IWTYAL 209: What’s it like with so many languages in your head?

Jane asks: “What's it like having so many languages in your head?”

Episode Summary:

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Full Transcript:

Good morning, everybody. Welcome back to the I Will Teach You a Language podcast. I hope you're having a wonderful day so far wherever you are in the world. I'm excited about the end of August, I'm going to the Montreal Language Festival in, you guessed it, Montreal. I'm going to be hanging out with some wonderful people, other polyglots, language experts. I've mentioned it a few times but what the heck. If you are near Montreal don't miss this, it's going to be really fantastic. Search for Montreal Language Festival online, you'll find it there. You can get I believe a 25% discount on tickets as well if you use the code Olly. A little insider tip for you there.

Today we've got a question that really made me think from Jane in the US, but before we get to that I'd like to thank the sponsors of the show. Let me ask you, how often do you speak the language that you're learning? Not just chat it around the house to yourself, but how often do you actually sit down and speak? If the answer is less than two or three times a week then you need to be doing more of it, that's the fastest way that you're going to improve. The best place to do that conveniently at a time that works for you is on iTalki. You can get a free lesson by going to iTalki using the link IWillTeachYouALanguage.com/freelesson. Seriously go and do it, you won't regret it. Let's get into today's question from Jane.

Hi Olly, Jane from the United States here. First of all I wanted to thank you for making such an excellent podcast, it's absolutely amazing and I love it so, so much. I found I Will Teach You a Language after spending about three years learning Spanish in high school and barely being able to have a conversation. About eight months ago I discovered the podcast on your website and other resources from other polyglots like Benny Lucas and Luca Lomparien and I made so much progress with my Spanish through independent study alongside classroom instruction with an excellent teacher, props to Prof. Fane, my high school Spanish teacher, that I'm now moving onto Portuguese which I'm super excited about. Having three languages in my head has been a really interesting experience. Rather than having one or two words for something like a pineapple, I now have three. It got me thinking, “What is it like to have so many languages in your head?” When you see a pineapple, do you think of seven different words, or do you just recognize it in English? Basically how do you keep yourself sane with all that linguistic knowledge in your mind? Thank you so much, I hope you have an awesome day, and see you later, I guess.

Hello, Jane. Thank you for a lovely message, I really enjoyed listening to that. The short answer is I just don't really worry that much about it, that's how I stay sane. It's a really interesting question. I don't want to sound too flippant by saying I don't really worry about it but generally and genuinely I don't. In terms of learning I only ever focus on one language at a time, my kind of active language learning focus is only ever on one language. So to that extent, I don't really have that much confusion in the learning process, but I do tend to use a lot of my languages out and about around London in my day-to-day life and I find that it's a big mix. Languages come and go. It depends who I'm spending time with, what I'm doing, what words I need. If I go through a phase of speaking more French than usual for example, I'll find that French words kind of come to the fore, but then other times I might be focusing on another language a bit more. My default is English, and I use English more than anything else. To that extent what I tend to find happens is a couple of things I guess. I often talk to myself. I'll be walking down the street and I'll try to say things in different languages as a nice little exercise to try and keep that language active in your brain. More often than not what happens somewhere like London is that I just kind of hear a bunch of people speaking and my brain immediately switches into that zone. I find that I'm getting better and better at it. To give you an illustration, when I first learned – you mentioned Spanish and Portuguese – I learned Spanish first then I went to Brazil and I learned Portuguese. In Brazil as my Portuguese got better, at that time I wasn't using Spanish, I remember going back to Europe and meeting my Spanish friend, Patricia, and we were talking in Spanish and she was like, “What has happened to your Spanish? It's all over the place”. I was speaking with this weird Portuguese grammar full of infinitives and not conjugating my verbs, it was really kind of messed up. So, I experienced what it's like to have that kind of confusion and I think, Jane, one of the things you're going to discover moving from Spanish to Portuguese is that they're so similar, there's a lot of scope for confusion. What happened with me was I had a kind of shock of my brain's a bit of a mess like scrambled eggs or something inside, but what happened was because I worked at using Spanish and Portuguese at the same time, so I would go out with friends and speak Spanish and Portuguese on the same night, I would learn to kind of separate it. I would get good at switching between the two.

The best I can describe it I think is you just try to compartmentalize it in your brain. For example a few hours ago in the park I heard a Brazilian girl on the phone to her friends trying to let them know where about she was. So I heard her talking, “Está onde?..está me vendo, ou não?…estou aquí no centro do parque..não sei onde você está cara… I don't know what she was saying. Immediately something clicks in my brain like a switch goes off and any kind of traces of French or Japanese or English even just disappear and it's like a part of my brain is immediately activated, it's Portuguese. It doesn't matter that I haven't spoken Portuguese for months, that just activates it. The other day I was in a cafe, and I had this heavy bag in one hand and a coffee in one hand, and I was trying to get out of the cafe. London's full of these exchange students at the moment, it's a bit annoying actually because everywhere you go there's huge groups of kids in the way. One such group of Spanish kids was just mindlessly blocking the door of this cafe, sort of sitting down when people were trying to pass. I heard they were speaking Spanish, and I spoke to them in Spanish without even thinking. Often I try to speak to people in English in the UK as kind of a courtesy to them. I just turned and said to her, ¿Me dejas salir, por favor?, “Can you let me out?” and she kind of turned around, Ahh sí, claro. It's like this little Spanish exchange that happened simply because I heard her speaking Spanish, and my brain kind of switched into Spanish. Two days ago I was walking through SoHo in central London and walked past this Japanese restaurant where my friend Takeshi works, and I saw him walking out like, “Hey, Takeshi”. We sat and we started talking and we were speaking in English actually, but the friend I was with said, “Can you speak some Japanese?” Actually we'd never spoken Japanese together and I was like, [Japanese 00:08:14], “We've never spoken Japanese together”. So we spoke a bit of Japanese and straight away I could smell the food coming out of the cafe and I was looking at a Japanese face and my head goes straight back to Japanese. I think that because I'm getting used to doing that, to using all these languages kind of together, I'm getting better at doing just that. I do remember when I was living in Japan for quite a long period, three to four years, during that time I didn't speak any of my other languages. I remember when I went back to try to speak Spanish after living in Japan for a few years I really struggled actually, because my brain was in Japanese mode for so long.

It's interesting to think about this, Jane. You made me think that actually I'm kind of learning to use all these different languages together and probably compartmentalizing my brain in different ways. Of course it's true that sometimes words in other languages will kind of pop up, get into my head inadvertently without me realizing it. Yesterday I was chatting to a friend in Cantonese and I was saying something, I don't know what I was saying, [Cantonese 00:09:32]. I was saying what I found in my life was this, that and the other, and I used the word to say life in Cantonese should be saang, but I said jinsei, which is like taking a Japanese word by mistake and imposing these Cantonese tones on it. Life in Japanese is jinsei, but I took the tones from Cantonese, tones one and six which is do-do like that. Our friend just looked at me and said, “What?” Sorry, that was Japanese. Who knows where that came from, that's just like totally out of the blue. This stuff happens, but it's never a problem. More often than not, it's just funny. We had a laugh about it and I said, “Oh man, mixing up Japanese and Cantonese” and she said, “That's interesting”. It's kind of cool, I suppose I'd rather have this problem than not. It certainly makes life more interesting and more colorful. There are also times when I meet somebody and there are really irritating times when someone says, “Speak German” or “Speak French” like trying to test you. In those situations often it take you a bit of time for your brain to switch if you don't have a particular stimulus. That can be a bit of a pain, it takes you a few minutes to just kind of adjust to the new language, but it's very rarely an issue. More often than not it's something that I try to embrace.

Yes, Jane, you're going to experience some of this with Portuguese as well. It's going to be interesting for you, so enjoy. I hope that was insightful, it's just really me talking about what I'm going through, so I'm not sure there's anything you can draw from that, but I guess the main thing is to just always remember to enjoy it. It's always a process. These languages that I use on a regular basis are far from perfect, but I am conscious that I am improving. Not necessarily getting that much better at the languages but getting better at using them and making them part of my life. To that extent I'm pretty happy. Thank you for the question, Jane, I really enjoyed answering that, I hope it was insightful for you. If you would like to leave me a question for the podcast then please go to IWillTeachYouALanguage.com/ask to do that.

I'd also really appreciate a review of the podcast. I know it sounds silly, but these reviews on iTunes really help because what happens when iTunes sees reviews coming in it then bumps up the podcast and shows it to more people. So if you think more people should learn languages, please take a second to leave me a review. You see what I did there? A kind of psychological trick.

At the end of every episode I like to leave you with a resource on the topic of the show and today I'm going to give you a video. This is a video that my friend Yan from the Netherlands shot in Cairo. He traveled to Egypt to visit me and we shot this video of me walking around the streets of Cairo using some Arabic and talking about languages. It's really cool, Yan did a great job with the video. If you haven't seen it, you must go and watch it, lots of people like the video. I'll put it in the show notes. To check out this video which you can watch on your phone or on your computer, wherever it may be, go to IWillTeachYouALanguage.com/episode209.

Alright, that's what I've got for you. See you in the next episode.

Thank you so much for listening to today's episode, I really hope you enjoyed it. One of the questions I get asked most often about language learning is how to improve your memory, because things get so much easier when you learn new words and you don't forget them later in conversation when you really need them. What I decided to do is to put together a short email course. It's a three-part email course over three days that teaches you my favorite techniques for memorizing vocabulary and actually putting that vocabulary into your long term memory. It's a short course, three days, it's completely free, and if you'd like to sign up for it please go to IWillTeachYouALanguage.com/freememorycourse.

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