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Just Ask Alex: June 2013 Edition Posted by on Jun 24, 2013 in Just Ask Alex, Language Learning

It’s finally here! The very first edition of the Just Ask Alex series! If you’re new here, our friend Alex Rawlings speaks 11 languages, and he’s only 21 years old. Don’t believe us? Check out his introductory post on the 10 Stages of Language Learning to see him speak them all! Each month Alex will be answering YOUR questions on language learning. Want Alex to answer your questions? Ask us on Twitter or Facebook using #JustAskAlex.

1. How do you avoid mixing up all of your languages when speaking?

There is no simple answer to this question, and people try lots of different things to keep their new languages apart. It’s a skill that you have to develop, and one that can be just as difficult as learning a new language in the first place.

For me, however it’s all about the way I feel. When I learn a new language I notice that I gain a new personality, and this is what I concentrate on when trying to keep languages apart. I say things differently, think differently, and express myself in completely new ways, regardless of whether or not the two languages are ‘similar’. Russian is such a rich language, and when I speak it I become pensive and expressive. Dutch, however, makes me jolly and carefree, and I feel like I’m riding a bike through the canals of Amsterdam. French is about red wine, good food, and that sound they play at train stations before they make announcements. I love my newest language Yiddish for its humour, its shrugs and its hand gestures, and because it brings with it so much history and culture as well.

If you also pay really close attention to the way a language is pronounced, that should immediately make thing a lot clearer. For example, there are a lot of sounds in Dutch that don’t exist in German, and vice versa, even though some words might look similar on paper. ‘Spreken’ for example is pronounced totally differently to ‘sprechen’, although they both mean ‘to speak’: the German vowel is a flat ‘e’ sound like ‘shpreh-chn’, while the Dutch is open and longer and sounds more like ‘spray-kuh’. This is why it’s really important to listen to the words first, before you learn to read them. If you misread something and pronounce it like you would in another language, that can become very difficult to unlearn. Listen carefully to the pronunciation of your new language. There is no sound or word that is the same in any two languages. Bear that in mind, and you won’t have any problems.

Having said that, the chances of you having to speak, say, Korean and Catalan on the same day are pretty low. It’s perfectly acceptable to let one language slip while you need to concentrate on the other, so long as you have a way of maintaining the other at the same time. But that is entirely a different question, which we’re about to consider…


2. How do you maintain/practise all of your languages so that you don’t lose competency in any of them?

The truth is that while this is difficult, it’s not impossible. Maintaining your languages does not mean sitting down and doing grammar exercises for an hour per language per day. You can keep them going without making too much effort, so long as you recognise that at some point you will have to go back and devote more time to learning them properly.

I have languages that I’m actively studying (German, Russian, and Yiddish), and those that I just keep ticking over. My day is divided into two different modes: ‘active time’ that I use for studying/working, and ‘dead time’ which is when I’m commuting, having a shower or buying groceries – in other words, the time that I would normally just spend staring into space. Keeping languages going is about using this ‘dead time’ to your advantage. I download French podcasts, I listen to Hebrew songs, I put on a Mexican soap opera when I’m tired and try to follow what’s going on, and sometimes when I’m at the supermarket I practise my Dutch guttural sounds (I might look like a weirdo, but at least it means that no-one else is fighting me over the last pint of milk on the shelf). The point here is not necessarily to learn new words (although that might well happen), but to remember what’s already been learnt and stay tuned into the sound of the language, and, of course, its personality.

I believe that you don’t forget languages if you don’t use them; they just become dormant somewhere in the back of your brain. The task is to bring them back to life, and drag up all that knowledge stored away somewhere and activate it once again. That means that you might forget a grammar point, but look over it and you’ll remember it in no time. You might also have moments where you can’t for the life of you recall certain words; but you don’t have to ‘learn’ these all over again: just revise what you once learnt and it’ll all come flying back to you like a boomerang.

Of course there will always be languages that you feel more confident about and ones where you’re more shy. Just don’t say the words “I used to speak…”. If you take a break and then go back to a language, you’ll find it’s far easier to pick up from where you left off than you might think.

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  1. Brian Capanoli:

    I understand where your coming from this, as I have understood 12 languaged since I was your age. I’ve studied it by families. Romance and Germanics are my fluent areas. Yet, when I learn a new language I see each language in my mind in a color.

  2. Kathryn:

    Great post. I totally agree with this line “dormant somewhere in the back of your brain” because as I am actively learning Italian, I am surprised at the resurgence of high-school French vocabulary that I thought was long forgotten (generally the words are not useful at the moment, but good for a laugh).

  3. eliza:

    I would also say another key to maintaining languages is to simply keep in touch with friends who are native speakers; they’ll make you talk and write regularly.

    Even in a passive sense, like seeing them in my Facebook or Twitter feed keeps me fresh on casual/conversational usages and often links me to fascinating articles that reinforce formal usages, so it rounds out nicely.

  4. Babar:

    Boy, you just try to kill what i learnt in past 3 years.
    I think everyone has a strategy to learn and it is not necessarily important to follow single line of action.

    People learn language by speaking, they might pronounce a word ten times in a wrong way but eventually they learn the original one. I assume that’s what we call a learning process.

    • Alex Rawlings:

      @Babar You’re right – everyone has their own techniques and methods, and the point of my post is not to say that there is a “right” or a “wrong” way to go about learning languages. If you’re already doing something that’s successful, by all means keep it up!

      I’m writing here about some of the techniques that in the past I have found to work for me. The point of these articles is to share these with people who might not have considered them before, so that they can try them out for themselves and make their own mind up about whether or not they might work for them.

      As you say, language learning is an extremely personal thing and that’s why one person’s advice is never golden. It is just that: advice. Take from it whatever you find relevant and leave what you don’t!

      Thanks for commenting!

  5. elena:

    thanks for info! but i mix up Spanish and Italian words… i know better Italian, therefore quicker come Italian words and after while if to think further, then yes, Spanish come.

  6. lingholic:

    Awesome video Alex. My problem is actually finding the right ratio between maintaining my languages (or refining them) and learning new ones. One part of me really wants to learn new languages, but another part wants to get to a higher level in the ones I’ve already spent time learning. Loved the multilingual video!

  7. Me:

    I don’t have an issue with mixing similar-sounding languages, but I actually have a problem remembering words in my native language. I stop myself in mid-conversation (English) because, for example, I’m fighting the urge to say “Kühlschrank” and struggling to remember the English term for it. I might even spit out a literal translation “cool closet” until the person with whom I’m speaking looks at me funny and guesses “refrigerator”. I’ve been learning German for at least a decade, and this really only happens with concrete words, because I associate words with images.

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