Polyglotfilter: How do I keep track of all these languages in my brain?
May 21, 2009 3:52 PM   Subscribe

Polyglotfilter: How do I keep track of all these languages in my brain? In short: I'm at various stages of each language, though some are on "pause" for the moment. What are the best methods for continuing my progress in each, without mixing them up?

A bit of background: My native language is English. However I'm Canadian, and went through the French Immersion programme at school; my entire K-12 education was in French. I am now functionally fluent, but when I go long periods without using it, my grammar, genders, and some vocab start fading.

I also took a Spanish class, and through various trips to Mexico and Peru, I attained a basic level of conversational Spanish. It seems, though, that it almost disappears completely until I'm back in a Spanish environment... then I'm fine again, chatting with most everyone.

Arabic came next, which I've been studying, VERY sporadically, for a couple years. More of this has sunk in than I realize, though, when I find I'm able to read random words. I cannot, however, even introduce myself in Arabic.... so it's below basic.

Then all of a sudden, off I move to Istanbul, Turkey. Talk about an immersion environment! I've been studying Turkish for the 3 months here, with a Turkish friend, plus practical application... well, everywhere. I'm at the point now where I'm conjugating verbs, and putting together decent sentences, and I can usually understand the jist of what people are talking to me about. Arabic has proved extremely useful, because I'll stumble upon a Turkish word, and immediately know what it means; Turkish borrows a lot from Arabic.

Aaannnd... this summer, I'll be spending a lot of time out in Eastern Turkey, and with my Kurdish host family, and culturally, it would mean a lot to them if I learned at least a few phrases in Kurdish.

All this leaves my brain spinning.
I try to speak in one language, and another one comes out. Spanish is my "least comfortable" one, and so I often find myself letting "Como se dise..." slip out when I'm actually trying to speak French or Turkish. Currently, Turkish is my focus. I'm working hard towards fluency asap (which is actually coming along rather quickly; it's an easy language). But I don't necessarily want the other languages to just fall to the wayside: I eventually want full fluency in Spanish and Arabic as well.

So, to keep this out of chatfilter, here's what I'm asking:

-To other polyglots: How do you keep the languages sorted out while you're learning? Do you have exclusively "Spanish" rooms? And just "Arabic" friends? so that your brain differentiates?

-Languages really are my thing, but is it ridiculous of me to try to work on fluency in one language, maintain my fluency in another, and learn polite conversation in 1-2 others all at the same time? Is that too much for the brain to handle?

-Anyone with experience learning multiple languages who has any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

( apologies for my atrocious grammar... there's few English speakers around, so even my own language is starting to fail me! )
posted by hasna to Writing & Language (7 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I used to teach Spanish and Portuguese classes, one right after the next in the same evening. That can be tricky, since the two languages have so many similarities. I found that I did best once I approached switching as a skill that I had to actively practice, rather than just something you could either do or not.

There are certain words that become especially ingrained and automatic, such as pivot words like "but." You have to work hard to dislodge those from muscle memory.
posted by umbú at 6:06 PM on May 21, 2009

Swedish is my first language, English my second. I speak English daily, Swedish only a few times a month. I tend to mix in a lot of English words in my Swedish, so I have to really focus on speaking "clean" Swedish. That goes away when I spend a few days immersed in Swedish, though, and then I can switch between them without mixing too much. It's the same coming back home again - it takes a while to get back to "clean" English again.

German is my third language, Chinese my fourth - with some sporadic French and Spanish studies mixed in as well. I never substitute German for Chinese, but I always have to focus on not speaking Chinese when I try to speak German (if that makes sense). I don't ever mix anything else in when trying to toss out a few French or Spanish words, but then I was never fluent in them.

Personally, I think of it as the various language "pairs" being stored in separate parts of my brain - first and second language in one area, third and fourth in another, with the rest scattered in other places. While it's unlikely that it's actually true, thinking of those language "pairs" as being closer to each other in my brain helps me focus on keeping them separate when I need to.

I also agree with umbú that it's a skill you have to practice, rather than something that comes naturally. It's like any other language skill - practice is the only way to get good at it.
posted by gemmy at 7:09 PM on May 21, 2009

Unfortunately my only advice is also practice, practice, practice. My native tongue is British English and I used to be reasonably fluent in French, Italian and Spanish, with working modern Greek (and fair Latin.) After living some years in the US, with no practice of any but Spanish, everything I try to say, or even think, in a language other than English comes out as mangled Spanish. I think that without use, the brain pathways merge.
posted by anadem at 8:50 PM on May 21, 2009

"Use it or lose it."
posted by kosmonaut at 8:54 PM on May 21, 2009

What anadem said. I was hoping for magic hints from other posters. I think my brain has a big storage bin for "foreign", and the most recent things are at the top of the bin. If I'm always rummaging around for a particular thingy, eventually my brain gives it a bin of its own.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:26 PM on May 21, 2009

I completely agree with anadem and i_am_joe's_spleen. I think, until you get to a certain, deeply fluent point with a language - and I've never gotten there with anything other than my native English, even though I'm Canadian and like you did immersion(ish) things in school with French - it will still end up in that "foreign bin", and so I find myself mumbling out French words when I'm trying to speak a third language -- the worst was Japanese, for some reason, and if I remember correctly I would say "mais" a lot, which agrees very well with what umbu said. I suspect there is no magic cure and it just requires practice and attention.

As a sidebar, I get a kick out of this problem -- it makes me feel like my brain is generalizing upward to some sort of multi-lingual metalanguage, as though screwups like these are the window into a hypothetical language-independence of thought, which gets into the whole Sapir-Whorf thing and linguistic determinism... it's interesting stuff to think about. Not that it helps when you keep throwing the wrong word into sentences...
posted by Super Hans at 10:26 PM on May 21, 2009

I think my brain has a big storage bin for "foreign", and the most recent things are at the top of the bin.

I'm exactly the same as far as the two bins thing goes. First language is English, and as soon as I can't find a word in Spanish or Italian or whatever language I speak even the tiniest bit of, the fluent French rushes in to fill the hole.
posted by Wolof at 1:09 AM on May 22, 2009

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