How not to confuse languages

I put one language on hold for a couple of months while I study the other.

If you are learning multiple languages, it’s easy to confuse them with each other.

  • Naturally, languages within the same family (such as Romance languages, Germanic languages, Arabic dialects, etc.) are easily mixed up. That is, when you try to speak French, some Spanish words will be mixed in–if you study both languages.
  • It can even happen with languages that aren’t literally related, but which still seem somewhat similar to you (such as Japanese and Korean). I even mix up Russian and German because they use similar case systems (nominative, genitive, dative, and accusative).
  • Also, if you start learning two new languages at about the same time, your mind will link them, and you could mix them up a little, even if the languages are completely dissimilar. This happened to me with Japanese and Spanish.
  • Finally, if you study two languages via the same course or method, they could mix together in your mind. That used to happen when I used Pimsleur more because Pimsleur teaches the same vocabulary in the same order in all of its languages (as far as I can tell).

The mixing is to be expected, but there are remedies. First, it will decrease as you become proficient in both languages–somewhere around the high intermediate level (CEFR level B2). It will also decrease (according to Benny Lewis, author of Fluent in 3 Months) if you practice quickly switching back and forth between those languages. It takes a lot of practice, though! Mike Campbell (founder of Glossika) recommends memorizing the same sentences in both languages (laddering from one language to the next) in order to teach your mind to distinguish them. Below are two things I do to minimize the mixing of languages.

First, I use different study materials and methods for each. For example, I might emphasize reading and listening in one language but grammar in the other. Or I might learn one from a book and the other from an audio course. Actually, I do this whenever I study multiple languages at the same time, regardless of whether I’m likely to mix them up or not. I even study different languages in different locations and at different times of the day.

Second, I put one language on hold for a couple of months while I study the other. For example, I’m currently studying Spanish, German, and Japanese. I’m not studying French, Russian, or Korean. That is, the Korean is paused while I study Japanese; the Russian is paused while I study German; and the French is paused while I study Spanish.

If you’re currently studying your first or second foreign language, I suggest you study only that one language for at least a year. Learn how to learn languages before you try to add more languages. But if you’ve already studied several languages and want to maintain them while you add new ones, maybe some of the ideas presented in this post will help you. Please write a comment if you have anything to add or if you disagree with any of this. Best wishes in your language studies.

Author: AndyMountHood

Lover of languages (linguaphile) in the US Pacific Northwest (PNW). Formerly Oregon Polyglot and PNW Linguaphile. I'm over 50 years old, work in IT, and love hiking.

3 thoughts on “How not to confuse languages”

  1. Great point about using different resources for learning languages! Most of the time, I do use different resources because they are not available in the other language that I am studying, but I would never have thought about mixing up languages because of a course teaching you the same sentences and vocabulary in both languages. That is very true!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really don’t like the idea of putting anything completely on hold at all. If you learned the first language to a high intermediate level already, do you really need to have nothing to do with it for months while you study others? It’s because I love the language I’m learning/speak so much, I don’t want to not have them in my life for months while studying others.

    One thing I thought of: I was a bilingual child and I know several and somewhere between 2 and 5, each one I know had a phase lasting between a few months to a few years where they mixed the two languages up. By first grade, not one of them still did it.


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