I grew up learning Spanish in school (I'm from Arizona) and became fluent in Spanish. Later, in college, I started learning French. I noticed many of the linguistic similarities between the two languages and at first it helped me master the basics. However, I now find that as I am getting into the intricacies of French, it is influencing how I speak Spanish. It is interesting to note that when I learned Mandarin (I am at a high fluency level), I noticed it affected my Spanish when I started, but later my Spanish returned to its previous level. However, when the languages are related, I find the conflict lasts longer.

My question is this: What are some techniques to better differentiate between the two languages as I am learning more French to preserve my fluency in Spanish? Or will I have to go back to re-learn part of the finer details in Spanish?


Here are a few tips that should help avoiding mixing up languages:

  • At the start of a learning session for a specific, listen to some audio in that language. This exposes you to that language's pronunciation, intonation, vocabulary and grammar. The goal is to prime your brain for the rest of the study session.
  • If you use flashcards to study vocabulary (or even grammar), make sure that the flashcards are somehow distinctive or different from the flashcards for the other language. This may involve using different images for the same concept in both languages (cf. Gabriel Wyner's advice to use different versions of Google etc.), using different background colours for both languages, or even using two different spaced repetition systems.
  • Don't schedule study sessions of both languages immediately after each other. Interleave the two languages with another topic (e.g. a non-language related subject you study) or take a long break between them. (See for example, Robert Bjork's comments on the benefits of interleaving practice.)
  • Make sure that you already have an intermediate level in your other foreign language(s) before you take up a new language. That way, you can focus more on the new language while maintaining the others. (Benny Lewis is not the only one who gives this advice; see also Olly Richards. Wouter Corduwener recommends that you should have CEFR level B1 before you start on a new language.)
  • Langfocus recommends getting the pronunciation for each language as precise as possible. (Gabriel Wyner also stresses the importance of learning the correct pronunciation from the start.)
  • Langfocus (same YouTube video as above) also recommends imagining that you are "channelling" a specific native speaker of the language you are using. He says this helps improve your pronunciation, but I can image it also causes different associations for each of the languages, just like my tip for differences in your flashcards.
  • When practising or using languages in "real life", make a clear break between the two languages.
  • Wouter Corduwener also recommends a contrastive approach between confusable languages. For example, if you are learning Spanish after learning Portuguese, and you translate words etc. from your native language into Spanish, also translate them into Portuguese (so you don't forget your Portuguese and you get exposed to the differences between both languages). (He also recommends using the same software, types of books etc. for the two languages, which does not match what I said above.)
  • 1
    Bounty rewarded for exemplary, comprehensive answer with valuable advice. – J.Past Sep 8 '16 at 11:46
  • @J.Past Thanks :-). If I find research on this, I'll add it, but the field of L2-L3 interference was not very active until roughly a decade ago. – Christophe Strobbe Sep 8 '16 at 16:53

"Immersion" will help any language learner, but is probably particularly useful for someone in your shoes who is "caught" between two similar languages. Then immersion may be the best tool for pulling you in one direction (I presmue it's Spanish), than the other. That will help you with the "priming," pronounciation, and "channeling" issues raised by Christophe. Without such a "pull," you could easily continue confusing the two languages, instead of learning what is distinctive about Spanish, even over French. (My second choice is one-on-one tutoring with someome who knows both Spanish and French.)

Perhaps the reason that Mandarin (ultimately) did not affect your Spanish was that it was "different" (enough) in your own mind, so that you could keep them separate eventually. Initially, you "randomly" incorporated ideas from Mandarin into Spanish, but once your Mandarain got better, something inside you said, "no, no, this is different."

There are also differences in French and Spanish, although they are more "nuanced." For instance, the word for "cow" is "vache" in French, and "vaca" in Spanish. The Spanish version is more "explicit" with the "a" (at least to my ear). Verbs are more "irregular" in French than in Spanish; compare "pouvoir" and "vouloir" to "poder" and "querer."

If you can learn to make apparently fine distinctions between French and Spanish, you can keep them apart. You've already done that with Chinese and Spanish, apparently. That's where the suggestions in the "new" first paragraph can help.

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    Do you have any recommended techniques or methods that have worked for you? – callyalater Apr 5 '16 at 23:55
  • @callyalater: I try to learn the vowel endings, or other distinguishing features; e.g., the more frequent "a" endings in Spanish. – Tom Au Apr 6 '16 at 1:14
  • @callyalater: I added learning suggestions in a "new" first paragraph. – Tom Au Sep 3 '16 at 16:06

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