Europe, France, Language, Musing, Recent, Study Abroad, Travel
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Studying French: Language Interference 

Another day, another blogging-in-a-train-station experience as I am once again too early to go through security.

I had every intention of studying French yesterday. I really did. But then it somehow devolved into daydreaming in the foreign language section of my brain.

I packed up my French textbook, my study packets, my flashcards, my notebooks–everything–and I went a few blocks down the street from my hotel in London to find a cafe that was suitable enough for studying at. (The struggle is so real in Europe to find a place that isn’t solely for drinking espresso, and it continues to be one of my biggest areas of culture shock). Obviously I also brought a book and my baking idea notebook, because what if I finished studying and had nothing left to do?

So I ordered some juice, laid all my belongings out on the table in front of me….And then just stared at them for about five minutes.


I probably should not have brought my sketchbook with me 😛

French is hard.

When I finally made myself start working, I only got through about one exercise in my homework packet before I decided that I probably deserved a reward for trying so hard. Taking out my baking notebook, I began to doodle an idea… and before I knew it, I was completely throwing all pretense of studying French out of the window as I began writing my ideas down in Japanese…and then switched to Korean.

And just so you know, I am fully aware of how abnormal this is. But I thought it would be entertaining to tell you about anyway 😉

If I had all the time and motivation in the world I would love to delve further into studying what differentiates the native language section of the brain and the foreign language sections of the brain. Every time I am solely in English mode, it is easy for me to stay there. And even if I start getting off track and wander into another language, it is quite easy to return to English.

But as soon as I attempt a new/weak foreign language, it is the stronger foreign languages that come to the forefront and stay there. I talked a little bit about this last year when I was in France for the first time, but I think it is even stronger this year now that I have had a five month stay in South Korea. And more than just the study abroad aspects and competence in Japanese and Korean that are interfering, in the three months before I came to France this time around I spent a lot of time reading and using cookbooks in Korean and Japanese (which now that I look back on it was probably not the greatest idea, but as they say hindsight is 20/20).

I am probably not doing the best I can in order to switch my brain into French mode, but let me tell you, ITS HARD WORK!

It may not be physically exhausting to learn a new language, but it is mentally (and even sometimes emotionally) exhausting to learn (and forget and relearn) concepts in a language that you already know in three or four other languages. I feel so incredibly incompetent in French, and my brain seems to be trying to tell me to retreat to the comfort zone and competent zone that is the Korean and Japanese section of the foreign language center of my brain.


Even when I started writing in English it quickly devolved into Japanese >_<

It certainly isn’t helping that I have yet to make any French friends and as soon as I leave school the other students in my program and I speak 99% in English.

When I was studying in Korea I took a course called Intercultural Communication and Leadership (you may remember my final video project about discovering identity abroad), and during that course we spent a lot of time talking about how the most growth occurs when you are able to cement yourself in a zone that is outside familiarity and comfort but not so far as to be dangerous or completely overwhelming.

In Korea, my biggest struggles were to get out of the American Bubble, the English Bubble, and the Bubble of Isolation. There I did want to use Japanese, particularly in the beginning, but my Korean also started out at a higher level than my current level of French–it was easier to train my brain to use Korean more and more.

Studying in Korea also effectively demolished the budding foundation I had on French from my month in Annecy last year.


The problem is that the foreign language center of my brain has become a part of my comfort zone–but the tiny French language corner isn’t big enough to hold its own yet. I love using foreign languages, and when I set my mind to switch over from English it isn’t that big of a challenge if it is any other language.

At first I was disappointed that there were no Korean or Japanese students in my pastry program, but now I think it is probably for the best, or I would never ever learn to speak French!

So the current plan of attack for getting out of my English and Foreign Language Comfort Zone and to try to minimize this second language interference is further immersion.

I like to say I am learning French, but I listen almost exclusively to Korean music, I watch English language TV shows, I use Japanese when I think about new recipes.

I don’t know that it is realistic to go completely cold turkey on the other languages in my life (I mean, Game of Thrones Season 6 JUST started airing…obviously I have to watch it….and binge watch all the past episodes…) but I do think it is realistic to exchange my Korean music to French music during the week, watch TV dubbed with French, and invest in some French language cookbooks so that I stop using Japanese in my mind when I think about pastry.

One last thing I wanted to mention before ending this post was that I think part of the second language interference is stemming from the intense desire to not loose my other languages while I am here. I’m not ready to give up on my level of Japanese or Korean, and without a way to practice or advance the language in school or in my social life, if it is going to be maintained it is entirely on me.

Perhaps this is just a rationalization for why it keeps popping up in various aspects of my life, but I think my subconscious is trying to hold on to my language ability in any way possible.  I feel a lot more understanding for people who move abroad and never learn the language of the community they move to–they quite possibly are holding on to their previous language(s) in order to preserve a part of themselves they are not ready to give up, and learning a new language threatens the use and knowledge of the previous language(s).

That said, I am going to give myself a few weeks of attempted semi-immersion of French before I go back to the balancing act that is any person attempting to learn multiple languages. >_<

*Note: Please ignore the Korean/Japanese in the photos above; I’m sure my language usage is incorrect at times (and don’t even get me started on how long it has been since I have actually practiced Kanji) but I was writing to myself and didn’t really think about what I was writing. It was purely writing down what went through my head at that moment.




  1. What you say about not wanting to lose an existing language while trying to learn a new one sums up my experiences – I’m yet to fully commit to learning a second foreign language as I’m always subconsciously worried that I’ll lose the level of French I’ve worked so hard to get to! In terms of French music/ TV/ film etc., I can offer you a few suggestions (and there are a couple of articles on film & music on my blog already). TV-wise, check out ‘Les Revenants’ – it’s a ghostly drama but not in the way you might expect (no stereotypical zombies), or try ‘Le Meilleur Pâtissier’ (almost like the British show ‘Masterchef’, but exclusively desserts & all contestants are professionals) – I found this on YouTube during my year abroad and loved it 🙂 Music & film depend on your personal taste, I like ‘Chante France’, a radio station which plays a mixture of current & classic French hits 🙂 if you want any other suggestions, drop me a line! 🙂

  2. Amber says

    The same exact thing happens to me when I try to use Spanish – Japanese comes out instead. Maddie, this is a linguistics thesis just waiting to be written (by you)!

  3. Pingback: Day Trip to The Cotswolds | Unmasked Adventures

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