One topic that seems to come up often in conversations I have with language-learners is the subject of mixing up languages in your head. Often people ask me "how do you keep all those languages separate?" and others ask, almost in disbelief, "don't they all eventually blend together?"
But they don't blend together, and it's actually not at all difficult to keep them separate.
Compared to the average American, I may speak a lot of languages, but compared to many other cultures around the world, my level is not so impressive. And there are many polyglots out there who have a command of many more languages than I do. I never hear of any of these people having trouble keeping languages separate.
So how do we do it then? In my own experience, there are just a few key things to remember.
First, and perhaps the most important, is to associate a culture with the language. You have to create a context for the language — a space for it to occupy inside your mind.
For those learning a language in the country where it is spoken, this is easy. They don't have to create a context because it already exists. But for those learning at home, or in their home country, it is important to create a realm in which the target language is the natural choice, and where other languages (including your native language) are not. This not only aids in keeping the languages separate, but it naturally makes learning easier as well.
When a language has a strong context associated with it, you that language takes over whenever that context is present, and it even feels more natural than your own native language!
Over time, you'll even discover triggers that cause a particular language to come out, such as what you say when you stub your toe, or when someone sneezes.
Be diligent about pronunciation. Don't be lazy with those sounds that seem unnatural. Using good pronunciation in a target language helps to form that context in which the language lives.
Did you know that French and Italian are more than 90% similar? Yet no one ever mistakes one for the other. In spite of the fact that Bonjour and Buongiorno are phonetically quite similar, the proper pronunciation of each makes them sound altogether different.
While the disparity between Italian and Spanish is somewhat greater, the two sound much more alike. And in fact, last year as I learned Italian, I did confuse it with Spanish at times. But the solution had nothing to do with my Italian studies! Rather, I improved my abilities with Italian when I became more diligent about proper Spanish pronunciation.
I now find that I'm often consciously unaware of which language I'm hearing, but that I respond correctly based on the accent that I'm hearing and using when I respond. Only after I stop and think about it do I realize which language it actually is.
Finish the job
A strong, fluent command of a language makes it come out naturally. When you're not fluent, there is a tendency to think and search for words, but when you reach fluency the words tend to come out on their own, almost as a reaction to the thought. (This is a great example of why I feel it's important to accurately define fluency.)
Many people with an interest in languages find it hard to stick to one language for an extended period of time. And those who have made it a goal to become a polyglot have even more temptation to wander from language to language.
But when you wander away from a language before fluency, that language remains as information, rather than knowledge — it is something you understand, but not necessarily something you know. And once you start searching for words in the next language, your mind will continue the search in all the places it knows to look.
In my own experience, those languages over which I don't have a strong, fluent command (eg, German or Polish) do get muddled at times, whereas those in which I feel a strong skill level never get confused. When I speak Russian, or Spanish, or Italian, I do so without that mental search for words. The words mostly just come out on their own.
When words come out on their own, there is no opportunity to confuse one language with another.
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