on October 13 2012 10:21 am 0

Not Mixing Languages is Easy? Hm…

The translator's drunk again.

The translator's drunk again.


I’ve recently written on this topic, but I have a good excuse to do it again–and some new thoughts to add. I just got a newsletter email with language learning advice that was…interesting. It offered tips on learning multiple languages “without mixing them up.” The advice wasn’t bad in theory, but it wasn’t exactly practical.


If not mixing languages were that easy, there would be no such thing as Surzhyk, a mix of Ukrainian and Russian that isn’t exactly socially acceptable. The reality is a little more complicated.

Nobody’s Perfect

One of the tips offered was to wait until you know your first foreign language well, then start another foreign language. Not bad advice, but it’s based on excessive optimism. The fact is you probably won’t stop occasionally mixing two (or more) languages just because you know both fluently. That’s especially true if you both frequently. There will always be times when you mix them up. I know it makes you feel dumb, but really, it’s okay. It happens.


I think the only way it’s possible to never mix languages is when your life depends on it–when speaking a single word of the wrong language could get you killed. And even then, I’m not so sure. A long time ago I read an article by a former East German spy who mentioned he once almost gave himself away by referring to the (East German) Reichsbahn rather than the (West German) Bundesbahn. This man’s career and safety, if not his life, depended on not using the wrong words and he still did it. I think the rest of us are doomed.

And Just for Laughs…

I have made some truly dippy “mixing” errors in my time. I once translated the English word beer into German as Wein. People, no–beer is Bier and wine is Wein. It’s not difficult. But I was in a hurry and wasn’t thinking. At least the person who caught the error had a good laugh.


And while we’re on the German theme, a former landlady of mine once described her apartment’s bedroom in Genglish as “very hell.” Hell is “light” in German. The bedroom was quite sunny, but it was in no way the fiery domain of demons. (By the way, if you have any fun mistakes to share, please leave a comment!)

But Don’t be Lazy. Seriously.
It Makes Your Grandma Cry.

Of course, there’s a difference between occasionally mis-speaking and continually blending languages out of laziness. So when you speak, try not to get into the habit of using whatever word comes to mind regardless of language, even if the people you’re speaking to don’t mind. If you’re not always aware of when you’re mixing two languages, ask your friends to tell you when you use the wrong word. And if you don’t know a word, look it up or ask.

Reality, Anyone?

Another bit of advice the newsletter gave was to study one language at a time. Again, not bad advice at all, but many people don’t have that luxury. Academic requirements from primary school to university have seen to that. These days, many young children–children who aren’t fully competent in their mother tongue–are required to take two foreign languages in school. And the selection is usually limited. Add to that any additional language(s) that may be spoken at home and you’ve got some pretty mixed-up kids.


Real life trips up adults, too. I remember once meeting an immigrant to Switzerland (we were outside Switzerland at the time) who complained of the difficulty of learning high German and Switzerdeutsch at the same time. For practical purposes, he had to learn high German, but at the same time, the people he talked to preferred to speak Switzerdeutsch.


If you’re someone who gets easily frustrated, then you’ll probably be better off sticking to one language at once if you have the choice. Otherwise, just do what’s practical for you and don’t worry. Just because you mix up vocabulary left, right and center early on doesn’t mean you always will. You’re not permanently damaging your language skills by studying two languages at once. You’ll be fine. Fine, not perfect.

Two More Tips for Keeping Things Straight

If you have a choice of when to start learning your chosen foreign languages, give yourself a head start of three to six months on one. Yes, it would be ideal to get to intermediate level in one before starting another, but if you can’t wait that long, three months will still help.


If you’re stuck having to study two similar languages at once and find you often mix up vocabulary, separate your study times as much as possible. Try studying one on the morning and the other in the evening (and alternate so you’re not always tired when you study one). Better yet, study each language on different days.


I wish I had some advice for those struggling with spelling in two very similar languages (beer and Bier, for example), but I am a terrible speller. If you have any tips for other language learners, please leave a comment!


The only thing I can say is that it does get better. Keep in mind that bi-lingual children are known for being a little bit slow in linguistic development at first, but they soon outpace their monolingual peers.


And if you’ve read this far, I’d like to tell you I forgot to change the price on the book after the sale. It’s still listed in the payment processing system at half off. I’ll eventually change it back (“Free time?” What’s that?), but if you want a cheaper copy grab it now!

Related posts:

  1. Compartmentalizing, Mixing Languages and Switching Languages: How Good Do You Have to Be?
  2. Facts About Easy to Learn Languages That May Surprise You
  3. How to Fix “I’m Not Good with Languages.”
  4. Is There Such a Thing as “a Gift for Languages?”
  5. How to Learn Second Language Without Stress

Filed under Strategy Planning,Vocabulary

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