Learning languages is just half the battle.
The real challenge can be maintaining the linguistic arsenal you’ve worked so hard to amass.
One second language might be a small time commitment, but as you add a third, fourth and more, the game will change.
Sometimes you have the sensation that your Arabic has totally devoured the French you used to speak, or that your Czech grammar was turned upside-down when you learned German. Other times you might feel like you don’t know how to form a reasonable sentence in any language at all.
Learning languages is one thing, but living a multilingual life and speaking different languages on a regular basis is a whole other matter entirely.
It changes your brain and your personality. It opens you to different social networks. It makes you better at learning languages in general, and helps you improve your native language. It can also sometimes leave you confused, frustrated and worn out.
If you want to turn your life into a linguistic juggling act, you’ll be glad to know that not only is your brain designed to keep learning languages at any age but that multilingualism is super common throughout the world.
While your brain does most of your linguistic maintenance behind the scenes, building a few simple good habits can ensure that you enjoy all the benefits of a life full of languages down the road.
How Your Brain Handles Different Languages
Have you ever heard the myth about how only kids can really learn languages well? In case you missed it, that one’s been debunked for a while now.
The human brain is almost magically capable of adapting to new languages at any point in life, and there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that a new tongue is the best brain food there is.
We know this from looking at some of the differences between the brains of monolinguals and people who speak multiple languages. For example, multilingual brains are usually bigger and have more gray matter. They’re also a lot more resilient to strokes and they’re champions at keeping dementia at bay. Part of how your brain accommodates playing host to several different live-in languages at the same time is by physically adapting itself. As you might imagine, remodeling your brain has a lot of side effects, but you should think of them all as upgrades.
Speaking different languages literally remolds your brain
Learning and speaking new languages physically reshapes your brain by building new neural pathways and adding new synapses. The more different languages you learn and use, the more new pathways are created. This is actually literally growing your brain and making it more efficient in the process.
It makes sense that your brain grows when you use multiple languages, since studies show that different languages are stored in physically different parts of the brain.
It seems like storing languages in different physical compartments of the brain is efficient for more than just neural functioning, but also for living your life. It’s thought to be the cause of polyglots’ increased affinity for multitasking and filtering important information out of less important distractions and background noise.
It’s these skills of filtering out certain kinds of information and dividing your attention between tasks that allow people who speak multiple languages to not only switch between them when they need to but also be able to subconsciously recognize social cues that tell when it’s appropriate to switch languages, otherwise known as code-switching.
Code-switching: The polyglot’s Olympic sport
Code-switching is when you switch between languages or language varieties, and—as you might have already guessed—it’s a feature that’s included in the standard subscription to all human brains.
This is the impressive feat the Northern European linguistic Olympians perform so casually that makes them look cool and worldly in hostels. In the middle of a conversation in their native language with their friend from home, they smoothly throw an English “hey, how are you doing” your way and then proceed to strike up a new conversation with someone else in Spanish, all without breaking a sweat.
Sounds exhausting, right? Not so much. Here are a few things most people don’t understand about switching between different languages:
- You already do it, even if you’re monolingual. When you speak to your university professor and suddenly find yourself clearly pronouncing your -ing‘s at the ends of words and switching your yeahs for yes‘s that’s a kind of code-switching too, only between “sociolects” or particular ways of speaking that relate to class, education or group identity.
- It’s mostly a subconscious reaction environmental factors. When you speak different languages, social cues will prompt you to code-switch. Hearing or reading a familiar language can easily evoke a momentary mental switch to it, and seeing the face of a friend with whom you speak it will almost certainly do so. Having this ability to subconsciously analyze and respond to your linguistic environment is one of the things that makes multilingual brains so efficient and saves them a lot of mental energy.
- You’ve got linguistic veto power. When you’re back home enjoying an authentic Mexican taco with your English-speaking family, “ay, qué rico!” may try to climb out of your throat, but you’ve generally got the final say on whether you release a Spanish exclamation into the world or an English one. Most of the time, anyways.
And that’s where things start to get a little messy.
Polyglot problems: The struggles of speaking different languages
Like we said, most of the time your brain will take the lead on languages. But every now and then, all those environmental and internal signals get crossed. Weird stuff happens.
Speaking different languages is natural and good for you in the way that running is natural and good for you: the more the better, but sometimes you get cramps or just wear yourself out.
The source of most of those cramps for people who grew up monolingual will be your mother tongue. It’s been around the longest, you’ve subconsciously made a lot of your assumptions about language in general based on it and it’s what hard-wired you to learn languages. It will often stick its micromanaging nose in where it doesn’t belong. While sometimes your other languages will stand up to it, sometimes it just plows over them.
Other polyglot problems arise from lack of practice, personal differences in learning style and the same imperfection of the learning process that leads you to say something wrong in your native language every now and then. Here are a few of the most common problems facing polyglots on a daily basis:
- Interference: This is the collective term for all those times you accidentally used German grammar in Portuguese, or when you tried to say something in Thai but pronounced it like an English word and someone thought you said something rude. When the structures or conventions of one language interfere with another, you’re mixing knowledge of different languages, which normally produces something that doesn’t make sense in either tongue. The struggle is real, and most people’s reactions to it will range from patient to amused.
- Reduced feeling of “nativeness” in your first language: This one normally comes in abrupt little bursts, and it’s often ridiculous and hilarious when it does. You literally translate an idiom from another language, or you can’t remember what that thing over there is called in English. Sometimes you may find it momentarily difficult to say whether a particular sentence is correct in your mother tongue while you struggle to think consciously about rules that you normally use subconsciously. It’s par for the course, so just learn to laugh at it.
- Tip of the tongue moments: The more languages you speak, the more “tip of the tongue events” you have. This is actually the technical term for it, and it’s exactly what it sounds like: when you’ve almost got a word, it’s on the tip of your tongue, but you just can’t remember it. This generally happens pretty evenly across all your languages, including the native one.
- Getting rusty or forgetting languages: Languages take time and attention, and the more you speak, the more time you need to keep them all alive and well. Many aspiring polyglots make the mistake of taking one step forward and one step back, letting one language languish while they devote all of their attention to the new one. Thankfully, relearning a rusty language is pretty easy.
- Wanderlust: Call it a benefit or a drawback, but many multilinguals are drawn to use their languages in the countries they come from. Practicing Spanish on your annual vacation to Andalusia is reasonable, but how many language vacations can you fit in a year? The answer might be to just pack up and hit the road permanently!
Most of the “problems” that come from speaking different languages are better called “amusing annoyances,” and I don’t think I ever met a language learner who told me “well I’m just giving up because I’m too confused all the time and travel too much.”
Still, there are solutions to even the pettiest of polyglot problems!
How to Speak Different Languages Without Getting Confused
Hopefully you agree that polyglot problems are more something to put a hashtag on and laugh about on Twitter than something to divert you from learning more languages.
You were quite literally built for this, so your brain is quietly doing 90% of the work for you behind the scenes, but there are a couple things you can do in learning, using, and maintaining your languages to deal with the other 10%.
What not to do during the language learning process
It seems like there are as many ways to learn a language as there are learners out there, and different approaches work better for different learners. But, if you want to keep different languages neatly arranged inside your head, there are a couple specific approaches that you should be warned against.
1. Learning two very similar languages at the same time
Learning two closely related or otherwise similar languages at the same time is generally a no-no for language learners, especially those who want to minimize their polyglot problems down the road.
This is because language learning is largely a game of finding patterns of difference. Languages that share a lot of the same or similar words and word parts are different systems with the exact same kinds of rules (rules about word order, how to form a question, how verbs are conjugated) and very similar parts, so figuring out which parts belong to which set of rules is a challenge even for something as efficient at language learning as the human brain.
That’s not to say you can’t learn more than one language at a time—some studies suggest the more the merrier—but it means you should be careful in your choice. Japanese and Russian might be okay, but Spanish and Italian maybe not so much.
2. Basing words and meanings in one language on those of another
You always hear it: don’t translate. Instead, try to think in the language you’re speaking. But what does that actually mean, and how do you do it?
On the surface, this means don’t just think “the blue house” when you read or hear la casa azul. But this also means something deeper: la casa azul shouldn’t only not be translated in your mind as you hear it, but in fact it shouldn’t have anything at all to do with the English concept of a “house” or the color called “blue.”
La casa azul should be a construction with walls and a roof and windows, where people live inside and cook and watch football, with blue walls that are blue from somebody having painted it with paint, not a cartoonish color on your computer’s Paint program. Try as hard as you can to tie the meanings of words in a foreign language to real things in the real world.
You should strive to do all your thinking about meanings in a language in that language, to keep it from ever being tied to or dependent upon your understanding of English words. Prepositions, verbs and even nouns cover different properties in different languages, and looking at any one from the perspective of another makes it look sideways and upside-down.
Maintaining your languages
One way you can think of languages is like muscles that need to be trained. If you only teach them one repetitive back-and-forth motion, like ordering food or asking directions, they might tone up but they’ll never grow very much. And no matter how big you get them, enough time in disuse will shrink them back down to their original size.
The solution here isn’t new or innovative, but tried and true: use it or lose it!
There are a few different approaches to doing this, but here are four that are easy to incorporate into your life:
1. Use each of your languages to accomplish a task every day.
This doesn’t mean that you need to have a half-hour Skype session every day to keep on top of your languages. What it does mean is that you should use each language to accomplish a task of some kind daily or as close to it as possible.
Accomplishing something can be paying bills or filing residency paperwork in your home abroad, or it can be as simple as using the language to entertain yourself with a couple of funny YouTube videos. Speaking of videos, FluentU’s program provides interactive captions for hundreds of engaging videos made by native speakers.
2. Try to develop a special relationship with each of your languages.
As you become more and more fluent in a language, think about what you use that language for the most or what it naturally lends itself to. It’s easy enough to tie each language to something culturally related to it—maybe you look up recipes in French since you love French cuisine, or maybe you took a semester abroad studying finance in Hong Kong and now your Cantonese is good enough to do all your budgeting and banking in that language.
When I lived in the Netherlands, I worked at an NGO where I spent a lot of time reading and talking about international affairs and development in Dutch. Now, with more than a year out of the country, I find it easy and practical to read the day’s news headlines in Dutch or to watch the Dutch nightly news to catch up on world events.
Similarly, I’ve most recently lived in Mexico, and all it took was one conscious decision after I left to continue making my grocery lists in Spanish. This way, I keep using both of these languages in my daily life and, rather than stopping in the middle of my day for some artificial practice, I incorporate them both into my life in a natural and unintrusive way.
3. Practice code-switching.
Even if you use all your languages every day, switching between them can remain challenging and confusing without practice. But practicing rapidly switching between languages doesn’t only make continuing to do so easier. It’s like a composite exercise that works multiple languages from multiple angles at the same time, and has extra benefits for your brain and overall general language abilities.
The best way to do this is to purposely put yourself in multilingual situations. Go to language exchange meetups, hang out in hostel common rooms or, if you live in a big global city, just go for a stroll outside and eavesdrop until you hear something familiar.
When you can, practice switching between different combinations of languages, and especially between two languages that aren’t your mother tongue. The point is to find ways to practice your ability to switch back and forth between languages, and you’ll notice it getting easier and more natural the more you do it.
If you hit this muscle from all angles, you’ll be looking like a professional linguistic athlete in no time.
Languages for life: Some considerations for a life full of languages
So we’ve established that you either are or want to be a high-functioning polyglot, which, by the way, we think is great. But to truly reap the benefits, make sure speaking all these different languages becomes a lifestyle rather than just an exciting phase of your adventurous student years!
Multilingualism carries benefits throughout your life, so you’ll want to make sure you continue to nurture your hard-earned languages as the years go by. One way you can do that is by living in a multicultural, multilingual world city. The streets of London and Singapore and Cape Town are absolutely crawling with representatives of that 60% of the population who understand your polyglot struggles.
How would you feel about dating someone who has a different native language than yours? We’re not suggesting you swipe left or right based on what languages someone speaks, but it is immensely helpful to have a romantic partner who speaks one or more of your target languages.
And don’t stop at romantic partners—it’s even easier to fill your social circle with speakers of your languages and maintain your speaking skills while maintaining your friendships. It’ll be a challenge to lose your Portuguese when your best friend is Brazilian, and meeting your German friends for a game of flunkyball every other weekend means you’ll at least retain the requisite vocabulary for knocking over beer bottles and cheering about it.
You don’t have to move your whole life around to make it a life full of languages. Whether you live in a great world city or remote countryside, whether your social calendar looks like the agenda at the United Nations or you’d rather be on the couch with a book, the key is to speak all of your languages all the time.
Enjoy the many benefits they bring to your life, and learn to laugh when they make you a little crazy!
Jakob is a full-time traveler, obsessive language learner, and dedicated language teacher. He writes about language, travel, and the many places they meet on the road at his blog Globalect.
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