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This is a question from the Language Learning subreddit:

So I took German for one year in my third year of university and I was so into it. 4 years later and I'm still constructing sentences in my head and trying to talk to myself in German unintentionally. My problem is it's getting in the way of learning my new target language.

Do you guys ever have old target languages creeping up on you? How do you deal with it?

Are there any ways to prevent languages you've learned in the past from interfering with a language you're learning now? For example, I often confuse German words for Polish words (the language I'm learning now) because I learned German in the past. I'm also far more used to the German syntax even though Polish has a different sentence structure in some cases, so I often make mistakes because I think of German.

  • When you learn new language, do you translate from each new language to/from English in your mind? – user3169 Apr 10 '16 at 21:07
  • In my experience, I confuse words from all the languages in which I am a beginner. It seems to me that only as I progress, each language develops its own "region in the brain" and I stop confusing them. – Ansa211 Apr 11 '16 at 9:59
7

I can sympathize with you; that wonderful frustrated feeling... no thank you!


Scientific community's thoughts

With regards to language-mixing in children simultaneously learning two languages:

"Language mixing refers to the young child's mixing of both languages within the same utterance before the child is really aware of having two languages in its environment." (1987:27) (emphasis in original)

...

This definition of language mixing makes it clear that the mixing occurs among children during the time before they differentiate and separate their two languages. The mixing is unconscious and is used by the child without regard of their interlocutor's understanding of both languages (Arnberg, 1987). The children are simply using words that they have acquired to communicate their needs at the given moment.

Obviously, an adult's mind learns languages much differently from a child's, however, this passage does indicate that once the brain has a reasonable grip on the language(s), it will begin to differentiate between languages more effectively.

And with regards to adults already reasonably familiar with two languages:

The term language mixing is also used in reference to adult bilinguals. However, in this reference, the definition is entirely different. When used to explain the speech phenomenon of specific adults, language mixing is a conscious use of a blend of two languages where interlocutors understand both languages.

"Adult bilinguals" referring to those who learned another language as L2, it seems that unconscious/involuntary language mixing is not an issue; rather it is a conscious effort, however, the parents' fluency level was not explicitly addressed, so take this note with a grain of salt.

[source]


Another study mentioning the ease at which children overcome unintentional language mixing: http://www.concordia.ca/cunews/main/stories/2013/01/15/growing-up-bilingual.html


Another model relevant for the study under consideration was proposed by Myers-Scotton (1993:75), known as the Markedness Model, in which he notes that a bilingual individual has a sense of markedness (1993:75), in regard to the relationship with the interlocutor who essentially the one choosing the code in the conversation. In such situation, the speaker is perceived as a rational actor who can make either the unmarked choice, the more secure and the more expected choice, often used by the speakers, or the marked choice which is generally unexpected in interaction (Myers-Scotton 1993:75). Nevertheless, it is essential to mention at this point that the concept of the social importance of language choice should be applied with a dose of caution to the speech of children in general as they do not play the same role in society as adult speakers.

...

generally speakers are aware of the effect of their switch

From this document, citing Myers-Scotton, C. 1993b. Social motivations for codeswitching. Evidence from Africa. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

This indicates that adult bilinguals are conscious of their language mixing.


Others' thoughts

One of the greatest ways to familiarize yourself with your target language is to speak it (and eventually think it).

From this not-a-scientific-study:

I won’t ever get tired of repeating the golden rule of my language learning advice: speak, speak, speak!

Speaking your target language will make your brain more used to it, and eventually you should be able to go into "Polish mode" or "Spanish mode" or "XYZ mode". I can attest to this myself.

And another not-a-scientific-study:

When learning a new language, you'll start learning words from your first language and translat-ing them into the new one. After a time, you should adopt a strategy where you are thinking in the new language and no longer translating the language in this manner. If you are going to avoid mixing up your languages, you need to start thinking in the new language.

Being able to think in your target language will enforce the "XYZ mode" ever so much.


My thoughts

You're aware of the problem-- that's halfway to solving it.

Until your brain adjusts to having another language around, those mix-ups may not go away for a while. However, don't lose hope! It took me a little while to find actual scientific studies that I felt I could use: take that as an indication that it's not too big of a problem; it should go away once you achieve more familiarity with your target language.

Familiarize yourself more with your target language and it won't be a problem for too much longer.

3

In my interactions with fellow language learners,there are two different types of people. And what to do depends on what type of person you are.

The first type of person can keep two languages separate, provided that they are different enough. Examples might be Spanish and German, or better yet, one European language and Chinese. For these people, the two languages are "so" different that they can be kept separate, so they should study two very different languages. They have problems with say, two very similar languages such as French and Spanish.

For the second type of person, all new words in any language go into a "common" vocabulary. Thus, a Chinese word can easily get mixed in with Spanish or German words. Such people should "make a virtue of necessity" and make sure to study only "related" languages. For instance, the word "table" in English is spelled "table" in French, and "tavola" in Italian. Then this person should learn the "same" word in three different languages first, and sort out the differences later.

I am the second type of person, so at various times in my life, I have studied the "Latin" languages as a group, and the three "Scandinavian" languages as a group, so that if I mix up one form of a similar word for another, the damage done is minimal.

2

I'm not sure if you are already doing this, but if you learn your next language with your most recent language you'll be improving in the last language and the vocab shouldn't be so confusing because you're using one to learn the other.

  • Welcome to Language Learning Amadeus! This is a great idea to implement if your knowledge of the second language is strong enough. – fi12 Aug 16 '17 at 21:11
  • Thanks. I'm learning Russian, Korean and German so i don't have to worry about similarities. I find that translating between languages I'm not yet fluent in helps me understand them both even more, and helps cement what i already know. – Amadeus Aug 16 '17 at 22:45

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