We’ve all been there in the early stages of language learning. Somehow, certain words just seem to blend into each other. Does X mean Y or Z? I keep saying X for Y! And why do all those little words look so similar? You want your vocabulary to stick in your mind, not the individual items to stick together.
These recall problems are pretty normal, particularly when you throw in the social pressure of speaking with others, which can even mess with your native language. With a foreign language, the problem is compounded by differences in phonemic salience – that is., which sounds count as important markers to distinguish one word from another. Something really subtle in your native language, like the difference between a hard stop and a palatalised counterpart, can completely change a meaning. Take the pair of words adabu (good manners) and ajabu (wonder, amazement) in Swahili. When I started Swahili classes, I could not separate them in my head for the life of me. It’s likely that my brain just found it tricky to meaningfully separate the sounds represented by d and j, as /d/ often morphs into /dj/ in my native dialect (try saying induce or and you).
Other times, words might get sticky because they share similar structures that co-trigger, like rhyming sequences. That would explain why I also found it tricky to separate the word asali (honey) from the previous two. Latching onto that aXa pattern, it somehow ended up occupying a very similar memory space to adabu and ajabu. And of course, it probably didn’t help that you spell all three with just five letters! It’s the cost-economising (read: lazy) part of the brain spotting patterns and making heuristic shortcuts – even when these are very unhelpful. Tsk. (Incidentally, the brilliant Daniel Kahneman writes about dodgy heuristics in Thinking, Fast and Slow, which is well worth a read if this piques your interest!)
Interestingly, it’s an effect that isn’t confined to brand new languages. It can even happen with old languages we’re dredging up from the past, or low-level maintaining.
Hebrew is one of those for me. It’s not quite a maintenance language; in fact, I can barely even count it as a fully-fledged language of mine. I barely reached A1 in the modern, spoken language, so it doesn’t take a lot of maintaining. I keep it in that list, chiefly, for reasons of nostalgia!
Anyway, a couple of years ago, I sought to do that minimal maintenance a bit more systematically. I grabbed my copy of Routledge’s Colloquial Hebrew, trawled the first six chapters for vocabulary, and dumped it into Anki. I set my Hebrew deck to drip through a single new card a day, and just let time do the rest.
Overall, it’s been a brilliant, low-key method for solidifying all that ultra-basic stuff. But, every now and again, I do struggle to recall certain words. And surprise, surprise, it’s usually those that look a little bit similar to others. It’s adabu-ajabu all over again!
Seeing it through Anki eyes gave me a new perspective on it, though. In test mode, mix-ups are largely artefacts of the isolated vocabulary item problem. It crops up time and time again in polyglot social media circles: don’t drill words, drill structures. Disembodied parts of speech have little salience on their own. Your brain needs something to hang them onto.
Of course, when all your Anki cards are done, you’re already in a bit of a bind over this. You could go back and update all your cards to be sentences (sourcing them from a bank like Tatoeba, for example). But that’s a lot of work.
Instead, you can embed mixological words in some kind of context on the fly. When cross-contamination occurs, think of a phrase – however short – to include the word in. Use alliteration, rhyme, any trick to make it stick. Say it out loud, enjoy the sound of it, visualise it. And try to recall that same phrase whenever the troublesome word pops up again. For my Swahili pair, I came up with:
- mji wa ajabu (a wonderful town)
- dada mwenye adabu (a good-mannered sister)
In both cases I’ve chosen a word repeating the troublesome letter (d/j) to highlight the problem sound. I won’t say I never mix them up now – but it has certainly helped.
From my novice Hebrew, another example shows that you can sometimes even combine them together. Take tsar (tight, narrow) and tsad (side). Smoosh them up into tsad tsar (narrow side), and they might just end up sorting each other out.
What words do you tend to mix up in your target language? And how do you go about fixing it? Let us know in the comments!