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How to Keep Multiple Languages Straight Posted by on Nov 19, 2014 in Language Learning

Itchy Feet: A Travel and Language Comic by Malachi Ray RempenLearning a new language is an immense challenge, what with all the grammar, vocabulary, expressions and idioms, and pronunciation to deal with. If you then toss another language or two (or five or ten) on top of that, the challenges compound themselves into a heap.

For me, vocabulary is the hardest—for every new language I learn, I know I have to learn yet another word for the same things, and I invariably get them mixed up. Even more frustrating is knowing a certain word in three languages, but not the one I’m speaking at that moment.

Then there’s getting the languages confused. For some reason, I find that my brain has a shelf labeled “foreign language”, and I’m allowed to stash one language at a time there. If I need to change to a different one on the fly, I have to will the gears in my brain to change, requiring a fair amount of time and effort (see above comic).

Depending on the language, though, you don’t always have to start at the bottom. Learning romance languages is great because the grammar is basically the same across the board, with a few exceptions and oddities here and there. Plus, since they’re all based on Latin, a great number of words are the same. And the more complicated the word, the more likely it is to be the same in all the romance languages. If you’re reading this article you have a huge head start on Spanish and French, since you already know words like “complicated” and “exception” and “pronunciation” (watch out for false friends like “embarrassed”, though, or you’ll be telling everyone in Madrid you’re pregnant).

A romance language would certainly be easier than picking up Russian, which requires you learn how to read totally new letters, or tonal languages like Mandarin and Thai, for which you have to learn how to make sounds again (in addition to totally new letters and, often times, even your way of conceptualizing the world).

I find it helps a lot to be in the country where they speak the language you’re trying to learn. That may sound obvious, but it’s much easier to speak German in Germany, and Italian in Italy. The words and phrases just seem to spring to your tongue in a conversation, quick and easy. Try speaking German in Italy, though, and you’ll feel like you’re dragging it up out of a thick mud. There’s something in the atmosphere that pushes you, like a breeze, to speak the language of the locals.

Since drawing the above comic, I’ve also learned to have a different “voice” for each language I speak. I create a literal cartoon character in my head when I’m speaking, and it comes out through the language. German is a stout, jolly mustachioed man, and Italian is a slickly-dressed charmer. It doesn’t just help to separate the languages mentally, it also helps you get into the proper cadence of speaking, which is usually quite tricky. Just don’t overdo it, or you’ll look and sound like an ass.

Most importantly, keep practicing. Many polyglots recommend at least a few hours a week for each language. The more languages you collect, the more hours a week you’ll have to practice. But it’s worth it.

What about you? What tricks have you polyglots learned to keep your many languages straight?

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


Comments:

  1. Susanotsjka:

    Hi,

    Interesting article! You’re right when you say that there’s less confusion between languages from the same group. While studying Russian, though, (I’m Dutch, bilingual French and I learned English and German later on) I found myself mixing that language with German. Realy:-) I think that had to do with the concept of cases and declination, which both languages use.
    Just recently, I realised that I don’t speak Russman/Gerssian anymore. New theory: it’s complicated to learn a new language that’s not closely related to your own, but at the same time it’s easier to keep them apart because, well…they’re far apart. But hey, I’m still learning!:-)

    Looking forward to more ItchyFeet.

    Susanotsjka

    PS does your German cat ever use the Konjunktiv?:-)

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Susanotsjka Thanks! Yeah I forgot to mention in the article that if languages are TOO close, they might be easy to learn, but also really easy to mix up. This happened with my Spanish after I learned Italian – the “voice” in my head is too similar, and when I try to speak Spanish, Italian comes out. Argh…

      • Elaine:

        @Malachi Rempen Hi, I am Puerto Rican and of course, my first language is Spanish though I am fluent in English. I lived in Belgium (re-learned French not Flemish), Florence and Rome. In Florence I went to school to learn Italian and although I could make myself understood, my teacher said that in the long run, the German students in my same class would learn Italian better than I because I was mixing my Spanish. I enjoyed reading the article and the cartoon is so real.

  2. Dan:

    I always enjoy your cartoons! I found studying French was starting to confuse my Spanish. So what I try to do, in the hopes of increasing fluidity between the two, with Duolingo I try practicing translating from Spanish to French and don’t even get English involved into it. Let those two parts of my brain become friends and hopefully peaceful neighbors. We’ll see if it works!

    The fact that arabic is so different from those two also I think helps studying that, whereas I had to temporarily abandon Portugese because it was too similar to French and Spanish, if that makes sense.

  3. Milo:

    Hi Malachi! First off, thanks for Itchy Feet, I absolutely love it. Great post too, it felt like you were inside my head while reading certain parts of it.
    In my experience, I usually get the most interference when learning a new language from the language I was most recently learning before it. For example, I took Japanese for a few years in high school, but unfortunately completely stopped afterwards. Then in college I started learning French and somehow every time I learned something new my brain would compare it with Japanese. Then I started to learn Latin, and it felt like everything was being compared with French (the two are family members so that possibly had something to do with it) but not Japanese. This year I started Esperanto and it clashes the most with Latin and hardly ever gets mixed up with French (or Japanese).
    Have you experienced something like this? I definitely believe it also has to do with their linguistic proximity or similar features (Esperanto and Latin both have an accusative suffix where French and Japanese do not), but it sure seems to have something to do with the language I’ve most recently taken up learning.

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Milo Yeah definitely – if you don’t use a language for a while, it goes on the back shelf somewhere in your brain, and it doesn’t come up randomly. It also makes it difficult to come back to, even if you are in the country…

      Glad you like the comics, thanks!

  4. Cade DeBois:

    For me, learning to transistion in and our of a language is yet one more skill you have to learn. What always trips me up is the small things: indefinite/definite articles, prepositions, how plurals are formed, common phrases like “I’m sorry” (which, no matter the language, my first urge is to say “Tha mi duilich”. Of course my brain would default to my least universal language–Scottish Gaelic.)

    I just need lots of practice and the closer the languages are related the more intensely I need to work on keeping them straight. With Irish and Scottish Gaelic I don’t feel so bad about mixing them up because speakers of either tend to understand you anyways. But mixing up French and Spanish can be disasterous (or simply look like you don’t know anything about either language), and with German and Swedish it can be unintentionally hilarious.

    What I like to do is force myself to switch my focus between languages over the course of the day. But for my sanity’s sake I try not to do related languages back to back. Instead, I find a schedule like Spanish > Irish > French > Scottish Gaelic works really well, with me studying my weaker languages first while my brain is fresher.

    I’ve tried similar techniques like Dan suggests above, like using the Goethe-Verlang Book2 audio trainging files or non-English resources to do “scaffold” learning. This has worked for me to some degree but I think it’s important to recognize when it’s not helping you. For Breton I have little choice but to use a lot of French resources, and this has helped my strengthen my French noticeably. But this hasn’t had the same benefit when studying Spanish through French for me. I just end up mixing the two up even more and frustrating myself further. I use Duolingo too, but for this reason I stick to just English based courses.

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Cade DeBois Sounds like you have a big work load. But yeah that seems to be the right idea – I’ve known people that didn’t bother learning certain languages because they were TOO similar, like Spanish – Portuguese.

  5. Katie:

    My first Arabic class was an immersion one– and I literally knew nothing about the language, other than it had a different alphabet. When I FINALLY figured out that the professor was asking me for my name, I blurted out my response in German because my brain a) didn’t know the Arabic answer and b) thought that an answer in any language other than English would be better than an English answer or no answer at all.

    Although I’ve been learning German for a decade and Arabic only passively for about 3 years, I now want to say “ta-sha-raf-na” after introducing myself in German… probably because I really love that Arabic has that word to say, “nice to meet you” and German doesn’t have a one-word equivalent.

    I’m sure that the more Arabic I learn, the worse this switching syndrome will get. I’ll just have to get back to you!

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Katie Ooh that definitely happens to me too, I should have mentioned that in the article – if one language has a neat phrase or useful figure of speech, it’s really tempting to use that in different languages. I’m always saying “um die Ecke” (German for ‘around the corner’) because it just rolls off the tongue, even when I’m speaking Italian to my wife. There just isn’t really a nice equivalent in Italian.

      Of course there are plenty of Italian phrases that are way more fun to say than in English or German…

  6. Paul:

    I primarily speak English although I am also fluent in Lithuanian and conversational in French. For some reason if I can’t find a French word a Lithuanian one comes out. I think it’s because they are both secondary languages for me as far as usage goes.

  7. Germán:

    I’m a native spanish speaker and even when I’m still improving my english and also I recently started learning german, this happens to me very often, specially with the structure of sentences where I use more a german grammar-like style while forgot some common english words… not cool.

  8. anne:

    I am studying Swedish and often confusing it with Dutch, German, English and French. Just because some words relate to those languages I guess. And because I know those other ones too.

  9. Anya:

    I grew up speaking English at home, learned Russian as a child from my neighbors, mastered intermediate Spanish as a young adult, and am now just starting to study Kazahk. I can’t say that I have experienced “losing” a language, where it gets so far pushed back in your mind that it is difficult to drag out– most of the time if I am in a context where the language is spoken, it all comes back within a matter of hours or days. Perhaps this is because my experience is limited to 4 languages all of which I have reason to use from time to time year-round. (I am a part-time translator, but I’m always translating between English and another language.)

    But I have definitely experienced the “most recent” language (foreign language other than English) wanting to jump into my sentences when I’m speaking a language that I haven’t used in a while. Something that has helped me a great deal with this is giving myself translation exercises between the two languages in question. This forces my brain to consciously give each “foreign” language its own “shelf” so to speak (and the hope is that if I do this often enough, those “shelves” will become more permanent). The results are always an immediate increase in accuracy in the next conversation I have.

    As far as the “untranslatable” words or expressions that don’t communicate the right idea or simply don’t sound as good in another language, I don’t worry myself and I don’t think anyone else should. Just say it in the original language. If someone wants to know what it means, they’ll ask. Unless you’re in a situation where you have to communicate some sort of equivalent in another language. (Such as in translating an article, for example.) In that case, you just have to do as much justice as you can to the expression, mourn the meaning that was lost, and move on.

    And I loved the comic. Totally sharing this.

  10. Phil Ramsden:

    I definitely do that thing of playing a character when I speak different languages. In a muted way, I should stress: my Frenchman, German and Spaniard are just slight inflections of the Englishman I am most of the time, rather than feats of Method acting or anything.

    My German is very different from yours. He’s a city-dweller (probably from Cologne), quite relaxed and good-natured, though perhaps a bit precise and pedantic. He has a wryly ironic take on life.

    My Frenchman fancies himself as more of a sophisticate; touch of the gay boulevardier about him, at least in his head. All Jacques Brel records and a cheeky pastis; you know the sort of thing.

    My Spaniard seems to be a madrileño, which is odd, because I know Valencia much better than Madrid. I think I like, and to some extent covet, the capital’s air of easy self-confidence.

    Not really thought about it in this way before, but there’s definitely something in it.

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Phil Ramsden I like how defined your characters are. We should create an online language-character-based RPG. It’d be a hit with multilingual nerds everywhere!

  11. Simon:

    I can often remember the word for something in all the languages I know, apart from the one I’m speaking. That even happens to me sometimes in English, my native language.

    At the moment the languages I use most frequently, apart from English, are Welsh, French and Mandarin. I’m fine switching between them, but when I try to speak other languages and to switch between them I often get muddled. I feel like my languages are competing for attention in my head, and the one I’ve spoken or heard most recently often wins.

    I’m learning some closely related languages like Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic; Czech, Serbian and Russian; German, Dutch and Swedish; and Spanish, Portuguese and Italian, and find that in each group the language I know best tends to interfere with the others.

  12. Kasia:

    I’m native Pole. My first foreign language was Russian, then French, English and German. Currently as I live in Germany, German language is the major language I use. However due to work I use other languages also except Russian. What I realize is really strange. I never mix up my mother language with others, Polish stays somewhere deep inside of my brain and never takes the lead. When I speak English or French it happens that I use German words instead of French or English even if I know these words in French and English. It never happens that I use a Polish word instead although it’s my mother language. But what’s curious I do all countings and the math only in Polish. I simply cannot do it in an other language, here Polish takes a full lead.

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Kasia Good point! Whenever I’m at the supermarket and I want to see if I have enough change, I do the math in my head in English. Otherwise it would just take me forever.

  13. CarlosIPe:

    ‘Embarazado’ meand ’embarrased’ AND ‘pregnant’ , I read it all the time in novels with the first meaning. But you are right, it’s not a very common word and in some contexts could sound bizarre.. But FYI it’s not a false friend, just a less used word.

  14. Josh:

    Sometimes I remember an idiom, but not which language it’s in. I might say something like “Tu tienes un pajaro” or “Du bist durch der Mond” or “Il pleut des chats et des chiens.” When learning figures of speech, it’s so important to remember exactly which speech they’re figures of.

  15. Bjorn:

    I’ve heard a lot of language learners bringing up this problem. It’s not universal, however, since it never happened to me. I speak 6-7 languages, and a few of them are quite similar.

  16. Fan:

    Well, it has not been an issue for me because I speak English and Mandarin which are completely different languages in their structure. So there is absolutely no chance of mixing them. But at the same time, it also means that it’s much harder for me to learn any alphabetical language since I have no references when I learn words.

    I think the problem for you is that you are probably not thinking in the language you want to speak. Try to learn how to integrate words into your mind rather than memorizing them. That’s the only robust way to avoid mixing between them in my opinion.

  17. Larry:

    Hi,

    I grew up bilingual in Thai & English. Later learned French, Korean and some German. Don’t have too much trouble keeping these vocabularies apart. Thai is a tonal Sino-Tibetan language with an impossible writing system derived from Sanskrit. You have multiple ‘letters’ with the same articulation having different tones (5).

  18. Lovinglanguage:

    It can be hard. I’ve had to translate between foreign languages before. That’s really hard! I’m native English, but once I was at my German friend’s house in Germany, and his friends from France were there. When my friend was busy one night, I had to interpret between his parents and his friends. Wow! I needed a nap after that.

    Another time, I was at a European youth conference. During a break-out session, I had to translate from Spanish into English, Russian, and French. Again, mind-boggling.

    I guess I learned that you need to get into a flow state. You can’t think about the language–you just let it have to come out. That may mean that some nonsense comes out sometimes, but you can’t worry about it. In the cartoon, the person feels embarrassed–I think you should get through the moment, and take a nice rest afterwards.

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Lovinglanguage That’s definitely one of the hardest things, translating between two foreign languages. Then your little language brain-machine is constantly switching back and forth.

  19. Jennifer:

    Thanks for the wonderful article! I actually thought I was going crazy because my brain couldn’t keep my Spanish and French straight.

    When I first started learning Spanish (immersed in a Spanish speaking country) I couldn’t understand why people couldn’t understand me. Then my Spanish teacher point out that I’m pronouncing words like the would be said in French, and I frequently use French words. I had no idea! I honestly thought I was speaking Spanish.

    But then after learning Spanish for about 8 months and completely removed from French, I have a hard time even remembering basic French phrases.

    Super annoying!

    So now I’m trying to figure out how to keep them straight.

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who has trouble with this!

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Jennifer You are most certainly not the only one. Those pesky romance languages…I wonder if the same goes for other language families?

  20. Lewis:

    I can relate to this a lot. I learned French at school, in the first year of university and learned a lot more with self-study. The weakest aspect for me has always been speaking though, as I had limited opportunities to speak to actual French people.

    I moved to Germany two years ago with only basic German, and in that time have worked my way up to B2 / C1 level. Therefore my passive understanding of written German is similar to that in French, but my ability to speak fluently is much higher!

    I live in a city close to France and go quite often – but I have to work hard to remember how to speak French without throwing in German vocabulary and sentence structure! It’s a little unberuhigend, but quite drôle. 🙂

  21. Cynthia Cervantes:

    Hi! How did you expat to France? I’ve always wanted to move there but i’ve read it’s quite difficult to move there from the US.


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