Language Learning: Darn Interference!

Teresa, my Portuguese teacher, harbours a dark fantasy. She would love to get hold of one of MemoryEraserthose Men-In-Black memory eraser sticks and expunge every trace of Spanish from her students’ brains. Then she could finally teach us proper Portuguese from scratch.

Sadly, since this fantastic gadget doesn’t exist in the real world, her little fantasy is doomed. She’ll just have to keep on rolling her eyes every time we say “pequeรฑo” instead of “pequeno”, and sigh in quiet desperation over us pronouncing what should be a mellifluous sing-song language in the machine-gun-like staccato characteristic of Peninsular Spanish.

But it’s not just poor Teresa who suffers.

My brain is no blank canvass. Besides being littered with useless factoids, it comes with two languages fully installed that don’t always play very well together, a third one is running at 72% (and still loading), and now I’m attempting to pour another one into this turbid pond.

In general, I guess it does hold true that the more languages you know, the easier it is to learn another one, but the downside is that they interfere with each other in menacing ways. For instance, the similarities between Romance languages are both a blessing and a curse. Because of their considerable lexical overlap, if you’re a laid back kind of a person and just want to “communicate”, you’ll do great by kidnapping Italian words to plug the gaps in your Spanish, but if you’re a stickler like me and you care about getting it right, it’s the road to insanity. Verbs are among my biggest headaches, as I’m still battling with the fifty or so versions that exist of each Spanish verb. With Portuguese thrown into the cauldron, the putrid, gurgling broth isn’t going to turn into a bowl of translucent consommรฉ any time soon.

More of a messy stew...

More of a messy stew…

...than a clear broth

…than a clear broth

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some people I know have given up. One of my Spanish friends, while living in Barcelona years ago, attempted to learn (the local language) Catalan. She abandoned the attempt, because every time she tried to speak it, Italian (acquired during a year studying abroad in Rome), shot out of her mouth instead. An old college friend of mine keeps insisting that all those years studying Italian as a youngster have prevented her from communicating in coherent Portuguese to her Portuguese husband’s family.

I follow this blog http://myfiveromances.wordpress.com, owned by “Bernardo”, a very witty Australian guy, whose personal challenge lies in tackling Portuguese, French, Italian, Spanish and Romanian simultaneously. I believe he spent last summer in Romania to get to grips with the latter. His grammar posts from back then made my head spin. I’ve no idea how he maintains his sanity, I really don’t.

It’s not just closely-related languages that cause an interference problem. During the early-to-intermediate stages of language learning, it’s a very common phenomenon that our brains, while labouring hard to retrieve the required vocabulary, dredge up the corroded remnants of languages we haven’t used in years. When I first started learning Spanish, what kept popping into my head was my long-forgotten Russian from half a life-time ago.

Green thicket

Interference can manifest in many ways. For instance, I seriously struggle with gender agreement in Spanish and Portuguese. It’s not too difficult to match nouns with adjectives that directly follow them, but if the adjective or a pronoun refers to a noun, which occurred in a previous sentence or even further back, I tend to get it wrong. And it’s not my fault. It’s my German that’s doing it.

Grammatical genders are, for the most part, entirely arbitrary, and so German and Spanish genders don’t usually coincide. Since German is my native language, its genders are indelibly etched into my brain stem. I never realised this would lead to so much trouble.

Naively, I thought I had an advantage, because I was, at least, familiar with the concept of genders. Unlike native speakers of English, Japanese, Chinese, etc, I didn’t have to go through the futile questioning stage: “How can a table be male/female – it makes no sense!”

In the early phase, the gender issue creates some minor problems for Germans learning English. We may refer to inanimate objects as “he” or “she”, but this usually doesn’t persist for very long. Everything is “it”, and even for animals sporting discernible genitals, you still get to resort to the convenient choice of “it” – now if that ain’t an easy rule, I don’t know what is!

I never thought I would keep jumbling my Spanish genders about in such a dilettantic fashion after all this time, but, as it turns out, overriding one’s primal programming is harder than herding cats with firecrackers up their butts through a dog pound.

As always, I’m curious to hear from my readers – how does language interference play out for you? Which “cross-contamination issues” are you struggling with? Were some of these unexpected?

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71 thoughts on “Language Learning: Darn Interference!

  1. The Polyglut

    Naturally, I experience the expected interference, particularly when I’m speaking Italian and suddenly a French word barges in unannounced. To be honest, I think my English has taken the worst beating. Not only do I forget English words, I start using English as if it were another language! I quite often think “wouldn’t it be good if English did that?” and then take it upon myself to change English. Multilingual people certainly have the messiest, soupiest brains, but that’s why people love us…right?

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  2. Wendy Kate

    I think finally after 10 years the only language,apart from English, in my head is Spanish. I did do some French at school, and this used to be my default ‘foreign’ language but last Autumn whilst in Paris, I could not stop myself speaking Spanish, chanting Si! No! Oui!, gracias! No! merci! to every amused Parisian. ๐Ÿ™‚

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      That’s another interesting point… I remember one blogger writing a funny post about how Korean was his ‘default foreign language’, and how it would kick in automatically, regardless of which country he was in at the time ๐Ÿ˜‰

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  3. adamf2011

    Whenever I try to say something in French — a language that I let lapse long ago — a fair number of the words that come to mind are Thai, which for the last 3 years has been the foreign language for me. On the other hand, the other possible permutations (French popping up in Thai or English, English popping up in Thai or French, etc) don’t really happen. I’m guessing that to the extent that you’re really fluent in a language — and use it heavily — it can’t be interfered with by other languages?

    LadyOTC, do your 2 “fully installed” languages ever suffer interference, either from each other or from the newcomers? Or does each have complete sovereignty over its own (linguistic) realm?

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Hi there ๐Ÿ™‚ Yes, my two main languages do interfere. I’ve been known to translate English phrases/sayings directly into German, and being looked at strangely… Although German is my native language, my main operating language, and the one I think in, 90% of the time, is English.

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      1. adamf2011

        It sounds like maybe English has become your “main” language? Does the interference ever go the other way (i.e., German exercising an influence on English)?

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      2. Steven

        I have a vaguely similar experience. Sometimes when I’m trying to speak German, I wind up with random Spanish words or phrases in the middle. (And my mother tongue is English!) It makes for a confusing time all around.

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      3. ladyofthecakes Post author

        Yup, especially as Germans won’t understand a word of Spanish! At least with Spanish and Portuguese, there’s always a good chance that they get what I mean.

        I saw on Bev’s blog that you’ve been brushing up on your Viennese recently ๐Ÿ˜‰

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  4. Bernard O'Shea

    Hi, thanks for the mention, it did cause a spike in the number of visitors to my blog, muito obrigado. This was a very interesting post. I was quite relieved to hear other people experience this interference (I thought it was just me and a sign my brain was getting tired.) I’m going to mull the topic for a couple of days and get back to you. Cheers

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  5. joannesisco

    What struck me the most out of this post is your comment ‘German is my native language’. Say, whaaaat?! Your writing is so good, I just assumed that your mother language was English! I am truly in awe … and feeling a massive sense of inferiority since I’ve never mastered the art of languages. Sometimes I feel like I can barely string together a coherent sentence in my native language.
    … and now I will also have images of herding cats with firecrackers up their butts through a dog pound running through my head indefinitely…

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Well, everyone’s got a knack for *something*…. and when you’re prepared to put in the effort, you’ll eventually get somewhere with it, in my experience. I’m crap at lots and lots of other things, so hold the inferiority complex ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Those cats… they are coursing through my brain… on roller skates… non-stop.

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  6. Anna

    My dark fantasy is Will Smith. There, I said it. Also that memory eraser thing looks like a different kind of fantasy altogether. Also also, I am two vodkas and a beer down so I will actually read the post once back in Moscow – couldn’t get past the Big Willie right now ๐Ÿ™‚

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  7. Kim in Fiji

    Hey, Lady. I first noticed this phenomenon when in the bathroom of some Hispanic friends as a teenager and there was no toilet paper. I had hardly any Spanish, but “Il n’y a pas du papier” (from school French) forcefully asserted itself. Later I travelled to South America, where my Spanish rose to so-so. A few years later, in Chuuk (Micronesia) every time I was stuck for a word – out would pop Spanish. Later in other islands it was always a toss up, what would pop out. Just last weekend I got to have dinner here in Fiji with a dear friend from Chuuk. I wanted to show I remembered something, and was going to say “How alre you?” All I could think of was “Ke wang arang?” which isn’t Chuukese – but what IS it? Anyway, when taking linguistics courses for a MA in TESL back in the 90s, I looked for papers on L2 interference in the acquisition of L3 – and there wasn’t even one! If I kept thinking what a great dissertation topic it would be, if I went for a doctorate – which of course I didn’t. I wonder if anyone has resarched it yet….

    The other thing is some people have the talent to keep even very similar languages separate in their brains. Paul Geraghty, originally from the US – I think he came to Fiji with the Peace Corps, knows more about Fijian languages than anybody. He is the go-to guy for Fijians who have grammar and usage questions. There are 200 or so distinct Fijian languages !! This iincludes ones that are no longer used. Paul knows all of them. I asked him if they don’t get jumbled up. He said, no. I asked: how? He said he didn’t know, they just don’t. That’s a different brain for you.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Hi Kim, and thanks for chipping in ๐Ÿ™‚

      Interesting that there seems to be a dearth of papers on the interference subject! I’ve not looked on the academic side of things, I must confess.

      Urgh, 200 – I find it hard to believe that anyone can know that many, in-depth…!

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  8. doctorgladstone

    I’ve experienced the same thing. My first language is English. I took German in high school in college (Latin before that). I took a year of college level Hebrew. A few years ago I started to learn Brazilian Portuguese. When first starting to learn, If I was looking for word in Portuguese, sometimes a German word would pop into my mind. Because of this, even days of the week can be a problem (e.g. Hebrew Monday literally translates as “day two”, Tuesday “day Three” comparable to “seguna feira” and “terรงa feira” for their Portuguese equivalents!) never mind occasionally coming out with Dienstag/Mittwoch/etc for the equivalent day of the week when I’m talking with a portuguese speaker.

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      1. doctorgladstone

        The other issue for me when it comes to days of the week in Portuguese is since I don’t often have to count, trying not to confuse numbers can be a challenge on some days.

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  9. bevchen

    When we were in Madeira, I kept wanting to say “Danke” even though I KNOW the Portuguese for thank you is “Obrigada”. Stupid German interfering!

    At least in Spanish girls aren’t its! (And yes, I know it’s gramatical gender and the “das” is because of the -chen ending, but whenever I read something about a girl that goes on to refer to her as “es” it really annoys me.)

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    1. doctorgladstone

      I think that obrigado/obrigada can sometimes confuse native/near native speakers. I have a Cape Verdean secretary that keeps saying “obrigado” to me, though I was taught that it was the gender of the person speaking and not that of the person being thanked that determined which form to use. And yes I know Cape Verdean is a creole and not Portuguese but many cape verdeans speak portuguese as well.

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  10. aiyshah2014

    I love that Men in Black notion of erasing previous moments through using one of those laser guns. There are many things I would love to erase other than erasing first languages from students brains. however saying that, don’t you think English is changing so much these days that even if you thought you had erased the odd word here and there, it would still pop up in conversation and no one would stop you because they find it acceptable….? We have it here all the time in Malaysia, and no one even notices it any more. The worst thing is that I find even myself picking up those words and phrases and unconsciously even though I have a native speaker, I seem to think it’s actually English.

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  11. Andean

    I can relate to the “messy stew”, rather than the “clear broth” and for different reasons. Between language changes, the slang, or whatever it’s called these days, the new generation has a new recipe. If one has kids we need to know this language, or are out of the loop.

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  12. Expat Eye

    Ha, I love the cat analogy! French is still my go-to language so if I’m trying to think of a word in Latvian, the French one usually pops into my head. And now that I’m starting to learn German, the Latvian bloody word keeps popping out. And it’s a bitch when you’re playing Scrabble cos you keep thinking ‘oh, if only I could play a Latvian word…’ ๐Ÿ™‚

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  13. restlessjo

    Tell me about it! ๐Ÿ™‚ I did play Scrabble in Polish one time. It took rather a long while! ๐Ÿ™‚
    How come Portuguese? Are you relocating there? I frequently lose the plot.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      So do I …. all to frequently…!

      No concrete plans, I don’t think I’ll be leaving Spain for a while. Will spend some more time in Portugal in the coming years, though.

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  14. Andean

    In talking about the World Cup I mentioned rooting for a specific country. Did I know that word means something else, nooooo!!

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  15. PurplesShade

    Love this post! I’ve been thinking about it since yesterday.
    Hmm, I’ve not yet experienced this, though I think it’s just because I’m not at all far into language learning. (Okay well sort of and sort of not, I’ve lost most of the french I learned as a child, but I did learn quite a bit of it)
    Sometimes though if I’m thinking about a language, I’ll say some of the words, or even a full sentence in the language I’m thinking about, instead of english.
    For example about five minutes ago I just asked if my husband wanted some kim-bap, when I was meaning rice-rolls. I mean that is what kim-bap is, but he didn’t know what I was talking about. lol! Brain is just randomly mushing in Korean into my everyday life.
    Mind you if I’d said ‘Nori makรฉ’ he would have understood, since he has different partial languages floating around his brain.

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      1. PurplesShade

        It has been a while since I tired to put in a concerted effort, and now that I’ve been making a bit of headway with Korean, it might be kind of fun to have two language “projects” on the go. *Rubs chin thoughtfully*

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      2. PurplesShade

        Oh Korean is awesome! It’s a language I’d love to recomend everyone at least take a browse through see if it clicks with them, because it’s actually much easier to learn than I expected.
        Though I say that as a native English speaker, since in many ways it’s similar to english. (Has an alphabet, isn’t tonal except for questions and emotions, no worrying about male/female pronouns for objects, and a lot of cross over from modern english so everyday speech includes a bunch of similar words — like Kopi for coffee, and buh-su for bus, and res-tu-ran-tu for restaurant. ๐Ÿ™‚ )
        The sentence structure is in a similar order to french, but you use less words on average than english which is a bonus.
        Sorry for the tangent, but I just โค Korean so much.

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  16. June

    I know how you feel. Like Linda, my French pops out whenever I’m stuck for a word in Lithuanian. It’s such a shame that I spent 9 years learning a language to near fluency that I now rarely use and yet can’t speak the language of the country that I live in as well as I would like.

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  17. Anna

    I started learning French and Spanish at the same time. I always dreamt of speaking French; Spanish I tucked on bc my small Rhode Island school didnt offer that many advanced classes to take up my time (I was way ahead in math and science bc of Russia and in history and other humanities bc I went to a more rigorous school in Maryland before that). My French stalled out right away, while Spanish took off. When after the same number of years I went to study in Paris, I was in a program for idiots who couldnt order a coffee in French; by the time I left I could order a coffee – after three attempts. And then I would switched to Spanish or borrow words from it bc people had an easier time with that than English for some reason. Then I went to Universidad Autonoma de Madrid and took the full college course load inc’l EU politics, history, econ and international marketing in Spanish, with “the natives”. I left Spain fluent; back at the Uni I tested into the intermediate level of French. WTF WORLD!

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      1. Anna

        I totally am!
        (It was all for my International Affairs/International Finance degrees, and with the exception of when the NYC job market crashed and I worked couple of crap jobs anyone could do, I have always worked in fields directly relevant to my degrees.)

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  19. Georgia

    The first couple of months in Spain, Levantine Arabic kept coming out and I had a ridiculous conversation with a Moroccan lady in mixed Arabic dialects and very poor Spanish. I’m a bit of a stickler too, so I’m suffering from not being able to knuckle down to learning Spanish properly as I’m too busy maintaining my kids’ other languages, knowing that they’ll pick up Spanish all on their own from the community.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      It’s really hard to keep that many balls in the air, isn’t it? I’m struggling to keep my German in shape – I’m now more competent in my second language than I am in my first. I hate that!!! ๐Ÿ˜‰

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  20. jlbell91

    I never realised that this was ‘a thing’! I learnt French for three years in high school, but I can’t stress how much I don’t know it. I wouldn’t be able to say a single sentence. However, when I was learning Spanish in Spain I was tempted a few times to say a French word instead of the Spanish. I asked my friend who speaks French very proficiently if what I wanted to say was a French word, and he would tell me that it was. Crazy.

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