France, Language, Recent
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Second Language Interference

So far the hardest part about being in France is the language, though not in the way you might expect.

Yes, it is frustrating staring at people blankly, not understanding what they are saying, and yes, it is frustrating understanding what other people are saying but not having the vocabulary to respond. Or if I zone out and don’t have the ability to passively pay attention to what is being said.

These are all challenges, but they are things I expected in coming to France and not being fluent or even conversational in the language.

No, the thing that is the hardest is my second language interference.

Now, I have to jump in here and say that after (five minutes of) Googling second language interference, every topic that came up was related to L1 or mother language interference in a second language that is being learned. Having worked with ESL students before, I was familiar with this topic. For example, it is hard for me as a native speaker of English to remember and use the gendered particles of words in French, because such a thing doesn’t exist in my first language and it is interfering with the acquisition of my second language.

But in my preliminary search just now, I didn’t see anything jumping out about second languages interfering with the learning of other second languages. Does it happen regularly with other people around the world? I’m sure it must. Am I just a weirdo and it is abnormal for me to experience this? Well, probably that too.

I do know (unless I am completely making this up, so someone tell me if they think I am wrong) that different parts of the brain are used for a mother tongue and a second language. So it is natural, probably, for speakers of multiple languages to experience this type of interference.

Anyway, back to the original story. So I’m learning French here in Annecy–I have about 4 hours a day of class and I live with a French host family so I have additional input and chance to practice outside of school. In class I am generally alright with using French, mostly because we are learning and repeating basic things, and all of my teachers know very well what level I am at and use phrasing/vocabulary/intonation that allows me to comprehend and respond using the French I do know. Also for the most part, the staff and even the students at IFALPS know enough English, my L1, to respond to questions or translate content if need be.

But then I return home….and all I can do is think in Japanese! What?!

So here is my theory about why I am having second language interference in my second language:

1) The only other host stay I have done was in Japan, using Japanese.

I have never been in an experience abroad where I needed to use either my L1 or an L2 besides Japanese at all times. Things like asking if its alright to take a shower at night, or do my laundry, or make small talk over dinner and then thank my host family for the meal–any number of things like this are things I have only really ever been forced to do in Japanese, and while obviously I have talked about showering and laundry and food in English, it was a culturally learned thing, and particularly since I live alone now not something I have had to consciously think about. When I was in Japan though, for four months I had to learn and remember things like dinner table topics and curfews and cleaning terms in order to use them on a daily basis. So now that I am in France and am being pushed to (and even rushed into) learning the same things, my brain is reverting to the last time I had to do such a thing.

2) My brain knows I am here to learn a new language, and so it is accessing the “foreign language” section of my brain.

When I am in the US, even if I study for a few hours every day, whether I am at school or in my apartment or at a cafe, I am surrounded by my mother tongue. I am never really immersed and thus never really need to change the patterns with which I think about language or use language. But being in France, I am accessing the foreign language section of my brain constantly–where my knowledge of both French and Japanese are stored. And because my French is so much worse than my Japanese, my brain is–maybe unconsciously maybe purposefully–accessing the knowledge I do have of certain subjects in Japanese since I don’t have the knowledge yet in French.

3) I cope with the Japanese in my brain by texting friends in Japanese throughout the day, and speaking Japanese with a new friend I made here in France.

I know, I know, I should work harder to make French friends or even just use French with my new Japanese friend. But it is comforting and relaxing to know that I am not a complete idiot, and rather that I am fully capable of learning another language and using it on a regular basis. (I’m pretty sure my host family thinks I have the intellect of a slow first grader T_T). But, like today, I have times where I have four hours of class in French, go out to eat with my friend for an hour speaking Japanese the entire time, and when I return home I am ready to shout “Tadaima!” as soon as I walk in the door (ただいま or tadaima is a way of saying “I have returned (home)”). I get into “Japanese Mode” and my brain has a hard time switching to an alternate foreign language that I am not as familiar with.

4. Plain and simple, my four years of Japanese outshines my two months of French.

My vocabulary, understanding of grammar, use of intonation and pronunciation, my ability to comprehend what I hear and my ability to answer questions and continue a conversation–all of these things are much more developed through time and practice in Japanese, and they are all things I am barely just wrapping my head around in French. I will get there (hopefully), but as of now, the levels are so different that I feel like my French knowledge is in the shadow of my Japanese knowledge.

In other words, it seems like it is a problem of muscle memory; and instead of being a normal person who speaks one language and is properly learning a second, I am an unusual person learning my fourth-ish “second language” after having already learned a “second language” in a similar situation. And given my level in French, my muscles are defaulting to what they know how to do or how to respond in such a situation. I am not sure how accurate my theories are, but I think it goes a little way in explaining and or understanding why I am having this L2 interference with another L2 instead of L1 interference with an L2.

Given time and money and test subjects and motivation, I would love to see if this happens to other people–so if this has happened to you before and you happen to be reading this, let me know!!

**I also talked about this sort of language interference previously here, if you want to read up on that as well!

Hopefully this was an interesting read! Stop by again soon for more travel and language adventures! ^_^



  1. Ann Brehm-Moline says

    Maddie, there absolutely is a foreign language part of the brain. When I was in Germany, whenever I couldn’t think of a word in German, it would pop up in Spanish. That led me to look into the phenomenon. It’s perfectly normal — albeit frustrating!

  2. Amber says

    This gets me all the time when I try to speak Spanish! My first couple times talking to my Venezuelan tandem partner, I kept saying いいね and そうか – it was like responding in Japanese was so automatic that I couldn’t shut it off. Do I sense a graduate studies dissertation in your future? 笑 

    • Hahahaha it’s entirely possible 😛 I think it’s more likely that my multilingual friends–yourself included–will be subject to spontaneous and thorough interrogations 😉

  3. theaussieglot says

    Thanks for the read, Maddie. Just wondering where you are on the CEFRL scale with your Japanese? Also, have you tried laddering (using your Japanese to learn French?) I feel like you might benefit from looking into this

    • I have never formally tested my Japanese level, but I would guess B2. And I have not tried laddering but that sounds like a great idea, I will look into that further, thanks! 🙂

      • theaussieglot says

        Makes sense. Hope all goes well for you 🙂

  4. Pingback: Studying French: Language Interference  | Unmasked Adventures

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