Transparent Language Blog

10 Daily Struggles of Learning a Third Language and Beyond Posted by on Dec 22, 2014 in Archived Posts

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.

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.

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.

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  1. Dave Brooks:

    Us monolinguals struggling to attain even rudimentary conversation in language No. 2 are not sympathetic!

    • Jakob Gibbons:

      @Dave Brooks I don’t know Dave, I actually felt like I struggled with a lot of these even midway through learning a second language! Our poor monolingual brains just seem to go apeshit as soon as you start mixing stuff up in there.

      Keep working on language #2! If you’re struggling I just finished a three-part series on my own blog where I shared how I learned Dutch so fast, maybe it’s helpful!

  2. Mel:

    Try learning your fourth language in your third language…
    To this day, i cannot translate from Danish to German but detour via English (being a German native speaker) – very mind boggling.

    • Jakob Gibbons:

      @Mel Mel that’s actually super relatable for a lot of people I think (though not for me as a lucky native English speaker)! I know lots of Dutch folks who have had to learn other languages through English and have the same mental reflex of bridging their first and third languages with Dutch. Sounds dizzying.

    • Katie:

      @Mel I totally relate! I’m a native English speaker learning Chinese, my husband’s mother tongue…but our common language is Japanese (his 2nd and my 3rd language). I learn simple Chinese directly from English, but my husband uses Japanese to explain more complex structures, idioms, etc. Since most often Americans want me to translate complex phrases, I have to constantly detour through Japanese. Word order and having to stop to figure out what language I’m reading are daily kickers too! My prepositional phrases and verbs have no idea where to go in a sentence, and I’ll find myself rereading a sentence several times before I realize I’ve switched English/Spanish or Chinese/Japanese. It’s fun, but…argh!

      • Livgreen:

        @Katie I know what you talking about! I’m a native Chinese learning Dutch, which is my husband’s mother tongue…but our common language is French (my 2nd and his 3rd language). Sometimes I read something, I got the information, but I don’t know which language i was reading!!! Funny things too…..

  3. Andrés:

    OMG, I was able to relate to everything you wrote there, and you think it will eventually get better, but when you start the 4th one you just can’t help but cry while mumbling in all of them, great article!

    • Jakob Gibbons:

      @Andrés Haha, thanks Andrés! Although I have to say I find #4 the least funny because it’s just so sincerely fucking frustrating when you just want to send a simple message and your phone’s like NOPE NOPE NOPE SPANISH TIME NOW

  4. Marit:

    About #8, studies have shown that, yes, your brain basically treat all foreign languages the same, whether you speak them or not. I remember reading about a study years ago, where bilingual Italians had their brains scanned while listening to Italian, English or Japanese (a language none of them spoke), and this showed that the same areas were active for both English and Japanese, but Italian activated completely different areas.

    • Jakob Gibbons:

      @Marit That makes a lot of sense Marit! I know personally that’s definitely how it feels anyways.

      I wonder if there is any research on how that relates to switching between languages? The other day, for example, I was in my room working on some Spanish practice and my uncle came in to talk to me, and I felt the sort of ‘switch’ impulse in my head but I accidentally spoke almost a full sentence to him in Dutch (which I don’t think I’ve *ever* done to a family member before, haha). It was quite odd but felt sort of automatic… oops?

  5. Jaundré:

    I must say that I can relate with nr 6,7 and 8. Although my home language is Afrikaans (related language to Dutch) the struggles are exactly the same! The sample sentence about the word order in nr.7 was hilarious as it is exactly how we go about speaking in my home language!
    I would like to add that some language pairings would not be as affected by the points listed as others. For instance, my third language is Japanese and having learned the language by virtue of the 漢字 (Kanji, i.e. Chinese Characters), and of course the Hiragana and Katakana, the confusion does not appear as readily as it does between my Afrikaans and English.
    But in any case, I think anyone here that is attempting 3 or more languages should be commended – it is hard work!!!
    Great article by the way!

    • Jakob Gibbons:

      @Jaundré Thanks Jaundré! And not surprising that you can relate as an Afrikaans speaker (I once met some Afrikaners in a bar and just thought they were from somewhere very rural in the Dutch province of Zeeland when I heard them speak, haha). I did actually woner while writing this if some of these problems might be less present or totally absent when learning languages that are as unrelated as English and Japanese, for example. Sounds like maybe I ought to look to the Far East for language #4? 😛

  6. emilyhallnyc:

    I am finding–very unhappily–that my second language (Italian) is being wiped out by my third (Spanish). Much as French was wiped out by Italian many years ago. I’m hoping that once I’m competent in Spanish I can go back and revive Italian somehow–without wiping out anything else.

    • Jakob Gibbons:

      @emilyhallnyc That’s a shame Emily! Learned languages tend to get rusty indeed when you stop using them for a while, but I bet if you were dropped somewhere in France you’d get it back pretty quickly 🙂 In the meantime even just watching some Italian TV now and then could do the trick to hold onto it and not let Spanish force it out.

  7. Jim:

    As a native English speaker who speaks passable Spanish, rudimentary Hindi, and a bit of Japanese, I can say that it doesn’t help if the langauges are from different families: you can still get confused. I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t mix up Spanish and Hindi, but sometimes I’ll find myself thinking of the word from the wrong language and have to mentally correct myself (e.g. saying “Bilkul” instead of “Claro” or “Por supuesto”, “bahut” instead of “muy”, etc).

    • Jakob Gibbons:

      @Jim Hmm, that actually makes a lot of sense when you think about it, I guess. A lot of tiny words and modifiers (‘very’, ‘really’, ‘of course’) we don’t really think about as much as nouns and verbs, so it seems like it’d be pretty easy to accidentally let one out in the wrong language, no matter how far removed the two languages are. Good point!

  8. James Bulls:

    Hahaha, I loved it. I took six semesters’ Spanish in high school that died a painful death when I went to college for Russian, and for several years was still fluent in English and Russian while I was also learning Esperanto. Sometimes the language salad in my brain gets all mixed up, the two semesters’ German I took in high school will trickle back to me, and my English starts going wonky. I don’t even notice it anymore, but my wife has said that she’s seen a few times where my English word-order or word-combination comes out sounding like I learned it as a second language.

  9. gaeaearth:

    Do check out some specialist books on the subject: eg., this one I thought was particularly good. It discusses compartmentalisation, language switching, mostly from a neurological perspective, and the author proposes that ‘two languages live inside one brain almost as two species live in an ecosystem. For the most part they peacefully coexist and oft en share resources. But they also compete for resources especially when under stress, as occurs when there is brain damage’. My own experience is that associating different languages with particular places and people does help with the babylonian confusion, which is part of the reason why the conventional rule for bringing up trilingual children is ‘one person, one language’

    • Jakob Gibbons:

      @gaeaearth Thanks for the recommendation gaeaearth — I think this is what I’ll use my Amazon gift card for!

  10. Inge:

    I’m a native Dutch-speaker and my second language is English, which I’ve learned partly at school but mostly just because it is used everywhere. At school I also learn French, which as such is my third language. So basically, I’m in the same situation you are in, my first and second languages being Germanic ones and my third a Romance language, but I have not encountered any of the problems you’ve described, except for #2. Sometimes stuff just sounds cooler in English. Or French. I’m not sure why that is, but I think one of the reasons is that I don’t really know English grammar, like I don’t really know Dutch grammar, as both languages kind of came to me naturally. For Dutch, that’s logical of course, but by the time I really started to get proper English lessons at school in which they explained grammar, I’d already read and heard so much English that I could just apply it without any major problems. As such, the only grammar I actually know is that of French. I guess that plays a major role in me not really confusing the languages.

    Also, I’m curious – what did you think was the hardest part of learning Dutch? I can imagine that the word order was somewhat challenging, especially when making sentences that use the ‘voltooid deelwoord'(I don’t even know what that is called in English), as those are placed at the end of the sentence instead with the other verbs. Please enlighten me!

    Also, I challenge you to answer this in Dutch, if you’re up to it (;

    • Jakob Gibbons:

      @Inge Haha geen probleem hoor, ik zie dit helaas nu pas, dus dat spijt me 😛

      Hmm wat was er moeilijk aan het nederlands? Woordvolgorde was wel een uitdaging op het begin, maar op een gegeven moment komt dat een beetje vanzelf, misschien net zoals wat jij over het engels zei — als je zo veel hebt gehoord/gelezen dan weet je het zonder over iedere grammaticale wat-dan-ook te moeten denken. Tegenwoordig heb ik nog steeds een beetje moeite met de en het woorden (die moet je gewoon langzamerhand uit je hoofd leren, denk ik), en ook met voorzetsels (maar volgens mij is dat toch altijd lastig in een tweede taal). Verder… nouja, Engels en Nederlands zijn best nauw verwant, dus in het algemeen is het redelijk makkelijk!

      ‘Voltooid deelwoord’ is trouwens ‘past participle’ in het Engels 🙂

  11. Kathy:

    thank you! Now I understand my multilingual daughter a bit more. I, a confirmed mono, usually tell my students English is my second language as math is my first. My daughter – English, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, a tiny bit of Arabic just for fun — is raising 2 multi daughters (they speak English with me, Chinese with their other grandmother, and learn Japaenese from their parents (their common language), while taking French at their elementary school.

  12. Heike:

    That’s exactly how my brain works.

    I just started learning Norwegian, with German being my mother tongue and English my first strong language. There’s also some Spanish and French floating about.
    For me the frustrating thing is, that Norwegian uses the same sentence structure as German, but my brain just seems to say that because it’s a foreign language it must be different, so I’m using an English sentence structure.

    When it comes to tenses it get’s even more confusing, because then I translate the sentence first into English, so that I know which tense to use and then try to apply a German sentence structure to it and only then am I able to translate it into Norwegian. All very mind-boggling but fun !!

    • Jakob Gibbons:

      @Heike Heike I know exactly what you mean and you’ve described it more eloquently than I did! I have the same with English and Spanish, which have more or less the same word order most of the time, but my brain also seems to say “no, that’s a foreign language, it must be different” so I’m always imposing a twisted Dutch word order on it that sounds a bit Yoda-esque in Spanish.

  13. PistachioHoney:

    ha! excellent! I’m bilingual (English/Farsi), studying French and Spanish with the Open University and studying Dutch in my *spare* time (whatever that may be). I live in a perpetual state of confusion and when face to face with my Dutch tutor, I was answering her back in perfect German that I haven’t studied since I was in high school oh way back when!

    My phone however, will remain English for texting as I am not sure I’m ready to enter a whole new level of confusion!

  14. Jonathan:

    100% true. The struggle is real. I study around 25 languages that I cycle, of which there are 3 or 4 that I focus on studying, 4 of which I use daily, and English. The languages that I am focusing on tend to be at the forefront of my thoughts and love to push their way forward, right now it’s Danish. Sometimes sign language is much quicker to generate than words. As a teacher, I tend to mess up my native English when I switch from Spanish or French into English with things like “quicklier” for “more quickly”, or “signification” for “significance”. And the worst is re-reading my native English and noticing the most atrocious sentence structures, and realizing what language music I must have been listening to at that time.

  15. Rosemary Schmid:

    I wonder if it isn’t easier to keep languages “straight” when one is IN the language environment. I notice that my sister in law is fine in English, her native language, when she is in the USA, but when we travel with her in France where she has lived and worked with French speakers for 50 years, gets all confused speaking English with us.

  16. Sally:

    OMG! I am obsessed with learning French.
    Au revoir… I am the best in my high school.
    I even read french novels! C’est Bon!
    Au revoir
    Au revoir

  17. Hassan:

    Loved this! I remember in college many years ago my class schedule included Arabic at 9 am, Chinese at 10 am, and French at 11 am. I couldn’t speak properly until the mid-afternoon after hearing English for a few hours.

    I’ve picked up Spanish through my years as an immigration lawyer, and it’s nearly wiped out my French. I can still read it, but every time I try to speak French it comes out in Spanish. I’m a native English and Urdu speaker and those are the only two languages that don’t get mixed up for me (much) anymore. Then again I haven’t actively studied my languages in years…

    • Jakob Gibbons:

      @Hassan I could never keep that many languages straight! Although maybe if I’d grown up in a linguistic revolving door as it sounds like you did, it would’ve been easier!

  18. Mohamed:

    I am arabic native speaker I speak English fluently now I am learning German but so far it is all going well
    My English isn’t 100% any way

  19. Elkin:

    OMG everything was spot on!!! so funny, I’m a native Spanish speaker and my second language is English, I have started learning French and I find myself switching back from English to Spanish to try construct sentences….. can’t wait to see what learning my 4th language will be like!!

  20. Thainá Islan:


    Interesting points!
    I am brazilian, so my native language is Portuguese. My family also speaks Spanish, I’ve learned some Dutch on my own and now I will start German classes.
    Do you think it would be too confusing studying Dutch and German at the same time, once they are pretty similar and quite different from Portuguese?

    Thanks in advance 🙂

  21. Michelle:

    I laughed my way through this, nodding along at all the difficulties I have keeping languages straight. I’m a native English speaker who learned German as a high school student and spent some time in Germany before having kids, then didn’t use my German at all for many years. I decided five or six years ago to teach myself Swedish and had no idea that so much long-neglected German was still tucked away somewhere in my brain until I spent the first year or so of my studying being frustrated by realizing I’d switched to German in the middle of writing/saying something. I thought I’d pretty much worked through that and then my teen started studying German and I confused us both countless times by switching back and forth between the two without realizing it when we’d practice conversation. Oops.

    Now he’s still studying German, I’m still watching lots of Scandinavian tv/film (I don’t attempt to write or speak in Norwegian or Danish because I think I’d confuse myself completely, but I can understand both fairly well) and have started working on studying Arabic because it’s more useful than Swedish or German in my workplace, my 11 year old has asked me to start teaching him Swedish, the 5 and 9 year olds are learning Spanish in school and want me to practice with them even though I only know very basic bits, and now the 9 year old has also developed a strong desire to learn Portuguese and wants me to learn it so that I can help him learn. My head is a swirling mess of jumbled dictionaries at all times.

  22. Bob:

    I feel the pain, as i’m learning french and already speak two other languages. I might ask how to say something in my second language but i’ll say the word in the second language. Also even though other people know a few word the talk in such an accent I can’t understand them and it’s very embarrassing because later they think I don’t know the language.

  23. Donna:

    Dead spot on or up or about, you know…hysterical article.

    I am a native English speaker. Lived in Spain when my Navy husband was stationed there. I came back to the US and studied Spanish for years at college.. I then returned to Spain for a 6 month immersion program and became fluent.

    I studied Russian for two years before we adopted a 7 and 10 year old from Russia from Russia. For six months as they learned English there was this hideous Rangglish Spangled scene going on in my house. Prepositions and pronouns could pop up from any language and often did.

    Now I am studying Italian online and weekly in-person classes. This is going to get real ugly real quick.

    Thanks for the great article. I actually went searching for information on whether or not you should use your second language as an aid in your 3rd language when the two are close romance languages.

  24. David:

    For me, French to Italian to Portuguese to Spanish to Catalan (English native speaker) I always find the similarities are a double edged sword: obviously lots of similarities between the languages I learnt (to varying degrees) but articles, prepositions, pronouns all change and, certainly at the beginning, you’re faced with the choice of interrupting your fluency or just getting on with it in the hope people find it endearing!! A smile (when appropriate) always helps 🙂

  25. Ana:

    Wow what a relatable post!
    I am a native Spanish speaker, English quickly comes in second place (dominant language) chronologically speaking. And then I learned mandarin when I was a kid (lived in Shanghai), and I’ve been trying to learn French for YEARS. But every time I go to make an oral sentence, my brain goes from English- wants to go to French, thinks it’s about to speak in French- I open my mouth- and Chinese comes out -_- Spanish would at least be more similar haha. I was just searching around the internet looking to see if others have this kind of brain puzzle experience every time they go to speak in their newly acquired language haha. Glad to see I’m not alone

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