5 Ways to Keep From Confusing Your Languages

It will happen to you eventually if it hasn’t already.

You will be speaking in one language and words from another language will just come out.

The question is, why doesn’t it happen more often?

We all have techniques to try and keep these sorts of things from happening, keep languages compartmentalized and reduce interference. Today I want to share some techniques or “tricks” I use. I’ve read about some of these in other blogs or talked about some of them with other polyglots. Some of them seem to make a difference for me, but I haven’t really heard them mentioned. This isn’t meant to be an all-inclusive list, and I would love to hear about your experiences, and what you’ve found helps you!

1. Build a language persona

A lot of polyglots, myself included, find that when they speak another language they become a different person. I’m still me when I speak French, but I’m not the American-me, I’m the French-me. I’m not alone in experiencing this either. In fact, this is so common an experience, that it’s probably the #1 thing that makes a difference in language learning. You need to create your [insert language here] persona.

I’m not saying you act like someone else. I’m not saying you lie.

Languages aren’t just words, sounds, and grammars. Languages exist in a culture, a set of social norms, gestures. Changing between languages isn’t just about saying the words, it’s about changing how you act and talk. We do this all the time: do you speak and act the same way with your grandmother as you do with your friends on the street? Probably not. And you probably don’t have to think too hard about it either – it just happens.

Linguists call this “code-switching,” and the sooner you can learn the WAY people express themselves in a language and culture, the sooner you won’t even have to think about which language you are speaking.

Which leads to the next tool…

2. Practice. Practice. Practice.

You can learn to do that pursed-lipped shoulder shrug that the French do when they say they don’t know something (“j’sais pas, moi…”), but if you aren’t practicing using it, it won’t become a part of your French personality. The point is that the WAY you act has to be as natural as the way you act in your native language.

When you are speaking with natives or characters in movies/TV, watch how they hold themselves, what kind of gestures they make, and listen for words or phrases that they use more often and try to use them more often when you speak. And when you don’t have anybody to speak with, have conversations with yourself so you can practice! (Maybe you should do this in a private place, lest people think you’ve lost it)

How many hours a day do you end up using your native language? Or speaking with people in your language? Chances are that it’s a lot (or has been in the past, for those of you who are living abroad). So no wonder you communicate so naturally. You don’t have to think about acting [insert your native cultural group here] because you’ve been practicing it for a long time! We tend to forget just how much time children spend learning to behave like a member of the culture.

Reviewing vocabulary isn’t going to get you to “be” a speaker of the language. It’s just going to make sure you know the word. You have to practice the words and phrases in context and with your whole body. When you do that, not only will you speak the language better, but you won’t get it mixed up with any other language. How could you? You’ve made the persona natural!

3. Study one language at a time

This is a common piece of advice from a lot of polyglots, and for the most part I agree with it’s benefits, even though I don’t think it’s right for everyone.

But one thing is for sure: if you are only learning one language at a time, it’s easier to focus on getting that natural persona with that language. (This doesn’t necessarily include maintaining languages you already speak, however!)

It’s also, undoubtedly faster, which appeals to people who have many languages as a goal. I’m more of a journey person than a destination person, myself. Sometimes I work on only one language, because that language has interested me so much that it has my undivided attention. Sometimes I have a few languages pulling at my heartstrings. But even in those cases, I usually …

4. Don’t START two languages at the same time

When two languages are at the same level, particularly the beginner stages, the vocabulary and phrases you learn are often one and the same. You learn how to say hello and goodbye, how to introduce yourself, how to talk about your family, etc. The introductory “scripts” are extremely cookie-cutter.

So if I’m learning that thank you in Turkish is “teşekkür ederim” but “motshakeram” in Farsi, and the Turkish phrase is rolling off the tongue faster, it’s not surprising that I might say it when I’m trying to speak to an Iranian.

Sometimes it’s better to try and elevate one of the languages to an intermediate level first before adding a new language. I will admit, however, that I don’t always do that, and I have managed to get by unscathed – this isn’t a hard and fast rule. There are other forces at work here. For example, you might notice that the Turkish and Farsi words for “thank you” look a little similar. They both come from the same Arabic root.

So if you are intent on starting two languages at the same time, it might help if you…

5. Don’t work on languages that are too similar

Of course, eventually, you could be working on even subtler things like speaking Mandarin Chinese like a Beijinger or like someone from Taiwan. But at first, it’s probably not going to make things too easy for you if you jump in to Spanish and Italian together, whereas Spanish and Norwegian might be easier.

When languages have a lot of similarities, of course you might get them mixed up. Not only is that reasonable, but in some cases people just shrug it off because you are a foreigner and they know that these things happen. I have had many a conversation in Spanish where Portuguese words managed to make their way in to the conversation, but the people I was talking to didn’t mind because they still usually understood what I was saying. This isn’t, of course, ideal, and you can avoid it by working on diversity in what languages you are speaking.

Another unintended consequence on working on languages that are similar is that early on you might not know enough about the cultures to understand the differences, and it will take a while to build separate personae for the languages. If the languages are too similar, in some cases there are a lot of similarities in the cultures as well. This will just slow you down and cause headaches.


 

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it’s full of things that I have found helpful. Have you tried these things? Have they helped you? Let me know your thoughts and experiences!

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