When Your Brain Fights Back Posted by on Jan 11, 2016 in Archived Posts

Itchy Feet: Vocab Hole

Sometimes I feel that my brain is fighting back against my insistence on learning new languages.

Vocabulary, for example. As far as the logical part of my brain is concerned, the only reason for the existence of words is to describe things that are. What’s this thing called? A fish. Great. File that word on the shelf where the concept of “fish” is. What’s this action called? Sneezing. Fabulous. File that word in the drawer under the concept of what “sneezing” is. Where is that sneezing fish? In the library. Brilliant. File that word with the other words which describe where certain things are in relation to other things. According to the logical part of my brain, each concept in the universe is associated by me with a word to describe it to other human beings. Once you’ve learned the word, that’s that – you might get more nuanced or specific words, but words in general serve this practical, logical purpose, and that’s about it.

Then, as a child in school, I started learning a second language: Spanish.

Suddenly, the word fish had to make a little more room on the shelf for the word el pescado. Wait, what? said the logical part of my brain. We already have a word for the concept of a “fish,” and that word is fish! Why in the world would we need another word for it? Because there are other people in the world who have assigned a completely different word to that same concept? Well, why is that my fault?!

Fine, said the logical part of my brain, somewhat begrudgingly: let’s re-learn new words for old concepts. That’s a terrific use of our time. And we did.

Then I moved to France, with an Italian, and started learning two more languages at the same time.

Suddenly, fish and el pescado had to make room on the vocab shelf for yet more company: le poisson and il pesce. Now the logical part of my brain was getting really bent out of shape. These words are nearly the same! it protested. Look how similar they are! Do we really need to squeeze them all onto the same spot on the shelf? We already learned el pescado, that’s close enough to poisson and pesce, can’t pescado run triple-duty in these other languages as well?

No. Same concept, similar word, completely different languages. Has to be learned again, and that goes for “sneezing” and “in” and all the other words, too. Make room on those shelves, brain!

Fine, it said. And it did. Then I moved to Germany and started learning German.

Der Fisch? Seriously? my brain cried out. Now we’ve got to make room on the shelves and in the drawers for yet another language describing the exact same concept with a nearly identical but also completely different word? What’s the point of THAT?!

That’s when my brain decided it’d had enough, and, seemingly in protest, started letting words drop through the cracks.

Though it doesn’t usually happen with the word “fish,” I do often find myself struggling to come up with a word. I know I’ve learned that word. And, like the comic, I can cycle through the other languages I’ve learned and the word comes right up, but not in the language I’m trying to use. My brain has decided there’s no more room on the shelves. It’s letting words fall off as I learn new ones. It’s as though there’s only a limited amount of ways to call a certain concept that my brain can handle at once.

Then I remember there are people who speak 50 languages, and they probably know how to say “fish” in many more, and I realize my brain’s just being a little wiener.

How about you other multilingualists? Do you ever feel words escaping you, or your brain fighting back against your accumulation of new ones?

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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.


  1. Megan @ Caffeine & a Carry On:

    As soon as I saw this comic I laughed out loud – I only speak one other language and I go through the same thing! Always when a student asks me what some word means, too – takes a while to come up with it in English!

  2. meaghan:

    This is too relatable. I happily reorganized my mental shelves and drawers while learning French for 10 years. Now that I’m living in Honduras with minimal Spanish, I feel like I need to made a large and immediate investment in more shelving! Until then, I’ll continue to spew Franglaispanol to anyone who will listen…

  3. Autumn:

    You just spoke to my soul. I’ve followed a similar path to you. I live in France with my French husband so French has become almost more my first language on some days. I speak Spanish, Italian and well I have been learning German now for about 18 months and I feel like my brain is laughing at me. Like give it up you can’t possibly learn another language there is no room left in your tiny brain. . It’s similar to witnessing a size 22 woman trying to fit into a size 6 skinny jeans. It’s not pretty !

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Autumn And yet others have done more with less. Sometimes that’s inspiring, other times it’s soul-crushing, hah!

  4. Judie:

    Hahaha! I can totally relate! My language of birth is American English but I took French in school and more recently studied Russian. In my head, I cobble together unintelligible sentences because I can’t remember all of the words in the correct language! So frustrating! I’ve decided that all of my non-English words go into the same bucket in my brain and it’s pretty much up for grabs which ones come to the surface when I need them.

  5. Priyanka:

    Totally relatable post…. Happens to me all the time…. It’s kinda odd and embarrassing at times that I can’t come up with a common word in the language I have spoken for years and instead I remember stuff in another language I am still learning, just because it is more recent and more conscious learning….. Este moment when you start denken in zwei idiomas 🙂

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Priyanka The great thing is that my wife speaks / is learning more or less the same languages, so we speak the same horrible mash-up!

  6. AJ Pearlswig:

    Sometimes when I’m tired, I find my French, German, or Japanese vocabulary slipping into my English- and it’s my first language! I’ve awkwardly asked peers to “Please passez moi les ciseaux” and then thank them with a curt “danke schön” and immediately apologize for my tired rambling with “すみません.” It’s like sometimes everything comes out perfect, and other times it’s word salad.

  7. Eugene:

    It was exactly today when my bi-lingual colleague said: “I don’t know how it would be jn “.

    My brain is not overloaded now, I mostly remember this kind of situation from earlier years. I only knew two langages then. Hopefully, all my mates knew those languages as well.

    Still, forgetting a word in your _native_ language is funny as hell:-)

    • Eugene:

      @Eugene oops, phone ate the language… colleague did not know how to say it in her native language.

  8. sunshine:

    This is how bilingual children do it ( I am one with French and English), they don’t try to use their languages all at once but have a different audience or context for each. Later in my youth I learned German and Portuguese. Now later in life Chinese. So to my dad I speak French, my mom English, my to my sister German. I have a Brazilian friend so I speak or text Portuguese to her, and Chinese to my meet -up and Chinese buddies. Lastly I lived in Senegal and my husband is Senegalese, so in Senegal people alternate between French and Wolof so no big deal. to sum it up, find a context and audience for each language; even if you do not get to speak all of the languages as often as you would like, i find it less damaging and frustrating that way. I hope someone can relate or at least find this useful. sunshine

  9. Stephen Fox:

    What you’re experiencing is what we computer scientists like to call a “hash collision”. Basically, it’s when you have a lookup table (any given key has EXACTLY one value) and sometimes values get overridden. Just a fun fact.

    When I was learning my first L2 (Spanish in elementary school), I didn’t have the collision problem. After I lost the motivation, I lost the language (mostly). When I got my real L2 in French, things were different.
    “Embrasser” (to kiss) sounds an awful lot like “embrace”. Others were easier, though the cognate wasn’t exact, like “advertisement” meaning “warning” or “actual(le)” meaning “currently”.

    Over time, as I achieved conversational fluency in French and Portuguese, and was able to watch Italian films or Japanese anime sans subtitles, I synthesized something better.

    I built a new system in my head, that was more of a tree and less of table (your file cabinet). When looking for a word, I’ve got zones for the language “family” (i.e. Romance languages) and then I pick from the proper sounds, THEN meaning.
    An example: let’s say I want the word for “fish” in Brazilian Portuguese.
    1) Romance language
    2) “Fish” almost always starts with a “p” in these languages
    a) French has “poisson”, so cross that off
    3) From Italian “pesce”, I FEEL like that is the right sound.
    a) Change the accent for Portuguese (“I remember the first ‘e’ being ‘longer’ than it is in Italian”)
    4) Peixe! Word found!

    Mind you, this is my process when translating notes or other documents. In conversation, steps 1 & 2 are merged, step 3a is cut due to my accent already being switched over. Step 4 is the reaction of the person(s) I’m conversing. If they got it, communication was a success!

  10. Cecilia:

    For years I was fascinated with the idea of the “memory cathedral” but it seemed like having to remember too many things for the usual memory tasks. However I’ve been using Earth as a “memory planet” for languages with good results.
    I’m currently learning Irish, previously studied Russian and a little Spanish in school. American English is my native language. When I come up with something like “Téim go dtí an biblioteca.” I can be happy that I remembered it, “send” “biblioteca” to one of the many beautiful places where Spanish is spoken, and the leabharlann eventually bubbles up. It does, over time, help keep things sorted out, and reminds me to enjoy knowing *something* rather than getting frustrated at the mixup. And I get to picture Earth from space 🙂

  11. Lance:

    Quite some years ago I had for various reasons acquired an odd collection of languages. My first language, Australian English (fluent), German (conversational but not fluent ), Norwegian (written more than oral but I would be able to visit Oslo without starving), Mandarin ( enough to follow Chinese speaking employer who’s file notes often drifted between English & trad Chinese ) and Pitjantjatjara (conversationally well but no-one to talk to). In this period I was using all these languages on a daily basis and I found my thought processes reflected that. The language in my head (when one does actually think in words) was a mishmash of all them. However, add a couple of Scotches (drinks not northern British ) and my speech ceased to be filtered into a common tongue or reflect any relationship to the current linguistic environment. My friends just looked at me oddly and stopped me from having any more Scotch. 🙁 some people are no fun.

  12. Multi lingual kid:

    Before I went to school I spoke Italian and English. In primary school I learnt Spanish. In high school I learnt Latin, French and German. In adult life I learnt Russian and Dutch.

    For me it’s like changing gears, I speak in the language that I need to. For some, e.g. Russian it is very basic, like a young child. In others, e.g. French it’s at high school level, etc. What I have noticed is that I never try to translate between languages, I simply speak in the language that I need. Family get togethers are hilarious, my brother and I speak to one another in English, but in Italian with our mother at the same table I speak with my Dutch mother-in-law in Dutch but in French to her daughter, my wife.

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