How Do So Many Languages Fit in Your Head?

Ah, yes, a topic that has been requested for a long time!

I’d like to dedicate this post to Paul DuCett for our Facebook-reminded Friend-versary. Granted, he’s someone who doesn’t have a lot of problems with this in the least, with very convincing accents in most of his languages (that I’ve heard him speak). But I thought that I’d let the world know that he’s an inspiration in my life as well as to many others around him.

Also, the topic was requested by another friend of mine, Dan Haworth, who is also an extraordinary role model and language enthusiast.

Hey, if you have any topics to request, I’m glad to hear them! Write ‘em in the comments!

Aaaand…onward!

Online as well as offline, I encounter people who speak five or six languages very well, and they say “I have enough confusion as-is, I couldn’t possibly imagine the sort of confusion you encounter”

Do I encounter confusion? Undoubtedly.

Do I find a way to minimize it? Read on!

Arieh Smith (of Ari in Beijing fame) once asked me what my biggest strength was, and here comes the answer:

The one extraordinary strength that I have is that I can make connections between events, words and many other things with great ease.

How does this relate to having a lot of languages fit in my head?

Well, you as a human being have a lot of senses, and as a result you usually associate things you remember with more than one sensory element. (Imagine the setup of your room, for example, that you may associate with feelings, scents, etc.)

One thing I do in order to minimize confusion is that I ensure that the languages to which I commit myself are not just words, but also canisters of experiences that I have had with them.

Let’s take a language with which I have been overwhelming successful with: Norwegian. It has a lot of challenges despite the fact that it is one of two languages that I’ve heard described by its native speakers as easy (the other being…Burmese? But I’ve heard them both described as hard at times, too…)

Namely, the pronunciation can be a bit tricky at the beginning. Regne (to count) is pronounced “rye-neh”, but legen (doctor) is pronounced “leg-en” and reglene (the rules) is pronounced “reg-le-ne”. What’s more, the musical sounds of the language are very difficult to imitate and I have still yet to see an online polyglot pull it off very well (although no doubt I have encountered many Americans in person that have spoken Norwegian so impressively that I thought they were natives!)

And if you know Danish, the trouble expands because the two languages look almost identical on paper! So I wanted to know both Danish AND Norwegian but what could I do?

Last night at Mundo Lingo I was expressing the fact that I was still shocked that I don’t mix up Danish and Norwegian almost…ever. (Interestingly if I’m alternating between Swedish and Norwegian I can have some issues but that’s another story)

I pin this success on the fact that I associate the Danish language with the songs and experiences I’ve had with Danish, and the Norwegian language I associate with a whole new set of experiences!

These experiences include not only talking to native speakers (or non-native speakers) but also using the language online, times in which the fact that I knew Danish came into conversation (“Oh, yeah, when Danish speakers say they like something they say ’they can suffer it!’ Isn’t that fun?”

Then there are the languages that I don’t know as well and that’s because I still have yet to collect a lot of experiences with them. Last night at Mundo Lingo I felt that I did very well with Swedish, Danish, German, Spanish, Hebrew and English. Not so for French, Ukrainian, Burmese or Russian.

What am I missing in the last four? Is it because I need more time? Maybe.

But one thing I definitely could use to make it stronger and it affirm the presence of these languages in my head is to attach them to nodes. I have to have unique experiences in which I’m actively using the language. They could be online. They could be offline. They could even be in my dreams for all I know.

Collecting experiences like these serves two purposes:

  • It makes instances when you use the language more memorable, because you are tying the words, the syntax, the sentences to specific happenings.
  • It also serves to create an emotional attachment that not only furthers your desire to get better at the language, but also prevents other things of a similar flavor from entering that space.

So many people mix up languages and I can almost tell you why:

It’s because they haven’t distinguished the flavors between the languages yet.

This also happens as a result of addiction to book learning. Book learning is good. I’ve definitely done it. But at some point you’ll definitely need something else!

Those who mix up Spanish and Portuguese and pronounce them with almost identical accents are probably going to mix them up frequently. Often too many languages learners assume that the way to learning a language is through (1) learning or (2) having a lot of interactions with native speakers.

Yes, they definitely help, but you’ll need a deeper emotional attachment in order to fully make them a part of who you are.

I’m being honest: my emotional attachment to the languages that I succeeded with last night is significantly stronger than those that I didn’t succeed with.

But maybe what I really need is methods to create that attachment.

So how exactly do I keep all the languages in my head?

I associate words, sentences, grammar forms, irregular verbs, etc. with various things. They could be mental images of my friends, cartoon characters, website layouts, album covers, song lyrics, etc.

That way, I have an extended “picture dictionary” on recall.

When the picture dictionary is honed, I can manage to be unstoppable when speaking a language. If the picture dictionary isn’t honed, I mess up. And yes, I have the picture dictionary technique even with my native language!

As a child when I was learning what “Hanukkah” or a “Sukkah” was, I associated them with particular scenes from the VHS tapes that I was exposed to in school or at home. I did this naturally (although I don’t know if my mind works differently than yours. A lot of people assume that I am a “genius” and that I have a distinct advantage because of it. Perhaps I do, perhaps I don’t, but I’m here to provide techniques and the idea of whether or not I’m a genius is “teykudik”, a Yiddish word meaning “not having any possible conclusion or endpoint in any way whatsoever”)

So that’s my trick as to not mixing them up. You wouldn’t associate the taste of vanilla ice cream with the word “chocolate”…or would you? In the same way, I wouldn’t mix up Spanish and Hebrew (like WAAAY too many people I’ve met say they have) because the former is my experiences with my Spanish friends in Poland and the latter is my experiences with Israeli expatriates all over the world. I associate the two languages in very different spheres because of that.

Mixing up languages? Collect new experiences in any regard, in each of your languages, ones that will endow each of your languages with a very distinct flavor that you wouldn’t “mesh” with any of the other flavors.

And there you have it!

come back when you can put up a fight

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