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How polyglot brains handle cross-language interference

Paranoid polyglots beware. After years of brushing off comments like “don’t you ever get mixed up with all those languages?“, it happened to me recently: I noticed a significant interference from one language to another.

The pernicious pair of languages comprised German, my longest and strongest project, and the not-too-distantly related Norwegian, which I started much later, but also speak reasonably well. The culprit? The word for vegetarian. After years of being perfectly aware that the German translation is “der Vegetarier“, I found myself starting to say “der Vegetarianer” instead. Norwegian shuffles and looks sheepishly at its feet in the corner; the norsk equivalent is “vegetarianer“. Guilty!

Since adding Norwegian to my languages, it seemed I had also added an extra syllable to a German word, too.

This kind of interference is especially common with close sibling and cousin languages. For example, difference can arise when close languages borrow words differently, ending up with mismatched genders for cognates as in this example. Similarly, when I first attempted to speak Polish, the interference from my similarly Slavic Russian was inescapable.

Evidently, polyglots are regularly learning material that lends itself to cross-confusion and interference. But we often worry about it, or characterise it as some kind of failure of method, when there is good reason not to.

Bilingual brains

Firstly, interference is a wholly normal feature of using more than one language regularly. Research into bilinguals reveals that even two native languages are not immune from interference.

But more importantly, cognitive linguists studying bilingual subjects have illuminated some of the brain processes that monitor and catch such slip-ups, and, crucially, learn from them. Now, polyglot language learners are not quite analogue with bilinguals. But these conclusions go some way to explaining processes that affect us all, and more practically, reassure the paranoid polyglot.

Our inner sentinel

The key topic of interest in cognitive psychology here is conflict monitoring theory. This approach to understanding thought probes what happens in the brain when errors creep into our conscious stream. One particular structure, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), appears to be our inner sentinel, monitoring activity and sounding the alarm when “competing representations” come into focus.

Interference is monitored by the anterior cingulate cortex.

The location of the anterior cingulate cortex in the brain. Image via Wikipedia.

Note that it is our own brains doing the detection. We know, on some level, that we have made a mistake. That in itself should be sweet reassurance to the worried learner. Our brains are simply not constructed to rattle off mistakes without recourse to self-correction. If you are familiar with the material, interference will always ring bells.

However, the anterior cingulate cortex appears to do its work beneath the level of conscious control. We are not even aware of it, save for the mental jolt we get when we realise something was amiss. That neatly explains that familiar niggling feeling when something questionable leaves our mouths!

Intuiting interference – some strategies

In fact, the research goes beyond plain reassurance. One study of bilinguals concluded that regular language switching will increase error detection. That will be music to the ears of polyglots pondering the sense of studying more than one language at once. It suggests a strategy for success: cycling through your languages regularly, rather than focusing on one at a time. This chop-and-change approach may help keep your ACC sentinel fired up to ambush errors.

Some platforms such as Duolingo are perfect for switching to and fro between active languages like this. It was using this very resource that I noticed my own Vegetarier-vegetarianer interference slip above. The site’s multichoice flavour of questioning in particular is a great way to flex the brain in terms of conflict monitoring and error correction. Faced with one correct response and two – often subtly – incorrect ones (often cheekily bearing a resemblance to another red herring language), those mental circuits receive a proper taxing.

Finally, let’s not forget regular speaking practice using online services like iTalki, too. Once, I would fret at the potential confusion from practising three or four different languages in a week. As it turns out, that could be just what we all need.

And those pesky Russian interferences in my Polish? Well, after a bunch of lessons, and a fair bit of forehead-slapping and self-chastising, they have thankfully vanished. Like my interference errors, yours will struggle to escape the watchful eye of your anterior cingulate cortex in the end, too.

The take-home message? Don’t fret too much about interference, and revel in your multiple languages. Your anterior cingulate cortex has your back!


Coloured Pencils

Five sure-fire ways to warm up for language lessons

To get the most from any lesson, a good warm up always helps. That goes as much for one-to-one iTalki sessions, as it does for classroom learning. Prime your brain correctly, and it will be in just the right place to process new information.

For iTalki students, the stakes are even higher for getting the most from your lessons this month. The language learning site is holding its language challenge throughout February, encouraging students to go the extra mile with tuition hours. The leaderboard is alight with eager students, some boasting a mind-boggling number of lessons taken in these first few days.

If it demonstrates one thing, it’s that there are plenty of linguists that have the language bug even worse than I do. But all those extra lessons mean money invested in learning. And that makes it even more important to get the most from your investment.

So that our learning hours aren’t wasted, here are five very easily overlooked ways to warm up before a lesson.

1. Podcast listening

Even if you don’t understand 100%, filling your sound space with the target language is a good way to prime your subconscious for speaking it. If you’re busy, you don’t even have to focus fully; just have podcasts playing aloud for 30-60 minutes before the lesson, and you can tune in and out.

German has a good word for what this achieves: einhören, or the process of ‘listening into’ a language, or getting used to it. It’s an almost effortless way to get ready for your language lesson.

2. Anki flashcards

Just before your lesson is a great time to recycle and revise previous vocabulary. If Anki is a part of your language learning regime, you will probably have a bank of vocabulary cards at your disposal. If not, you can download it for free from this link. There are also lots of shared decks you can start with if you don’t have your own vocabulary bank ready yet.

But the principle goes for all your other vocabulary, too. If you keep written vocab records, leaf through them and test yourself before you start. The same goes for any other language app you regularly use; doing a little Duolingo or Memrise right before your lesson can work wonders. It’s an excellent way to give your memory a gentle shake, and bring to the top relevant material for your lesson.

3. What have you done today…

…to make you feel proud? And the rest. Beyond the most basic level of language learning (ie., A1 in the European Framework), it’s likely you’ll have some general conversation at the start of a session. Don’t let questions about your day / week catch you out – be prepared to have something to say.

It need only take a few minutes. Start by writing some brief bullet points on the main events of the week, in the target language if possible. Briefly look up key words you don’t know. It will save you a lot of umms and aahs in the lesson.

4. Warm up to Music

Songs – particularly pop songs – are great warm up tools for a number of reasons. Firstly, they have repeated refrains, which means that you can quickly pick them up and sing along. And that warms up not only the brain, but your mouth muscles. Different languages have distinctive patterns of physical speech production, and singing along will literally get your mouth in gear.

Also, like podcasts, they surround you in a blanket of target language. You can enjoy them in the background in a few minutes before your lesson, while they quietly prime the mind for listening.

Not only that, but they’re usually very short – the three-minute pop song is an industry benchmark – so you can listen to as few or as many as you have time for.

5. Relax

One of the easiest things to forget is simply to chill. It’s normal to feel a little nervous before one-to-one lessons, especially if you’re Skyping with a stranger for a first lesson.

Sit down comfortably, have a glass of water ready and enjoy a few deep breaths before starting. Let go of the tension and be open to learning – a stressed brain is not an efficient one.

Warm up to language lesson success

Some of these are common sense tips to warm up the language learner’s brain. But all of them fall into the category of ‘easily overlooked’. It’s far too easy to say that you haven’t enough time to do them before a lesson on a busy day. But they mostly take just minutes, or can even occur in the background while you do other things.

Work some of these into your routine, and go into your lesson with a primed, ready brain.