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How do you study multiple languages without getting mixed up?

If you're using this site to study more than one of the languages offered, or if your first language isn't English--wow! It amazes me that you guys are able to make real progress in multiple languages and not just end up as a confused mess. How do you do it? I find that if I try to switch between French and Portuguese too quickly my skills in both languages completely devolve--I'll use words from the wrong language and make all kinds of mistakes. (My first language is English.) Is there some trick to keeping them separate? And do those of you who are learning German and either Spanish or French have this problem, or is it the special curse of the Romance languages? Anyway, advice is appreciated, but mostly I'm writing this because I wanted to say kudos to you guys! :)

August 11, 2012



My native language is Russian. English is almost the second native language for me, as I've been learning it since I was 8 (now I'm 28 and work as a translator from English into Russian).

For French, I use Duolingo, busuu.com and Michel Thomas's audio course. All these three courses were made for English speakers. In fact, it's easier for me to learn French through English because they have very much in common. Russian is VERY different. Sometimes I have to use Google Translate to understand something in French really fast. I use the translation into English.

At school I also learned German as a second foreign language. I remember mixing German with English at first, but then I got used to it and experienced no difficulties. Now I don't feel like learning two languages from scratch at the same time. I like to learn and I'm trying to do my best with French. It takes a lot of time. I may choose to learn another language, but this would be when I know enough French for reading and communicating fluently.

I had some funny experience when I was chatting with a Portuguese guy in French (he learns French too) and translating an English user manual into Russian at the same time (I was at work then). But I liked it :)

By the way, my English communicating skills are constantly brushed up because English is a universal language at the language resources I use. And that's great.


I can't speak to the problem of learning multiple language at once on Duolingo, because I only worked on German for a little while before I switched over to French entirely, but I have attempted to study other languages at once (take your pick of any combo of Mandarin, Hindi, Gujarati, Italian, Western Armenian, Vietnamese, Arabic and Spanish), and it's definitely true that your brain will try to "overwrite" the older ones with your most current one. This is particularly true for me if the languages are related (Spanish and Italian or Hindi and Gujarati) and less pronounced if they're not. The worst is if I try to study to languages with the same line of learning products (I really like Pimsleur for pronunciation, but it's the same sequence of learning in every language), which is unfortunate when you find a system that you really like. I should say that I never have this problem with French, and I think it's because I studied it at a young age (elementary school). If you want to learn quickly, it's probably best to stick with one at a time, or at least one per day if possible.


My mother tongue is Spanish, but I studied English since very young (8yrs old), and I live in English speaking countries for over 10 yrs (married to English speaking husband for 5!). Still many times when I need to translate something from French to English I do go through Spanish in the middle, or I ask my husband what would be the proper way to say this is English! So far it has been a very pleasant experience, since I feel many times that I am sharpening two languages at once :)


I also have this problem of mixing up languages. It's as if there is a language centre in my brain, and all the languages I learn go in there. I actually speak German and Spanish better than French, and have successfully survived in those two languages out in the wild, but having studied French for a few years now, I find I cannot do DuoLIngo German or Spanish very well at all. And often when I go to speak one language, words of every other language I know, except the one I want to speak, come to me. Also, after speaking another language for a bit, my English becomes a little stilted. (After hanging out with one of my German friends, I find myself saying things like, "We'll meet us later!") I'm hoping that with more fluency in each language, this will settle down. I was at a birthday party two years ago with mostly French and German people, and that was easier as I could speak a mix of both languages and be understood. Maybe that is the kind of world we are evolving into? That would be nice.


For me, French is maybe a special case, because I studied it for years in school (and we never got challenged, so I spent a loooot of time on things like "Fruits and Vegetable"). So French calls back to a slightly different part of my brain. I'm also learning German and Mandarin, and I would agree with others that separate learning platforms can be helpful. I also differentiate languages in part by what I associate them with...when I hear German, I think of the actors in the German movies I like; when I hear Mandarin, I think of the newsreaders I listen to or the characters in my lesson book. Also helpful is that I taught English grammar for a while, and I now constantly compare the grammar and syntax I learn to what I know of English...something I couldn't do as well in high school. Finally, if I feel sure that I know the idiomatic English translations well and that I'm not hurting my learning, I repeat the minced English translations aloud: French "J'ai faim" is "I have hunger" and Chinese "Wo hen lei" is "I very tired". It's kind of a game. Each language has its grammar/syntax fingerprint, and getting used to the profile of each language as heard in literal English helps delineate the differences between them. So I guess I embrace naiaderg's "stilted" English.


I know a fair bit of Spanish already but am refreshing myself and learning German right now (English is my first language). For me, it's usually easier to remember what words are in which language by learning/remembering roots and common spellings/pronunciations in each language. E.g. Portuguese uses a lot of -ao's and seemingly (to me) random h's; Spanish is going to have ñ, German always has -sch- and ei spellings (also umlauts ü,ä,ö). A friend and I enjoy listening to people talk in foreign languages and trying to figure out what language it is. :)


My first language is Spanish. And i speak English too. I don't know, i don't have special problems switching (i'm learning German) between them, and i don't confuse the words either... but when i am distracted i do find myself writing or speaking Spanish instead of the language i'm learning. But usually i get quickly to the right language.


I do it the other way around exactly, learning Spanish while learning English using this site, because I really am German.


It helps if you already know the languages. I already speak both Spanish and German, so the site is just fun, but I'll branch out soon and get into some real learning.


Oh, Portuguese spelling...when they roll out that unit and I have to start typing in Portuguese, the owl is just going to despair! Poor thing. But I find that the worst problem is when I'm speaking--earlier today I had a long conversation in Portuguese (although I was mostly listening) and then tried to come here and study some French, and my brain was like "nada disso, filha" ("nope").


@ olimo - Your story and experience was very interesting. Thanks for posting :)


Try setting specific times for each language, and don't jump from one to the other. Take some time off.


One addition to my long-winded answer: my French never gets overwritten, but it never seems to advance either, so take from that what you will!


Ohhhh BTW we live in Montreal now, which makes it easier too, since everyone speaks half French (well Quebecois), half English most of the time...


The main thing is to distinguish which language you are learning before you start. What I find works for most people is starting with only one language and then adding a different one once you have a lot of experience.

Alternately, you can set up artificial boundaries to help distinguish languages. By learning through different sources (e.g. Spanish through school and French through duo lingo) or just setting up a time and place for each language, you can make it a lot easier for your mind to separate words and meanings.


Well I'm Indian, so that pretty much means I have to know multiple languages :D ; mother-tongue, local language (both of which happen to be same for me - Marathi), National Language (Hindi), Universal Language (English), Language we have in high School (German for me), language in college (again German for me), and my weird obsession with languages, which taught me many more languages.. Spanish, Russian, French, etc. But yeah, sometimes it does get confusing... like I start blabbing in Spanish while talking in German, etc...


Sometimes you mix things up, especially since my mother tongue is German (but my parents' Hungarian and French) and some words are so similar,but I just really love to learn Spanish. And also since I've been to Canada I'm nearly fluent in English, at least when I talk :) so it isn't that hard.


My native language is Dutch. I speak Spanish and English without difficulties. A bit of German, French and Portuguese and I can read most of Italian, Afrikaans, and Latin.

But I can only manage two languages at a time. E.g. when I am teaching English in Spanish (I have experience with that), I'm unable to communicate in Dutch, although my native language. I need at least a few minutes to switch back to Dutch if needed.


I'm a native English speaker and learning both French and German with Duolingo. So far I'm at Level 11 in both languages and haven't been having trouble with not mixing them apart from occasionally capitalising a French noun. I think it comes down to how your brain functions.


Some mixing up does happen, especially between Spanish and Italian, for me. When I'm struggling with a translation, I try to focus on the accent of the language, and that seems to help a little bit. If I think of a Spanish word instead of the Italian one, I check if the word "fits" the accent, so to speak. Also, if I realize I'm mixing up those two languages, I make an effort to translate in my head what I'm trying to say in both languages, in an attempt to separate them in my memory. Don't know how effective this is, though, I recognize I'd progress faster learning fewer languages at once, or at least some that aren't related, but I can't help it :-)

On the other hand, some people say the more languages you know, the easier it is to assimilate new ones. I saw that very clearly when dabbling a bit on Dutch out of curiosity, and realized it's kind of a mix between English and German. If you know those two, it will be very easy to learn Dutch. (example: EN: Water, > NL: Water > DE: Wasser [in Dutch and German, the "W" is pronounced as a "V"].


O started learning english at the age of seven (i'm now 25!)and, since then, it's like my brain has been split in two! lol. Sometimes I find myself thinking in english, while trying to express myself in portuguese! so it's kind of messy! lol. That being said, I absolutely consider Portuguese and English as my two mother tongues...Even though I was born, raised and still live in Portugal; and my parents are 100% portuguese! When it comes to learning new languages, I do find it really easy. It's like someone said here, the more languages you learn, the easier it gets to learn new ones! However, sometimes I do switch words between 2 different, but similar languages; like spanish and italian, or german and english, and funnily enough finnish and japanese! What I try to do is compartimentalizing! And, when i'm working on a lesson, i focus real hard on that specific language, the pronounciation, the way things are said and written! One thing that really helps me, when i'm learning a new language, is watching tv shows and movies or listening to the radio in that specific language! Even if you don't understand everything, you learn new words, and especially the way things are said! That really helps me with the grammar part! most of the times I don't even memorize the grammar rules! I just think of a practical example I heard somewhere and use it to write or even do grammar exercises! It works everytime! for me that is....Because it becomes a more natural way of speaking a language. Just like when you were a baby/child and you were learning your mother tongue, nobody explained the grammar rules to you! You just learnt it and that was it! :) In the end, everyone has his/her own specific method of learning a new language! You just have to find the one that works best for you! :)

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