Two weeks ago I posted an article on 5 Ways to Keep From Confusing Your Languages. A lot of what I put in that article was pretty helpful, but it was larger practices to keep in mind when studying. I was thinking about it, there were also many specific things that you can do when you practice your languages that will help you keep from getting your languages mixed up.
1. Exaggerate your Pronunciation
Language isn’t just a mental process. It’s also a physical one.
If you are talking (or signing), you are moving the language through your body. And every language has its own “mouth feel.”
I just don’t hold my mouth the same way, or make the same movements with my lips and tongue with German that I do with Japanese. At first, my pronunciation of both was probably not all that great. And I’d admit that they aren’t the two that I pronounce the best even today – I definitely have an accent in each. But they sure don’t feel like each other.
When we start off a language, we don’t have the best pronunciation. In fact, making the correct sounds in a language feels unnatural and often ridiculous. But over time, as you get used to making the sounds, it feels more natural, and even switching back in to English for a word can feel a bit jarring.
By working on your pronunciation, you can also help separate the different languages from each other. Eventually, you wouldn’t find yourself saying a word from a different language because it would feel jarring as well.
2. Practice phrases instead of words
With all the hype about flash cards and games to learn vocabulary, it’s easy to lose sight of the power of context. Learning words in a context is not only better for your memory (because it creates associations), but it makes your speaking flow better and more easily.
That flow is the key to keeping interference down. Yes, you might flow into a certain phrase that you are used to saying, but it’s harder to respond with an entire sentence in the wrong language than just a word in the wrong language.
This makes sense when you think about the musicality of language. There’s a rhythm and a melody to the way you speak in a language. But you learn songs in verses, not in words. And how often do you accidentally sing a line from “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” when you are singing someone “Happy Birthday?”
You don’t. That would be preposterous. And a little difficult, in fact. So if you are finding yourself getting interference with certain words, start memorizing phrases with those words in them, and repeating those phrases again and again.
3. Comparative Language Lists
Sometimes, no matter how hard you’ve tried, you are still getting interference between two similar languages. It’s going to happen. On some level, your brain may just consider them similar, and it’s time to train yourself in just how different they are.
Comparative lists can be helpful for this. These are lists of cognates and “false friends,” showing you what words don’t actually mean the same things in both languages. It’s also helpful to look up mistakes speakers in one language often make in the other language. (Bonus points for looking this up in both directions!) The more you can feel like the languages are different, the better your brain will be at compartmentalizing them.
This is like #3 Plus. Laddering is when you use one language to learn another. At first this might seem dangerous because you are using the two languages in the same environment. However, this does more than just give you the opportunity to work on both languages by helping both the language you are learning AND the language you are learning through. It also forces you to think of the two languages as different.
If you are learning Italian through Spanish, you are constantly confronted with the differences. A simple way to start this is to do a google in language A for learning language B and see what materials you find (“aprender italiano” yields over 700,000 results!). I also like to go to wikipedia in language A and read about language B. It’s always fascinating!
And last but not least…
5. Practice switching through languages!
Practice makes perfect, and not only are you going to need to practice your languages, but your brain needs to practice accessing and “putting away” languages. We find it hardest to get the right words when we are just switching from one language to another, and if we practice this we will get better at switching smoothly.
Find a local polyglot group. Play the polyglot game with a friend. Talk to yourself in different languages. Just keep speaking all the languages, and make sure you make the leap from one to the next. And figure out your weak spots as you go, so you know what you need to work on.
The only way to improve is by doing.