Experiment: Switching Languages

After I learned Mandarin Chinese, Spanish and a little Arabic I did not think that switching between foreign languages was very hard. The three (plus English) were all from distinctly different language families, which made the task relatively painless. Not only did they sound different but the very grammar and roots of each of the four languages were fundamentally different.

 

When I recently added French to the mix, things became more complicated. At first I was filling in Spanish words all the time. Finally the habit went away, but recently I traveled back across the border from France to Spain and had the opposite problem – placing French words in Spanish sentences! I decided to approach the experience as an experiment and see what I could do to improve the switching process.

 

 

Crossing Into Spain

 

After two months (total) of study and living in France, I spent a few days in Bordeaux and then took the train into the northern part of Spain. The interesting thing about this trip was that I got to step back into Spanish slowly.

 

There were many stops between Bordeaux and Bilbao (two trains and a bus), and French gradually gave way to Spanish as the dominant language. I offered aid to those Anglophiles who looked lost along the way, as well, so I got to practice both languages a lot.

 

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The most interesting thing is I never had trouble understanding the natives (at least, no more than normal). It was changing my own speech that was difficult. My brain tended to fall back on whatever language I had been using most recently. After a few days and more switching back and forth, I finally figured out some tricks – and recorded my progress.

 

 

 

From French to Spanish

 

After each conversation, I jotted a quick estimation of the percentage of misused words into my journal. This may have been far from a perfectly accurate representation, but it helped me a lot to understand what was going on.

 

For the first 24 hours, switching slowly from French to Spanish, the graph looked something like this. It should be no surprise that after a good night of sleep my error percentage dropped drastically, from about 30% (stuttering a bit) to about 2% (one mistake every few sentences, speaking at normal conversational speed).

 

 

 

 

 

Spanish back to French

 

In the hotel I found myself around some French speakers and began helping them. The starting error rate was lower and the improvement faster, but there was still some discomfort. I was now switching between speaking French to French speakers and Spanish to Spanish speakers. Amazingly, this became easy quickly – I just had to learn to visualize and focus on the person in front of me.

 

 

 

What I Learned

 

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Without a doubt, switching languages is a trainable skill.  Many polyglots (like Benny) have suggested associating gestures, accents or imagery with a language to help remember it. In essence, to create a unique personality for each in your mind that fits not only with the language but the culture as well (such as gesticulating more in Italian). This lets you slip between personalities and remember each language better.

 

The more I switched, the more I started doing this without even realizing it. Spanish is not only spoken differently in terms of accent, but more rapidly and with a different intonation. It may seem silly, but even the tilt of the head (slightly back, the nose up ;) can make French “feel” easier. To make myself produce these sounds I had to “think in a certain way.” Even the grammar structures themselves require that you approach concepts in your mind differently.

 

For example: in Spanish, the phrase to express that you are enjoying something is as simple as using the verb to “enjoy.” On the other hand, in French, it is a bit more complicated. The verb to enjoy still exists, but to say “I am enjoying it” you would say literally “I am in the benefit of it.”

 

I still suffer when I try to make the switch from one to the other, but in just one weekend I got significantly better at it.

  • 李白

    I think
    this is going to be a massive blog,
    great work!

     

    I’d love
    to know more about how you learnt Chinese and your level.  In a post you said your have registered to
    get new words which lie within the 10,000 frequency usage range so I assume
    your at least intermediate level.

     

    In another
    post you said you didn’t use mnemonics so I wonder how you learnt so many
    characters and ultimately words?

    Anything
    else you found challenging when you learnt Mandarin and how addressed it would
    also be interesting.

     

    Cheers!

    • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

      你太客气!

      I spent 1 semester learning the basics of Chinese in
      college and did poorly. I was unmotivated and stopped… then 4 months
      later, out of the blue, I moved to China. My job there was to help
      Americans get around, so I **had** to speak Chinese every day. I started
      using ChinesePod.com
      (a great site) and taught myself. Sort of a trial by fire. All in all I
      lived in China for one year and kept studying for about 6 months after
      (2 hours a day or so).

      It has been 3 years since then, so my
      level has dropped. At my best, I was high-intermediate or low-advanced. I
      could listen to most basic news broadcasts and even follow a little TV.
      These days, I’d say I am mid to low intermediate and stumble a bit in
      my conversations, but I still basically understand if someone speaks to
      me slowly.

      Really, what was the best for me was the fact that I
      was *forced* to speak Chinese every day. It did not matter how
      uncomfortable I was, if I did not speak the language and get the point
      across then other people were going to suffer!

      • 李白

        That’s an impressive level after basically 1 year of self studying Mandarin!

        Thanks for the info. 

  • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

    你太客气!

    I spent 1 semester learning the basics of Chinese in college and did poorly. I was unmotivated and stopped… then 4 months later, out of the blue, I moved to China. My job there was to help Americans get around, so I **had** to speak Chinese every day. I started using ChinesePod.com (a great site) and taught myself. Sort of a trial by fire. All in all I lived in China for one year and kept studying for about 6 months after (2 hours a day or so).

    It has been 3 years since then, so my level has dropped. At my best, I was high-intermediate or low-advanced. I could listen to most basic news broadcasts and even follow a little TV. These days, I’d say I am mid to low intermediate and stumble a bit in my conversations, but I still basically understand if someone speaks to me slowly.

    Really, what was the best for me was the fact that I was *forced* to speak Chinese every day. It did not matter how uncomfortable I was, if I did not speak the language and get the point across then other people were going to suffer!

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