ExtremeHow does an interpreter perfect multiple languages? Without getting them all jumbled up? How do we manage to be extreme language learners? These questions have been on my mind a lot lately.

RebEriReaders of this blog will know that 2015-2016 is a sabbatical year for me. One of my goals, while I’m away from my regular duties, is to improve some of my working languages. More specifically, I wanted to work on my Portuguese and my Spanish. Both of these were in need of attention.

I picked up Portuguese while living in Brazil back in the late 1980s. Portuguese then became a gateway to Spanish. However, up until recently, I had never spent time in a Spanish-speaking country. In short, I had neglected Portuguese for more than 25 years, and Spanish had never been the focus of any sort of organized effort on my part.

I began to remedy matters earlier this year by trundling off to Spain. I spent three months as a visiting scholar at the Universidad de La Laguna. My time away certainly jump-started my Spanish. But, at the end of my stay, I was left with two problems.

First, I still had a lot of language learning left to do. Second, my Spanish was now interfering with my Portuguese. (My Portuguese had interfered with my Spanish for years, and that was bad enough. I was doubly embarrassed that interference seemed now to be a two-way street!)

When I returned to Canada at the end of January, I was faced with a dilemma. How was I going to stay on the straight-and-narrow with not one, but two languages? And how would I make sure that the two different language paths didn’t collide? It seemed like a rather extreme task.

I eventually put a language improvement strategy in place. Some of its features might be of interest to you.

NoCowboy011. Work on the languages simultaneously

I polled my social circle and quickly discovered that I had two friends — one lusophone and one hispanophone — who were eager to improve their English. I struck a deal that I would meet each of them once a week for a sort of “language exchange”. For half the time we are together, I tutor them in English, and for half the time, they tutor me in their language.

Before we meet, I choose an editorial on a current event. I usually look to O Estadão in Portuguese, and to El País in Spanish. At the start of my other-language session, I give summary of the article (I normally work some point-form notes, so that I strengthen my ability to improvise), and then I debate the issue at hand with my tutor. (For example, one week I discussed Apple’s legal battle with the FBI, and the latest on the refugee crisis in Europe.) Throughout, my tutor takes notes on language mistakes I make, and we review them at the end of our time together.

The important thing in all of this is that I spend time each week working on both Portuguese and Spanish. I find it helps to lessen the cognitive tug of war between these two extremely similar languages.

Portuguese2. Make differences part of your active knowledge

Invariably, I find that I get confused from time to time. A stray word from one language will creep into the other. Thankfully, my tutors are always on the lookout for interference (indeed, my lusophone friend speaks Spanish), and they bring it to my attention.

At that point, it’s really important to think consciously about the differences between the two, and to try and make those differences part of my active, declarative knowledge. For me, this involves keeping a notebook with entries that help me to keep things straight in my head. Here’s a sample entry.

  • ES: apurarse — to rush, to hurry up (in PT this is sair correndo, ter pressa, or apressar-se)
  • PT: apurar-se — to become clear, to turn out, to become apparent (in ES this is resultar evidente, ponerse manifiesto, or dejar/quedar en claro)

From time to time, I review the entries in my notebook. I make sure to repeat over and over which language is which, so that I can learn to minimize the interference between them.

AllBooths3. Make an extra effort with the little differences

Sometimes, even when a difference between the two languages is brought to my attention, I still wind up making an error. Here’s an example.

To say “that man” and “those men” in Portuguese, you say “este homem” and “estes homens“. And since the demonstrative articles in Spanish are pretty much identical, for years I just copied them whenever I spoke Spanish. But my hispanophone tutor flagged for me that there is one small difference — you actually have to say “este hombre” but “estos hombres“.

So far, sounds like another case of Point #2 above, right? Note the difference and rehearse it often. The problem is, even after I jotted this difference down in my notebook and reviewed it, I STILL found myself repeating the error. Turns out, “este/estes” has just become an automatic reaction. This makes sense — I have been speaking Portuguese, however poorly, for over 25 years.

In other words, I use this part of the grammar without thinking consciously about it. It is therefore unlike the false-friend vocabulary item I listed above. I find I give conscious thought, if only for a split second, before I use a particular bit of vocab. I can therefore reflect, for an instant, on whether I am selecting the right item for the language I am speaking. But with grammatical building blocks — well, let’s just say that they don’t always pass through the same conscious filter.

The trick for me is to make this particular grammar point un-automatic once more. My Spanish tutor has now “rapped me on the knuckles” so many times for this point, that I find myself becoming slowly alert when I am speaking. Before I pop in the demonstrative article, I do enter a kind of micro-vigilent state. Pavlov’s dogs learned to salivate when they heard a bell ring. Well, I’ve learned to get conscious again after being reminded about demonstrative articles repeatedly by my hispanophone friend. It is taking some time, but I am getting there…

I am not an expert on keeping similar languages water-tight. I am certainly no expert — at least not yet — on Spanish and Portuguese. But I do find that these three strategies are helping me advance my knowledge of these two languages, without making a total mess of them.

Do you have advice to share about mastering similar languages? About being an extreme language learner? Be sure to leave me a note in the comment section below.



16 responses to “Keep your languages strong but separate!”

  1. Chris says:

    Wrapped – rapped?

  2. Samuel says:

    I can trade more Spanish for Simultaneous Conference Skills

    • Andrew Clifford says:

      I’m not looking for more tutors at this point, Samuel. In large part because I am about to dig up German from my ancient past as well! But if you want a closer look at the MCI, why don’t you drop in to observe one of our Year 2 classes onsite?

  3. Rebecca Guimarães says:

    Excellent post, Andrew
    Now that I’m learning French, I find myself filling gaps with Spanish words all the time. These strategies are definitely going to help me out. Thanks!

    • Andrew Clifford says:

      Thanks, Rebecca. Glad to hear you’re now working on French. With all four official languages of the Americas, you’ll be unstoppable! Let us know how you’re making out.

  4. Emanuel Imhoff says:

    well, Andrew sounds interesting, thats actually the way I learned to speak Spanish, over 20 years ago with a Peruvian guy, but then I came to Brazil, where I live since over 20 years, time in which my SpANISH went loose, but the bigger problem is my FRENCH which I really mix up with PORTUGUESE, its a pain…..but I love your advice

  5. Laura Holcomb says:

    I am going to pretend you wrote this post JUST for me! You took pity as a result of my whimpering. Thanks for your perennial solution-oriented spirit. I like the notebook entry you modeled.

    I also try to group language activities into days to have the chance to really sink in, while not shying away from situations where I will be required to change abruptly from producing one to producing another.

    Training the mouth daily seems important to quite literally prevent muscle atrophy. Reading at least an article out loud, quickly and training phonetics with music.

    That’s all I have bedsides seconding your motion with a “I feel ya bro”.

    • Andrew Clifford says:

      Thanks for your comments, Laura. Your point about training the mouth is well taken. Portuguese rolls off my tongue, pronunciation-wise. But when I speak Spanish, I feel like I’m trying to talk with a hockey puck in my mouth. I’ll try reading out loud and see if I make any progress.

  6. Chrystal says:

    Laura’s right! Training and more training is the way to get past the two-tongued nature of the overly ambitious polyglot. My advice? Do the write thing-use the new vocabulary you learn to build complete sentences which you can turn into a short paragraph or story. Reinforcing your saying and doing is strengthened by deliberately activating the mind to think through the language slips that seem so easy to make.

    • Andrew Clifford says:

      Not a bad idea, Chrystal! I know that when I’m switching languages, I sometimes silently repeat a sentence to myself in which I use words that are distinct to that language. For example, I might say to myself “Hablar español me da verguenza” vs. “Falar português me causa vergonha”. “Hablar” and “verguenza” are like signals to my brain that I’m now in Spanish mode, while “falar” and “vergonha” tell me I’m switched to Portuguese.

      Your solution takes this strategy further, by forcing you to incorporate new false friends that you have just found out about. I like it!

  7. Ali says:

    Thank you Mr. Andrew, in fact Ecucation has no stage, it starts from cradle to grave.I am glad also for your great ideas always, besides keep it up Mr.Andrew, dont even think to look back, continue to study both languages separately one at a time.learning foreign languages is the same as learning Endlish.follow ( american military method of teaching foreign language) I am sure you will be perfect with in six month.as for me both languages souds like mandarin, but I think spanish is abit easier than portuguese.Mr.Andrew I am still brushing my English here in johannesburg at wits language school, I am planning to join MCI by sep this year. thank you once again for your great ideas.

  8. Excellent Post Andrew! While English and French aren’t nearly as similar as Spanish and Portuguese, I have nonetheless run into interference problems on many occasions. Once in the booth I honestly couldn’t remember if we say “uncertain” or “incertain” in English because of the “incertain” in French I had just heard. It’s always quite disconcerting and rather embarrassing, but I agree that practicing each one out loud and in sentences is a good way to make the usage clear in your mind. I did, however, just find out that “incertitude” exists in both languages!

  9. Andrew Clifford says:

    Thanks for your comment, Lauren. I can honestly say that I have almost never confused English and French. I learned to speak French when I was an adult, and it “feels” very different from English to me.

    That said, I have plenty of colleagues who grew up speaking both languages. Their main challenge in interpreting was reducing interference. I wrote this post with C languages in mind, but I suppose the strategies I have outlined above could be modified for people who need to keep their A and B languages separate.

    Thanks for “interpreting” this post in a new light!

  10. I’m an American living in Brazil. I speak 7 going on 8 languages as of current and a large part of my strategy has been to enter into one language family and expand, while being conscious of the distinct separations.

    I’m currently working on adding Spanish and French as B languages, forcing me to invent my own pedagogical techniques for developing other languages while maintaining them separate.

    Some of my techniques for Spanish have been to find books for hispanophones who have moved to Brazil and are learning to speak Portuguese. They’re subject to the same mistakes I am and the little details laid out in the books are enormously helpful. One book -GRAMÁTICA ESPAÑOLA PARA BRASILEÑOS by Milagro Nunes, is painstakingly thorough in pointing out the minor differences that make all the difference.

    Another thing that has helped me is paying a lot of attention to transitional phrases. Netflix is a great help to me here. I watch Spanish films with Portuguese subtitles and vice-versa (usually subtitled Portuguese helps better than the other way around) and soon enough daqui a pouco becomes de hora en adelante (Thanks Better Call Saul)

    Another trick that has been helpful is thinking inside the culture. I try to learn languages as a gateway into the culture, one reason I am particularly obsessive about accents and slang, and whatever I find most compelling about the culture is always in the forefront of my mind.

    Whenever I speak Spanish, I try to think of myself in that culture as if I were an actor in a play. I find Latin America’s politics endlessly fascinating and I try to imagine discourse on the subject when I speak or even when I rap my own knuckles on demonstrative pronouns or confusing what verb tense is appropriate.

    In sum, In every foreign language I imagine a character that I’ll be playing once my accent or discourse is native/near-native and I try to imagine how that person would sound or what speech he would use. I think that sounds cheesy off-hand but it’s worked very well for me.

    A third more practical tip is shadowing speakers I like. Once I’m keyed in enough grammatically and in terms of vocabulary, I’ll start watching actors or public personalities that have speech mannerisms I like and want to imitate. I made everyone’s life miserable trying to imitate Wagner Moura and his Capitão Nascimento. Apparently the jokes get old the 30th time you tell them, but hey!

    All joking aside, I find this helps a lot.

    I’ll stop for now, as I could go on for hours, but I loved this post. It’s a real issue for polyglot’s and it’s a very real issue in my day-to-day life. Thanks for a great article!

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