If people know you’re a language geek, then there’s one question they ask all the time: don’t you ever get mixed up with all these languages?
The short answer is simply yes. The longer answer – well, I’ll get to that. But it is a frustrating fact that I’ll sometimes reach for a word in one language and, maddeningly, only be able to grasp it in a language I’m not trying to speak at that moment. It happens particularly frequently with languages that are closely related, and when I’m quite proficient in one but not the other.
All Russian to me
I’ll take a recent example to illustrate this polyglossic pitfall. In the last year or so, I’ve begun to learn Polish in earnest again. It’s something I wanted to speak ever since I heard Edyta Górniak sing Poland’s stunning debut in that beautiful language at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1994. (Unashamedly, Eurovision steered many of my early language goals!)
After some self-paced book study, I decided it was time to get some speaking practice in. I found a good teacher on iTalki – always a decent place to get face-to-face native speaker lessons – and sat ready for my first, full-length Polish lesson. The teacher took a communicative approach, and so the lesson was almost completely in Polish. But I managed, despite the challenge, and got a lot from it. All the same, every now and then, I’d reach for a word I knew I knew in Polish, and it would come out in Russian. I’d go for przyjaciel (friend) and it would come out as drug; I tried to say kraj (country) and what I got was straná.
Now, I spent some years learning Russian, on my own and with various tutors, online and offline. It was pretty strong at one point (now, sadly, a bit rusty and screaming to be my next ‘recovery’ project!). Due to their similarity as Slavic languages, Russian was leaking into my Polish.
I noticed what was happening; it was when I was under conversational pressure, trying to keep the flow and not stumble for words. Russian was my familiar friend at times of Slavic stress (although a false friend where the Polish word differed completely!).
On face value, this seems bad. Mixing languages, when you’re supposed to be speaking one, is missing the goalposts. Right?
Getting mixed up is a healthy part of multiple language learning
However, in real life, it is a completely normal part of how bilingualism develops. Children brought up with multiple languages, for example, will readily mix them up to a certain point of development. The mix-ups eventually stop, and separate, functional languages remain. As such, experts recognise it as a perfectly normal and healthy part of multiple language learning.
What’s more, these ‘mistakes’ represent active learning. When I conflate Russian and Polish, I’m reinforcing the relationship between the two in my brain – especially with a good teacher who can recognise it and explain what I’ve done. I start to build up a map of how these two languages are related, how they are similar – and not. And this bird’s eye view of language is one of the greatest gifts that can come from being a language junkie. Ultimately, this heightened familiarity will help you miss the false friends, and make more educated guesses when struggling to find a word in one of them.
So, in short, I do mix words up, all the time. Everybody does. But don’t be afraid of it. Language learning is a process of exploration; mixed-up moments represent real discoveries that join up the dots and fill in the gaps on your journey.