on April 18 2010 08:22 am 0

Compartmentalizing, Mixing Languages and Switching Languages: How Good Do You Have to Be?

If it hasn’t happened to you yet, it will. You’re minding your own business thinking in one language and someone comes up and says something to you in another language. Maybe you understand, but can’t find the words to reply or maybe you don’t understand a word even if they spoke your native language.

Understandable as it is, it can still make you feel a little slow-witted. You wonder if you really know the languages as well as you think or your ability to fluently switch from one to another.

Don’t Worry, You’re Normal

Rest assured that having trouble switching between languages or mixing vocabularies (heck, even grammar structures) is not a sign of some linguistic incompetence on your part. It’s completely normal and just about everyone does it. As for the so-called “amazing” ability of bi-lingual kids to separate languages…it’s not so amazing. Multilingual kids can mix languages like nobody’s business and not even realize they’re doing.

Pros do it, too. I once saw a Candid Camera-type show in which two people played a joke on an interpreter. One person spoke Spanish and the other English, with the interpreter between them. In the middle of the conversation, the Spanish speaker switched to English and vice versa. The interpreter didn’t notice. She kept on “interpreting”…Spanish into Spanish and English into English. She was concentrating on the meaning of what was being said, not the way it was expressed.

One Idea, Lots of Labels. Not Wonder Your Brain’s Confused.

It happens because when you’re speaking a language you’re comfortable with, you’re thinking about the ideas you want to communicate, not about “vocabulary” and “grammar.”

You want to tell someone you’re feeling chilly, you mentally call up words to express that idea and depending on what languages you’ve been using recently, your brain might come up with “I’m cold,” “Mir ist Kalt,” “Mne holodno,” “Samui desu” or some other way to express the same thing. But on a subconscious level, it seems like the mind just doesn’t see the point of picking one over the other.

Fluently Switching Languages Takes Practice

I think of being “ready” with more than one language at a time like having different windows open on a computer. You’ve got your Web browser, your word processor, and your music player. They’ll all up and ready to react to input withing seconds. But if you need to edit some photos, it’ll take a few seconds to start up Photoshop.

Likewise, if you’re in an environment where you’re constantly switching between two different languages, you won’t need to make any extra effort to understand or speak one or the other. But if someone suddenly starts speaking a third to you, you’ll need a moment to start up your “program” for that language.

In fact, even if you could have understand had you been expecting that language, the words might register as gibberish just because you automatically filtered them through “programs” for completely different languages.

How to Practice On Your Own

All it really takes to get used to switching back and forth is practice not with the languages themselves, but with switching between them. If you don’t have much opportunity to practice both languages frequently, try writing or just thinking in one language while listening to the other.

Better yet, turn on the TV or radio and talk back to it in the language other than the one your thinking or writing in. Talk to the TV in one language and your dog or your fern in the other. It might sound a little funny, but if you’re trying to prepare for an environment where you’ll need to switch fluently, it really can help.

Related posts:

  1. Not Mixing Languages is Easy? Hm…
  2. How to Fix “I’m Not Good with Languages.”
  3. Facts About Easy to Learn Languages That May Surprise You
  4. How to Revive “Forgotten” Language Knowledge
  5. Is There Such a Thing as “a Gift for Languages?”

Filed under Listening,Speaking

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