How do you compartmentalize your Multilingual-ness when speaking?

There’s a lot of you multilingual multitaskers out here! - how do you lock up your other languages so you can produce just the Japanese vocab when speaking?

I’m a native English speaker and know enough French to make life difficult. I had my first iTalki lesson and was throwing French words into my Japanese sentences completely unaware until my teacher’s expression was like what the hell.

French keeps popping up first like a google ad because my brain is like- here use this- stop working so hard. But in the moment until staring off for an uncomfortable amount of seconds and visually picturing the word - I don’t know which language it is.


My brain does this for my German now - it insists on throwing Japanese words in there. But as far as my English - Japanese compartmentalization, that one seems to work and I don’t suddenly use my Native language.

I honestly don’t know if there is a trick to it. :thinking:

I have basically given up on my German at this point. I don’t think I can handle more than 2 foreign languages at a usable level. The German is just, I dunno, perhaps browsing a homepage would be fine. But, talking is not working for sure. :slightly_frowning_face:

But, it would be great if this is something you can train.

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Sadly, I don’t have an answer for you but I really hope some others have advice for us as I totally experience the same problem.

I’m fluent in English and French, and also speak Gujarati and understand Hindi. Whenever I’m trying to speak a language I’m not yet confident in like Japanese or Hindi, I randomly get French words popping up in my head, making it really difficult to maintain a train of thought in the language I’m trying to speak!

This is a very common thing when you are learning new languages, if very frustrating.
With time your brain will start doing that separation you mean. Usually it becomes a person to language association.

But just to reassure you, I’m fluent in 2 languages and when someone drops one of them when you expect the other it still throws you off.


It’s interesting that this is an issue that pops up for French and Japanese. It would make sense for two language like, say, French and Italian, but Japanese is different enough in most regards that you’d think our brains would be able to keep it apart.

That said, your brain definitely has some level of awareness that these are two different language systems. One thing that has helped me in the past when trying to learn two languages simultaneously is very strictly separating the times I study them. For example, I have Anki decks for both Japanese and French, but I NEVER study them both at the same time/right after each other, because that would create links in my brain between the two languages. What I usually do instead is dedicate entire days or weeks to studying one language so that it doesn’t link at all to the other language.

Another thing I would imagine might help is priming your brain before doing any study or activity in either language. Before doing an iTalki chat, doing some vocab reviews or looking over your grammar notes should prime your brain for that language, essentially telling it to get ready to access that information.

Not a linguistics expert here, just a neuroscience student throwing her two cents in.


This happens when I’m “code-switching” - if I travel from France to Germany, it takes a couple hours to completely switch over from one language to the other. It happened with German vocab when I first started learning French, and then when I first started using my German again, it happened in the other direction. As you say, my brain just said “here’s the word you want, why aren’t you using it???headdesk”

I think what helps me most when I travel (well, in the before-times!) is completely leaving the other languages behind as much as I can - on the plane to Germany, I’ll speak German (I fly LH, not AF, tyvm), so I “arrive in Germany” the minute I get on the airplane. Taxis, train stations, hotels, buses, work canteen, I used German wherever possible. On arrival back to France, switch back. When I lived in France, I used French “on the street” and as much as possible at work.

But! Having a phone call in the “wrong” language? Oof. Calling Germany from France, or vice versa, on occasion gave rise to some hilarious conversations. And a colleague in France while I lived in Germany would always tell me she could tell from my e-mails when I’d been speaking German - I would always the verb at the end of the sentence put.

I find that I can think easily in either language. I can’t do that yet in Japanese, and I think that when I can think in a language, or talk to myself in that language, it means I’m closer to being able to code-switch more readily. It took me a while to get to that point with French or German, largely through living in those languages and using them on a daily basis.

Oddly, I haven’t had my brain offer me the right word from the wrong language when trying to speak Japanese; lately, it’s been offering me the wrong words in the right language!

So for me, using a language regularly I think is key to being able to compartmentalize them, and it’s not so much that I wall off the ones I’m not speaking as that my brain knows where it’s left all the bits of the one I am speaking.


I’m fluent in english and turkish and I can switch between them and japanese with no problems (I can quite happily switch between them in the same conversation, or talk to someone in one language while they respond in another). it’s natural enough that the idea of learning to compartmentalise them feels weird…

I can (used to be able to) speak a bit of french and german, but nowadays they all become japanese…

maybe it just happens automagically once you reach a certain level, but up until then everything’s like a language soup :man_shrugging:


For me it’s a little complicated due to a certain traumatic event in the past.

English is kind of layered on top of my first language, Polish. German and Japanese are linked to Polish, even though I study Japanese in English and that connection is also there. Currently, my Japanese gets mixed up with German so whenever I go shopping, the only words that come to my mind are in Japanese, but fortunately there is always some kind of context hook so I can switch to German.

In general, when speaking Japanese I prefer to stick to it. Loan words in English confuse me, because they encourage me to switch to English which I obviously want to avoid :stuck_out_tongue: .


I personally think it’s a matter of knowing enough words to be able to think almost exclusively in Japanese. Afterwards, it’s a matter of being able to get into ‘Japanese mode’. I tend to be able to lock out other languages once I’m sufficiently engaged in using my chosen language for a particular task. @amb3rfro5t has raised a few examples of how to do that if simply doing the task isn’t sufficient to get that sort of mental separation to kick in.

I really think it’s a matter of familiarity, along with the fact that our brains can sort of lump all the languages other than our main one together as ‘auxiliary languages’. If you’re sufficiently fluent in more than one ‘auxiliary language’, your brain may very well decide to offer you words from the one you’ve used the most recently, even if it’s not appropriate. I find myself doing that for a few moments when I’m thinking to myself after watching a Chinese period drama, even if I’m moving on to a document in French. (I’m living and studying in France.)

@Tepp To return to the main topic of discussion, however, I think it’s really a matter of practice. I might find it easier than what many of you have described on this thread because I grew up bilingual (English and Mandarin, while listening to Teochew and Hakka whenever I went by my grandparents’ place), and I’ve seriously studied six languages (fluent in English, Chinese and French; working on bringing Japanese to fluency; possessing decent grammatical knowledge in German, but with little vocabulary and shaky grammatical gender knowledge for lack of practice; able to muddle through news and Tweets in Spanish because of French and a little experience with Latin). Also, growing up in Singapore while wanting to be fluent, as an adult, in an internationally respected form of English also meant I had to constantly switch between Singlish (a Singaporean variety of English with grammar that’s closer to Chinese) and standard English. Being able to switch between languages almost instantly is something I’ve been required to do for a long time, so perhaps that’s why I don’t find it too difficult.

Perhaps you need to cultivate a sort of ‘linguistic self-awareness’ when you speak? I used to mentally check my sentences in French as I spoke, and I often visualise words as I speak. (That’s how I remember to agree French past participles when the object precedes the verb.) Do your best to listen to yourself and hear what you’re saying, perhaps? French and Japanese have very different rhythms (‘prosodies’ is the technical term), and that alone should clue you into the fact that you’re using the wrong language. For that matter, when I can’t hear exactly what someone’s saying, if I want to guess what’s being said, the first thing I do is listen to the rhythm in order to figure out which language I know matches that rhythm. That aside, in my opinion, you need to give yourself a figurative slap on the wrist: every time you catch yourself saying something in French instead of in Japanese, you should stop and correct yourself with a Japanese equivalent. You should also perhaps aim to be more of a purist in your language use? This is most likely not at all necessary, but I’m a purist in language use across languages, and I find it helps with compartmentalisation. I use English-based slang in French in order to fit in with other university students, but in my personal, formal writing, I categorically refuse to use language that is similar to English in structure unless I know it’s valid and idiomatic in French. Similarly, you might want to set producing ‘Japanese Japanese’ as one of your goals when forming sentences, since that might eliminate the desire to insert a French word into your sentence. Get a deeper feel for the differences in nuance so your subconscious will prick you when you try to substitute a French word for a Japanese one, because often enough (though not always), the French word won’t fit as well as the Japanese one if your sentence is truly idiomatic.

PS: I have to admit though, perhaps I’m not able to fully empathise because even when I use the wrong language, I tend to exclusively use that language until I realise what language I’m using. I don’t swap individual words from another language into whatever I’m saying, possibly because I strictly (like a parent or severe teacher) separate languages in my mind (I actually get upset with myself if I don’t take the distinctions seriously enough and mix things up) and refuse to allow mixing because I see it as a sign of laziness on my part (so yeah, I guess I mentally punish myself for any unplanned mixing). I only mix languages when I’m in a context that allows for that (e.g. at university with other young students in France or when speaking Singlish in Singapore, in which mixing is extremely common, at times due to a lack of vocabulary).

The one sort of mixing I do do, however, is pronunciation mixing. That’s the one thing I can’t avoid, and it’s only got worse as I’ve learnt more languages, particularly when I’m nervous. I occasionally get the urge to pronounce a French word using English pronunciation rules when my attention slips, and I’ve done the same with German pronunciation rules in French when I was actively studying German.

PPS: Maybe the fact that I do so much pronunciation mixing actually shows that I’m constantly primed to switch languages, possibly too much so? That might explain why I act the way I do.


That makes a lot of sense - I don’t know how people can learn more than one language at a time. I am immersing as much as possible -except for speaking. I’m in Canada and my french is kind of inert because we were taught it since kindergarten. I haven’t actively studied it since leaving school.

So my brain is like 1)English 2)Not English. Fine for listening and reading - but for controlling speech output and mouth shape - nope.


What happens to me is after a few weeks in Japan I come back and keep involuntarily saying はい instead of yes and people get confused why I’m greeting them all the time.

This goes away after a while.


From my personal experience it tends to gradually become less of a problem once you reach a high enough level in one of the languages. For instance I don’t have any trouble with mixing up German or Japanese(my third and fourth languages) now, but random German used to sneak in sometimes when I just had started studying Japanese. Once I got to a level where I had read a couple of books in both languages it had mostly stopped happening though.


Not sure there is a solution. Just before we left the U.K. for NZ went for lunch at best friend’s house. His mother started talking to me in Urdu but although I understood her when I tried to speak only Japanese came into my head. It was frustrating. I think part of the problem is that if you don’t use languages regularly they suffer badly. Generally I find it hard to study more than one language at a time so my skills have degenerated in the ones I’m not actively using. German is least affected because we spent so long in Switzerland but my active skills in French, Hindi and Spanish have all slumped a lot. However my passive skills haven’t disappeared completely and I can and do watch stuff on Netflix in all the languages I’ve studied


hehehe, I’m the opposite…if I know the person I’m talking to is going to understand it, I just go with whatever word comes to mind first, but jammed into the grammar of the language I’m speaking I kinda wanna see how many languages that’s sustainable across

ultimately what I care about when I’m speaking is getting my point across efficiently…

ah yeah if someone takes me by surprise after I’ve just got back from turkey, i’ll probably inadvertently respond in turkish, and be treated to a confused look :sweat_smile:


This happened to me a lot when I was younger since I’ve studied a little of a lot of different languages. I think it’s because I wasn’t confident in any of them, so my brain struggled to hold onto what little it knew. I’ve been having that problem less since I made a conscious effort to hit Japanese hard.

My own theory is that as we become more confident in a language, our brains will feel less of a need to bring it up while we’re trying to code-switch in another direction. Sometimes I’ll have an occasion to write something quick in Spanish and Russian. I’m still not fluent in Japanese, but it seldom pops in my head while I’m using another non-native language now.

EDIT: Sometimes I’ll forget which language I’m using, though. One time, my girlfriend and I were trying to learn how to play hanafuda games. I was reading the Japanese instructions that came with the cards. I was trying to show her a sentence and she had to remind me, “… Um, I can’t read that.” I somehow legitimately forgot that she didn’t speak Japanese.

Another time, I had a night class where most of my students were still in the middle of learning English, so when they were the only students in the room, I often taught in Spanish. But one time I answered a question in Spanish and one of the other students just said, “Um, can you speak English?” I didn’t even realize I was still speaking Spanish.


I speak Hebrew, and French and for some reason when trying to speak Hebrew, Japanese is now coming out even though I hardly know any Japanese. I feel like Hebrew is much harder now and slowly getting replaced by Japanese. There are a lot of similar sounding words in hebrew and japanese, as well as hebrew and french, but I think because I’ve known french and hebrew for so long, I dont confuse them, but Japanese, I do now.


Here’s a weird, counter-intuitive suggestion… maybe practice your French more often?

Since you studied it as a foreign language since your youth, but don’t really use it, it could just be seeping out whenever you start searching your mental vocab catalogue. Maybe a little French immersion would help distinguish them, by reminding your brain, “hey, THIS is French.”

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I don’t know if it makes sene… but I have different little boxes for languages inside my mind.

My mother language is Portuguese, it has its own box and it is a super easy to open and close it when I want to.
I have been learning and speaking english for over 18 years now. So english also has its own little box and it is pretty solid, it is quite easy for me to use it.

When I started learning Italian I had to put it next to the Portuguese box, every time I needed something I could easily borrow it for Portuguese. The languages are similar enough that knowing one helps the other one. I am at an advanced level of Italian now and I can speak it well, but sometimes I still need to borrow some things from Portuguese. Italian is still a basket with some wholes in it, not its own box yet.

German was placed next to the english box. It was close to english in my head, so I would borrow things from english all the time. At some point I had to put it next to the Italian basket so I could borrow some things from Italian as well. German is still a a kid running around and playing with all the boxes in my head. I am not good enough to contain my german knowledge in one place. It is all over.

I started learning Japanese a long time ago, and I was quite good and grammar and vocabulary. Back then I was able to read some easy books in Japanese. But then I moved to Korea and I had to switch to Korean. That completely screwed myJapanese, I had to forget everything in order to learn Korean. I would still mix them up all the time in the beginning, but after a few years in the country I was able to communicate well using Korean only. Now that I left Korea and I am trying to learn Japanese again, I went back to mixing them up. My Korean is a bit better than my Japanese was back when I first moved to Korea, so it has its own basket in my mind, but it is not connected to anything stronger so it keeps leaking and I keep losing its contents. It seems like my brain is a room full of posters in Japanese that don’t really make sense together, and sometimes the german kid comes and throws the posters in the Korean basket.

Anyway… that is how I separate my languages hahahaha! Not very effective! I think it is normal that the more you use it the more you remember things, and you forget stuff quickly as well. I try to have entertainment in all languages all the time so I at least keep my proficiency. I watch audiobooks and movies in Italian, sometimes I even watch anime with german subtitles, I read Korean comics in Korean… you need to diversify and be exposed to them always! It is super normal to mix them up and it will never stop hahahaha!


My native language is German. I’ve been using (and immersing in) English media for years and it takes me no effort to switch between German and English in writing / chatting, though when I speak it it takes a minute or two. I only do that on a weekly basis when I talk to friends and not every day. I actually have the problem that I can barely translate between German and English anymore since the languages are not really connected in my brain (if that makes sense). That doesn’t count for simple things but if my family asks me to translate something complicated for them I tend to describe more and am not able to give a word-for-word translation… And that doesn’t mean I don’t understand English, quite the opposite - I just see a word and know “the feeling it omits” and don’t translate it to German for myself, so when someone asks me to translate it takes me some time to think about the exact word.

Sadly with Japanese I am still at the very beginning. I just started learning it some 40 days ago and still have to heavily rely on translation. Since I use pretty much exclusively English resources to learn it I wonder how much it will affect my German and vice versa - though I am grateful that I konw German, it makes Grammar studies a lot easier because I can compare it to both English and German.

In any case I’ve read through this entire thread, super interesting answers to compare to.


So the answer is - Just get better.

I will make a big effort to stay more in the foggy zone of stretching for the best word rather than letting my brain ramble off on autopilot. Slow it down.

(I thought I was saying ‘I’ve never been to japan’ - but actually rambled off 全然日本を行かなたくない)

I’m rambling lies.

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