In high school, about 15 years ago, I studied German for three years (my mother tongue is Dutch). The last eight year years I have studied and practiced Spanish and Catalan. And every time I try to talk German most words first come to me in Spanish or Catalan, and to remember the German words I really have to concentrate hard. This in fact already started the first year I studied Spanish. I heard that this happened to more people. My question are: Why does this happen? And: How can I fix this?

Note: I found these two related questions which focus on another aspect of learning another language:

  • What language was primarily used when learning each one? Did you learn each of them directly using Dutch (including learning materials)?
    – user3169
    May 10, 2016 at 16:45
  • German classes were in Dutch and partly German for as far I can remember. The Spanish classes were in Spanish.
    – agold
    May 10, 2016 at 18:05

3 Answers 3


My native language is English but I speak mostly Swedish these days. I am much stronger in English than I am in Swedish. Sometimes when I speak English a Swedish word will randomly pop out of my mouth instead of the English equivalent. This is why I guess this happens. Take the word red, or röd as it is called in Swedish. In my brain somewhere I have an image of the color red with a connection to the audio for "red" and a connection to the audio for "röd". When I speak English I follow the English paths in my brain but when I think of the color red, there is a risk that I end up taking a wrong turn to "röd" if the connection to "röd" is much stronger. Why might it be stronger? Well if I have been speaking a lot of Swedish, then there is a risk that I havet used "red" for a while so the connection gets a little rusty - it begins to fade. Connections in the brain do get weaker over time if we do not refresh them. This is so that the brain can forget old things that we no longer need. For example, try remembering all the names of those you went to school with.

  • 1
    Yes, what you say does make sense that neuron connections fade with time. Do you have some references?
    – agold
    May 14, 2016 at 19:35
  • 1
    @agold No, as I stated this is my guess as to what happens based on my own experiences.
    – Baz
    May 14, 2016 at 20:16

Why does this happen? Apparently because your brain is processing the most recent language first.

What can you do about it? "Re study" your German so that it is your "most recently" studied language that your brain processes "first."


I think that it is natural for your brain to remember a language that you learned and practiced more recently than one that you studied years ago and didn’t practice much in the meanwhile. In my opinion, everyone tends to remember the things he studied most recently rather than the ones that he/she learned in the past without revising or practicing them again.

Also, this tendency to recall the most recently studied information best is also called “recency effect” and it is part of the phenomenon of “serial position effect” (it concerns the fact that the position of items on a list influences how well those items are remembered) that was first discovered by the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus. In fact, during his memory experiments he found out that the items that are learned most recently are the ones that are recalled best.

As for how you can fix this, I think that the best way would be re-immersion in the German language. However, try to do it in a natural way, just try to expose yourself to the German language using every resource you have at your disposal so that your brain can get used again to the language and recall German words more easily.

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