere along the way I picked up suceso, which looks a lot like the Dutch interjection succes, meaning ‘good luck’, but as far as wishing Spanish speakers suceso goes, you could just yell “event!” or “incident!” at English-speaking passersby and you’d be saying the same thing.
6. Sometimes you can’t figure out what language you’re reading for a painfully confusing second.

Sometimes, for whatever reason, you’re just expecting Portuguese, and even though that website is in Tagalog, you read the first two lines six times trying to make sense of it in Portuguese before your brain makes the jump.

An advertisement in a Dutch grocery store. In Dutch, it reads, "Mama, that one, that one, that one… please." In English... well, something else.

An advertisement in a Dutch grocery store. In Dutch, it reads, “Mama, that one, that one, that one… please.” In English… well, something else.

7. You use the word order of your second language in a third one.

If you learn a Romance language with lots of inflections, you’re blessed with relatively forgiving word order, but Germanic languages aren’t quite so easy. Verbs in Dutch and German, for example, tend to come at the end of a sentence, and prepositional phrases go in weirdly specific places in the middle, yielding sentences like “Yesterday went I, after my grocery shopping finished was, very quickly to the school my kids up to pick.” This word order sounds as crazy in other languages as it does in English, but sometimes your brain is just like, damn it, I worked so hard to learn how to do this, I’m not stopping now.

Contradicting 'detour' signs in German, a.k.a. constructing sentences in any language in your multilingual brain.

Contradicting ‘detour’ signs in German, a.k.a. constructing sentences in any language in your multilingual brain.

8. Thinking in your second language/talking yourself in your second language when you study a third.

Is there maybe a switch somewhere in your head that just turns the Mother Tongue setting on and off? Maybe there’s just a shelf in your mind labeled ‘not English’ and you store everything else there. Suddenly your strong foreign language declares itself the governor of this new brain territory and you find yourself thinking and muttering to yourself in your second language while studying a third or fourth. “Oh, yyyyyy como se dice ‘bicicleta’ en el alemán? No puedo recordarme…

9. Having a small stroke every time someone asks you how you say something in English.

“What’s this in English?” is the native English-speaking multilingual’s nightmare, because your answer is nearly always either 1) I have no idea, 2) an entire paragraph of English explanation that could have been easily replaced by one perfect synonym that you just can’t think of right now, or, most embarrassingly, 3) that word in every other non-English language you know but, sorry, can’t find the English word right now.

10. Really appreciating your second language.

As you struggle through an inarticulate, almost-interesting conversation in Russian, you can’t stop thinking, UGH NO BUT I COULD TELL YOU THIS SO MUCH BETTER IN ITALIAN. Suddenly your stable second language is a cushy, warm, fluffy home that you can’t wait to run back to and take refuge in whenever you encounter a challenge out here in this big, mean, linguistically confusing world

Entering the Grammar Cave

Posted on 17. Dec, 2014 by in Language Learning

Itchy Feet: A Travel and Language Comic by Malachi Ray Rempen

“Grammar Cave: Curse of the Syntax” should be an Itchy Feet-themed text-based adventure video game, don’t you think? Old timey graphics, midi music…the many sequels, including “Grammar Cave III: The Conjunction Malfunction,” and “Grammar Cave VI: Detective Dative Makes the Case”…

Anyway, what were we talking about?

Right, grammar. While speaking, grammar can be a double-edged sword. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If you don’t pay attention to grammar while speaking and just wing it, you run the risk of being misunderstood, insulting, or just plain incomprehensible. Most native speakers will let grammar mistakes slide if they know you’re learning the language, but secretly it’s chiseling away at their souls every time you do it.

But if you do pay attention to grammar, and it doesn’t yet come naturally to you, you’ll end up stalling your sentences halfway through to check your work or prepare for what you’re about to say, and freeze up like our poor man in the comic above. This is also a fine tool for use in the soul-chiseling of native speakers (“Grammar Cave XII: Soul Chiseler”…I like where this is going).

Alternatively, you could do what I do, which is: don’t think about the grammar until you know you’ve screwed it up. Then, go back and repeat what you’ve said five times until you get it right. That way you kill two birds with one stone: you chisel the souls of your unfortunate listener, and you stall the conversation. There’s nothing that thrills native speakers more than when you stop in the middle of a sentence to query them on conjugations.

Unfortunately for you (and me), that’s just the way the cookie crumbles. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. Practice makes perfect, and so forth. This article brought to you by: “Grammar Cave XXVI: When Idioms Attack”!

How about yourselves? Do you get stuck on grammar, or do you just blow right past it? Do you spend hours boning up with exercises, or do you just learn it over time from context? What’s your favorite “Grammar Cave” video game?

Flipping Your Foreign Language Classroom [Webinar]

Posted on 15. Dec, 2014 by in Company News, Events, Language Learning

At Transparent Language, we don’t just support learners of a foreign language, we support teachers, too!  That’s why we started our Education Webinar series earlier this year. We’ve received so much positive feedback from attendees—and requests from educators unable to attend—that we’re repeating the series in early 2015! First up: the ever-controversial topic of flipping your foreign language classroom. You can preview the webinar slides and register to join us below!

What is the flipped classroom?

In a traditional classroom, the teacher stands in front of his or her students to impart some knowledge, while the students are often sitting passively, listening, or taking notes. Students are then sent home to complete application activities, which they lovingly refer to as homework, in isolation.

In the flipped classroom, students are expected to interact with and learn new material prior to coming to class—often on the computer. Then, during class, the teacher acts as a guide to facilitate interactive activities. In this approach, students are doing the application portion of the lesson in class, with the support of the teacher.

Why flip?

As teachers, most of you will be familiar with Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience. For those not familiar, the important takeaway is that when students are simply listening or reading material, they retain only a fraction of what they would retain if they were more actively involved. One of the major benefits of the flipped classroom model is that it frees up a significant amount of class time for active learning. Imagine your students using new vocabulary and employing new grammar concepts while performing a skit or participating in a debate.

Flipping your language classroom also helps differentiate the learning. Those who are fast learners can quickly complete the lesson at home, while those who need more support can redo, pause, rewind, etc. as necessary.

It’s also beneficial for parents and students alike. When students complete the lesson at home, rather than the application, parents can see the learning in action and learn alongside their child. Having access to lessons at home also helps out those poor parents of sick children. No more worrying about what their child is missing during their sick days.

How do I flip my classroom?

This part is better left explained in person! Want expert tips from a 20+ year veteran teacher of French and Spanish? How about some free lesson plans to help you flip your classroom right away? Join us at our upcoming webinars:

Monday January 19, 2015 7:00-8:00pm EST

Thursday January 29, 2015 4:00-5:00pm EST

Have questions or comments before, during, or after the webinar? Connect with us on Twitter using #TLedwebinars.