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The Challenges of Learning Multiple Languages at Once

Sometimes when people find out that in any given day or moment I am studying 2-4 languages, they look shocked and ask me things like “isn’t that difficult?” or “how do you keep them all separate in your brain?” Typically I answer with a vague comment about how its not so bad, partially because it is mostly true and partially because people usually aren’t actually looking to have a long conversation about it. But the reality is that sometimes it is a challenge to learn multiple languages at the same time, and sometimes it is a challenge to learn a language after having already learned several languages. There is no way I can even begin to scratch the surface of this topic in one blog post, but I thought I would share some of my experiences for people who are actually curious and for people who are interested in learning multiple languages but are scared that they are the only ones having these kinds of experiences.

Earlier this year I decided that I wanted to apply to pastry school in France. The catch? I don’t speak a word of French. Like, not even a little, and have never learned a language (other than my native language) that is close in structure to French. I have picked up a system for how to treat Asian languages and I understand how I best learn languages, but I have never applied this system to roman languages. So I decided around August that I needed to start learning the basics and started taking some French lessons.

Unfortunately I didn’t really have the time to focus on French, so I was only able to fit in one hour, once a week lessons. The trouble though, with spending this little amount of time with a new language was that my other languages–particularly Japanese–were infringing on my language learning territory. My teacher would ask me simple questions in French about pictures in my textbook. “Is she French?” or “Is there a chair?” You know, the simplest of the simple questions.

But I looked and sounded like a complete idiot, because I had to pause every time a question was asked. Who in America doesn’t know that the French word for ‘yes’ is ‘oui’ and the French word for ‘no’ is ‘no.’ And still, something was holding me back.

I soon realized that the last language I had seriously started learning and am still currently seriously learning is Japanese, and every time a question was asked in French, I knew what the question was and I knew what the answer was, but I tried to respond in Japanese. A little ‘hai’ even slipped out now and then, and while sometimes I could pass it off as a noise of confusion sometimes my teacher just looked at me funny and I ended up word-vomiting to distract her.

The reason this is a challenge due to learning multiple languages at once is because I was not trying to answer in my native language. In fact, my native language was not seeming to hinder me at all. It was challenging to take up French because I consistently tried to relate the French language learning process to other language learning processes. I have realized the important thing to do in this situation is to recognize that there is a struggle at hand, and to continue to try to immerse yourself in the weaker language you are learning as much as possible. I find this easiest to do through listening to French language music and French dubbed American TV shows while doing random things around my apartment like doing my dishes, or while I am writing on my blog.

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A second challenge I face became blatantly clear to me a few weeks ago, though I know it has been a problem for me prior to that as well.

So a few weeks ago I met up with some friends to practice speaking Korean. Being in a fourth year Japanese class and having spent 6 months out of the past year in Japan, I knew I needed the practice. The group made a promise to speak in Korean as much as possible, and after getting all the surface level conversations out of the way I was dying to slip into Japanese in order to further the conversation.

To this end, I turned to a girl who was in the Korean practice and also happens to be in my Japanese class, and said “일본어 話곳싶어.” For non-speakers of either language this probably makes no sense, but I was trying to say “I want to speak Japanese.” I ended up saying “Japanese” in Korean like I meant to, but I used the Japanese verb stem for the word “to talk” even though I conjugated the verb in Korean and used the Korean conjugation. What even…?

It is one thing to use Janglish or Konglish or what have you, but as a native English speaker, to use Jangrean is a bit of a shock. I mean, if I was going to code switch, shouldn’t it be between my L1 and the target language? Not an L2 and an L3? The hardest part for me was the embarrassment. I wanted to practice my Korean, but I was so scared that Japanese would slip out again that I felt more hesitant to speak my mind.

Again, I don’t think the answer to this is to stop learning multiple languages at once. I think the solution or way to work around this challenge is to continue to find ways to use both or all the languages being learned, and to find a way to feel confident about yourself and work to avoid embarrassment getting in the way of continuing to learn.

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I will hopefully be back with more language musings soon! Let me know in the comments section below if you have any questions, comments, or want to share your own language learning experiences!

じゃ、またね!

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Second Language Interference | Unmasked Adventures

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