May 16, 2012 | Review Period

Language Confusion

I'm blending languages. I am largely untroubled by it.

This picture is of the trash area in a cafeteria at one of my corporate client’s locations. I taught an e-mail etiquette seminar to employees of the firm this morning, stopping by the cafeteria beforehand to get some breakfast.

What Part of Speech Is This?

What Part of Speech Is This?

I have noticed this trash-area text before. “Refuse” is a noun, but I don’t find people really use that anymore to describe trash, so each time I see this, it hits my brain as imperative and gives me a quiet internal giggle.

My French, Italian, and Spanish are swimming in the same giant pool in my head. 

I continue to be amazed by how much lamer I am at making progress when I review four languages at once than when I focus on one at a time. I think this language review is incredibly productive, but it does lead to more weird mixups than would ever happen under normal circumstances.

And the mixing up often involves very basic and embarrassing things. For example, I keep forgetting which version of a (for the preposition “to”) has an accent, the French or the Italian. (It’s à in French and just plain a in Italian.)

Also, I keep getting confused about whether there is an “h” in the third-person singular form of “to have” as used in the present perfect. Present perfect being, for example, “He has eaten.”

In Italian it’s ha (from avere), in Spanish it’s ha (from haber), and in French it’s a from avoir. And all of those are pronounced the same way, by the way: ah.

Now, knowing those forms is very basic. I’ve known them all for a long time now. And I’ve never mixed them up before that I am aware of. But this week, which has involved many grammar exercises in multiple languages, I find myself regularly forgetting whether it is the Spanish or the French that lacks the h

Another thing: yesterday in a translation exercise I was asked to translate into Italian “I know how to read fast.” It pains me to admit this, but I absentmindedly wrote, “So lire rápidamente.” The first word was Italian and correct (for “I know”), the second word was actually French for “to read” instead of the Italian leggere, and, while the letters in the third word were technically correct and in the proper order and everything, my adding an accent to the a turned it into Spanish (the Italian version being accent-free). Thus, I managed to merge pieces of three different Romance languages into a single three-word sentence.

German I am leaving out of this particular discussion, because I rarely confuse a German word with a Romance-language word. The boundaries between language groups seem to remain intact (though my Dutch and German got very mixed up, as I have mentioned before).

Today I Passed Landbrot in Greenwich Village...

Today I Passed Landbrot in Greenwich Village…

...a New German Bakery and Bar

…a New German Bakery and Bar

These experiences are interesting to me because they touch on the question of, how many languages can this head of mine actually store at once, at a high level? I don’t think four (besides English) is my capacity. I hope and think I can do more. But since the fifth one I would like to try to get to and keep at a functional level is Portuguese—yet another Romance language—I imagine I will face some major maintenance challenges. I don’t like polluting my languages with other languages when I am actually trying to hold an intelligent conversation. I like to get it right. Or as close to right as possible, anyway.

If I were going to settle on, say, Japanese as my fifth foreign language to maintain at a high(ish) level, I wouldn’t face the same pollution issue. But I would face the formidable challenge of the three-pronged writing system, and endless kanji memorization (those are the Chinese characters that are such an important and learning-intensive part of Japanese writing), and an unfamiliar grammar, etc. Japanese wouldn’t get confused with French, but it would take much, much, much longer to learn at a high level. And I have fewer opportunities to speak it than I do Portuguese. 

These are the things that are running through my mind.

When I am back to my civilian (non-language-learning) life, how much maintenance will I need in order to maintain how much benefit? (Will I ever in fact return to a non-language-learning life? At present I truly do not know what will become of me. After all, I have not, so far, been able to stop this project, which was originally supposed to end about two years ago but keeps consuming more and more months of my life. I am, I should perhaps add, a happy and willing victim here.)

To promote maintenance, what I am thinking of doing in the future is replacing or supplementing my morning New York Times reading—which, to be frank, has suffered during this project, as I tend to study grammar as soon as I wake up—with a morning reading of newspapers in multiple languages. 

On the website for MIT’s libraries is a nice compilation of information about foreign-language newspapers that are available online at no charge.

This idea appeals to me for multiple reasons. I could reinforce vocabulary and grammar while also keeping up my current-events knowledge—improving it, in fact, by making it more global and less U.S.-centric. And I really do love the quick switching around from language to language; it’s like a tickle of the brain. 

Comments (5)

Charles • Posted on Mon, May 28, 2012 - 2:24 am EST

Wikipedia is also a good tool for maintenance.  You can look up something in one language then choose another language from the side bar.  Also, if you don’t want to choose, there’s a “random article” link in the sidebar as well.

Tim • Posted on Tue, June 12, 2012 - 2:02 am EST

I just stumbled on your blog through the Pimsleur website as I was preparing for a presentation, and I was fascinated to see someone doing exactly the same thing I have been doing for the last few years. I suppose there must be lots of us out there.

I was always interested in languages, but a couple of book-and-CD packs on a sale table about three years ago sparked me on this bizarre mission to try out every language and every product on the market.

I probably spent the better part of a thousand dollars on this insanity before I realized that my job offered me a cheaper way. I’m teaching English as a foreign language in Japan, and it finally hit me that I could pass this hobby off as research. The great thing is that my bosses actually seem pleased with this.

My first project was a general survey of products out on the market. now I’m collecting observations from language teachers about their own language learning and how it affects their teaching. I realize eventually they’re going to ask me to produce some concrete results, so the goal is to do some kind of comparative study of how effective the whole thing is.

So far I’ve only read a few of your posts, but I’m looking forward to hearing your and others’ takes on this.

Corine • Posted on Wed, June 13, 2012 - 7:29 pm EST

I am using as online dictionary when I don’t know how to translate words.  Are you using any other site?
Thanks for sharing the website on MIT’s libraries!

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Fri, June 22, 2012 - 12:13 am EST

Corine, I have hardly ever used I will have to try it out some more!

For online translations I generally use (accompanied by boulder-sized grains of salt), or I sometimes use a Google application on my iPhone (

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Fri, June 22, 2012 - 12:15 am EST

Tim, naturally I love your undertaking. :)

One of my main goals in this project was to improve my understanding of language as a whole, since I teach English writing and grammar seminars (in corporate settings, primarily) and I don’t like to be too parochial in my perspectives on how language works. The project has definitely broadened my understanding of human language’s myriad forms.

Many of the products out there, particularly in the teach-yourself arena, are junk. That has been my conclusion anyway. Others are good to excellent. I am (still) working on a product-review directory. It is a huge undertaking (because I’ve used so many different things at this point) and one that is taking way longer than I expected!

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