How do you compartmentalize your Multilingual-ness when speaking?

my languages tend to get quite mixed up :sweat_smile:

i’m fluent at (near) native level in english, german, swissgerman and french. (near native because i somehow just can’t flirt in french, it’s weird). i’ve also got some latin and italian, can understand a spanish tv-show if i’m paying attention, can read dutch somehow. but i use the first four daily. i usually stick to one language in a specific interaction, but if i’m searching for a word my brain often offers up the same word in a different language. i have no idea how to stop this.

when i’m talking with my family (or other groups of multilingual people), who share the same languages, things sometimes get weird: the conversation veers wildly between languages, words are mixed in all the time, sometimes an entire sentence will be spoken with the vocabulary of one language, but the grammar of another. sometimes there will be a major conversation in one language, and a minor side-conversation in another.

it can be a problem when speaking with somebody who only shares one language, but my brain tends to focus down a bit in those situations. and when words or grammar from a different language does slip in then i notice quickly and can correct myself.

and that kind of reflects my attitude to language learning: i will never sound like a native, these days i have a vague “foreign” accent even in my mother tongues. i will always make slight mistakes because when i relax my brain mixes languages. but that’s okay: languages are not rigid cages defining how we are allowed to speak. they are wonderfully flexible tools which allow ourselves to express ourselves.

as for japanese, so far it’s not been much of an issue, and i don’t know why. i have found myself adding a quick ね at the end of a sentence, but not much else. probably it’s because i just haven’t had the chance to actually speak japanese yet. but that said, my internal monologue is just starting to integrate bits of japanese.


I speak or am learning: English, Swedish, Japanese, and Korean. This problem is most prevalent when I’m trying to speak a language in which my vocabulary is small. I think it is just a thing that happens and I try to speak a bit more slowly when it does to be mindful. I also try to listen to the target language (native content) ahead of time to help switch my brain over.

With languages I have a larger base vocabulary or that I am much more comfortable in this happens less frequently, but still happens. I am mostly triggered by others’ use of the language (for better or worse) in order for me to start speaking. When it does happen I can usually catch it before I actually voice the foreign word/phrase and it just stays in my head. This is not perfect though. I think this would happen more often if i had to switch more frequently.

Perhaps let the other person know that you have this tendency at the start of an iTalki session so they know to stop you (and so they aren’t so confused).

The answer in your case is simple. Japanese and French sound almost nothing alike. You just need to think if the word sounds even remotely Japanese before speaking.

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Oof I totally feel your pain. When I started learning Japanese I was also taking Spanish at school and - although they’re not actually very similar - they are kinda phonetically close sometimes (lots of vowel sounds everywhere!). The worst part for me was accidentally throwing in それからs into a presentation and substituting in でもs instead of peros. This also recurred when I took Chinese in college; Japanese and Chinese sound nothing alike but some vocab have the same roots so that made for some very awkward oral tests.

The best advice I can give is “get good” which isn’t very helpful. What really helps I think is specifically getting the hang of conversation in a given language. Since French isn’t very close to Japanese, I think that once you’ve normalized conversations, it’ll start to feel super strange putting in a s’il vous plait instead of おねがいします. Getting used to speaking is kind of a rough long road but I think just getting better at listening helps a lot too and that’s relatively easier (like, that’s what anime is for, right?).

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These are really interesting points, and something I hadn’t considered.

Like @Jonapedia (and many others on this chat, woohoo), I grew up bilingual as well, so I also have the experience switching between languages quickly. I’m also taking a class on bi & multilingualism right now, and thinking about my childhood experiences from a more academic view. I asked my mom if I ever mixed up my two languages (German and English, so fairly similar) as a child, and she said I did to some extent when I was very young, around 18 months, but not at all by the age of 2.

There used to be a lot of debate about whether the brain has one language system where all of your languages “live” together, or separate systems from each language. The scientific evidence generally points to the latter, as in there are separate language systems, although these sometimes exhibit cross-linguistic influences.

But maybe, as many have pointed out here, when you’re learning a brand new language, or two or three, they all get lumped into this “auxiliary language box”, which would explain why new learners will sometimes get the wrong vocab popping into their heads - even those who have previous bilingual experience.

Anyway, thanks to everyone on this chat for raising some really interesting points and making me think about this in a new way. I think the good news is, your brain definitely has the capacity to figure out that all of the new languages you are learning are distinct from each other - but yeah, unsurprisingly, it’s going to take a lot of work and practicing both input and output.