How many languages do you know before you mix them up?

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Snarlock
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How many languages do you know before you mix them up?

Postby Snarlock » Tue Jul 12, 2016 2:49 pm UTC

Hi everyone,

This is my first post on the forum but thought it would be interesting to hear everybody's experience due to the fact that the forum covers both science and language enthusiasts.

An exchange student friend of mine speaks approximately four languages fluently, but told me that he has problems distinguishing the 3rd and the 4th language from each other every now and then. This means that, even though he feels fluent in both languages, he has sometimes a word from the 4th language randomly popping up in a sentence when speaking the 3rd language. He says he is afraid that he has reached his "limit" and will always have a problem when switching between the 3rd and 4th, depeding on which country he is in and for how long. It is almost like his brain thinks that the 3rd and 4th language is identical :)

Is there a scientific average out there before this starts to happen? His 3rd and 4th language happens to be Japanese and German, respectively.

How is it for other forum members here? Does this happen to you, and if so, at how many languages does it appear?

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Re: How many languages do you know before you mix them up?

Postby Zohar » Tue Jul 12, 2016 5:54 pm UTC

I haven't encountered that issue, but I don't speak fluently in that many languages - Hebrew and English, broken French, and broken-er Japanese. When I was studying Japanese regularly, I noticed when listening to other languages (that I didn't know, like Spanish), I would be surprised when reading their subtitles not to hear the corresponding Japanese word. I haven't often confused languages though, at most I would get stuck on a word ("how do you say X in language Y?").

My husband speaks a lot more languages - English, French, Hebrew, Russian, some Ukrainian, Arabic, some Farsi. From time to time he would say the Arabic word when speaking instead of the Hebrew word, and not really noticing it. These are languages from the same family, and while he knows Hebrew better now, he studied Arabic first. So I can definitely say this happens to other people.
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Re: How many languages do you know before you mix them up?

Postby flicky1991 » Tue Jul 12, 2016 6:15 pm UTC

You don't have to be fluent in more than one language to mix them up. My friends and I studied French and Latin at school, and one of them once wrote on a French exam that something was "in le hortus", somehow using both languages plus English in just three words (correct French would be "dans le jardin").
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Snarlock
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Re: How many languages do you know before you mix them up?

Postby Snarlock » Wed Jul 20, 2016 4:10 pm UTC

Zohar wrote:My husband speaks a lot more languages - English, French, Hebrew, Russian, some Ukrainian, Arabic, some Farsi. From time to time he would say the Arabic word when speaking instead of the Hebrew word, and not really noticing it. These are languages from the same family, and while he knows Hebrew better now, he studied Arabic first. So I can definitely say this happens to other people.


Hi Zohar, cool to hear your story and thank you for the reply. Was away on vacation for a week. Yes, how you describe your husband's mix of languages unknowingly is exactly how my friend is experiencing it. He says he sometimes cannot control which word from which language is popping up during a sentence. His brain does not stop to consider if it is the false language. It just comes out without any sort of monitoring performed.

flicky1991 wrote:You don't have to be fluent in more than one language to mix them up. My friends and I studied French and Latin at school, and one of them once wrote on a French exam that something was "in le hortus", somehow using both languages plus English in just three words (correct French would be "dans le jardin").


That is absolutely hilarious. However, did it happen to a degree where your friend would be worried that he or she could not learn additional languages fluently? Or was it only a very rare case scenario?

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Re: How many languages do you know before you mix them up?

Postby Soupspoon » Wed Jul 20, 2016 4:57 pm UTC

My father has told me of a colleague at work who was pretty much anglicised and had no problems with English (he was a recent immigrant to the UK from the Indian subcontinent, although it was around the time when significantly large swathes of English exhibited attitude problems towards him... plus ca change) and 'blended in' well on the phone, at least. He ascribed his ability to pick up languages from his father, who spoke and wrote many of the different Indian languages and dialects and had encouraged his lingustic excursion towards English (and probably some other European lingos).

Upon the polite remarking that his father must be a very intelligent man, he reposted that in the correspondence they still exchanged, frequently, "he never sticks to the same language [or, possibly, writing system matched or UK unmatched!] even across a single sentence...".

(I always thought that father and son could easily be trying to get around surveillance, censorship or something similar. You only need to pre-arrange maybe "everything I write in Hindi is untrue", and even if someone gets translators-enough to understand what you write, you could get away with further steganographic subtext...)

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Re: How many languages do you know before you mix them up?

Postby Snarlock » Thu Jul 21, 2016 9:01 am UTC

Soupspoon wrote:(I always thought that father and son could easily be trying to get around surveillance, censorship or something similar. You only need to pre-arrange maybe "everything I write in Hindi is untrue", and even if someone gets translators-enough to understand what you write, you could get away with further steganographic subtext...)


That's truly interesting indeed. What could they possibly have been hiding? Perhaps my friend is secretly communicating to mutual friends in the room and I am the only one who is none the wiser :) Maybe he is an undercover secret agent, haha.

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Re: How many languages do you know before you mix them up?

Postby lorb » Thu Jul 21, 2016 2:01 pm UTC

Snarlock wrote: His 3rd and 4th language happens to be Japanese and German, respectively.


As a German native speaker who is learning Japanese here is a little insight from that perspective: It's pretty hard to mix words of those two languages up because they have very little similarities. If you transcribe Japanese every other letter will be a vocal, which is very rare in German words. Also word endings are rather different. But there is a number of German loanwords in Japanese (especially in the area of medicine, for historic reasons) which sound really really close to their original. So I could see how a German word could pop up in Japanese and be mistaken for one of these loanwords, but a Japanese word embedded into German should sound suspicious right away, it won't blend in at all.
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Re: How many languages do you know before you mix them up?

Postby Snarlock » Thu Jul 21, 2016 2:25 pm UTC

lorb wrote:As a German native speaker who is learning Japanese here is a little insight from that perspective: It's pretty hard to mix words of those two languages up because they have very little similarities. If you transcribe Japanese every other letter will be a vocal, which is very rare in German words. Also word endings are rather different.


Great insight :) However, this is his 3rd and 4th language, so his issue isn't with the similarity between the languages but rather the feared existence of a "limit" to his brain in distinguishing more languages beyond his native and second language.

lorb wrote:But there is a number of German loanwords in Japanese (especially in the area of medicine, for historic reasons) which sound really really close to their original. So I could see how a German word could pop up in Japanese and be mistaken for one of these loanwords, but a Japanese word embedded into German should sound suspicious right away, it won't blend in at all.


Another friend of mine who now is a doctor told me of this while he was studying medicine. He speaks Japanese but not German, but told me that, while he was in Japan for a summer exchange with a hospital, many of the Japanese doctors were using German loanwords when communicating. I guess German becomes an additional "Universal" language for doctors all over the world, similarly to Latin :)

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Re: How many languages do you know before you mix them up?

Postby lorb » Thu Jul 21, 2016 3:13 pm UTC

Snarlock wrote:
lorb wrote:As a German native speaker who is learning Japanese here is a little insight from that perspective: It's pretty hard to mix words of those two languages up because they have very little similarities. If you transcribe Japanese every other letter will be a vocal, which is very rare in German words. Also word endings are rather different.


Great insight :) However, this is his 3rd and 4th language, so his issue isn't with the similarity between the languages but rather the feared existence of a "limit" to his brain in distinguishing more languages beyond his native and second language.


Yeah. But the dissimilarity of the languages should help with keeping them separate in the brain. You only need a general grasp of German/Japanese word structure to be able to assign words to their language, even if you don't know them.

Snarlock wrote:
lorb wrote:But there is a number of German loanwords in Japanese (especially in the area of medicine, for historic reasons) which sound really really close to their original. So I could see how a German word could pop up in Japanese and be mistaken for one of these loanwords, but a Japanese word embedded into German should sound suspicious right away, it won't blend in at all.


Another friend of mine who now is a doctor told me of this while he was studying medicine. He speaks Japanese but not German, but told me that, while he was in Japan for a summer exchange with a hospital, many of the Japanese doctors were using German loanwords when communicating. I guess German becomes an additional "Universal" language for doctors all over the world, similarly to Latin :)


It also just so happened that just when Japan recognized western medicine as superior to traditional medicine and started actively importing it that they had a rather strong trade-relationship with Germany (via the Dutch) and it was the period when German speaking countries were at the forefront of research in medicine.
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Re: How many languages do you know before you mix them up?

Postby Snarlock » Mon Jul 25, 2016 8:36 am UTC

lorb wrote:Yeah. But the dissimilarity of the languages should help with keeping them separate in the brain. You only need a general grasp of German/Japanese word structure to be able to assign words to their language, even if you don't know them.


Yeah, see what you mean. The more dissimilar the languages, the easier it should be for the brain to distinguish them from another. So imagine if the 3rd and 4th language would instead be Spanish and Italian. Are you saying that this combination, in contrast to the Japanese/German equivalent, should be harder on the brain with regards to the topic of mixing languages? I would have assumed that, the further apart the languages, the longer it would take to learn them and also consequently requiring more capacity of the brain.

In your case, would you agree that it is far more complicated to learning Japanese compared to Dutch? Maybe if he were 100% fluent in both the 3rd and 4th language, the brain would be far more prepared to monitor or judge?

lorb wrote:It also just so happened that just when Japan recognized western medicine as superior to traditional medicine and started actively importing it that they had a rather strong trade-relationship with Germany (via the Dutch) and it was the period when German speaking countries were at the forefront of research in medicine.


This is a great insight. Thanks for sharing :)

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Re: How many languages do you know before you mix them up?

Postby lorb » Mon Jul 25, 2016 9:22 am UTC

Snarlock wrote:
lorb wrote:Yeah. But the dissimilarity of the languages should help with keeping them separate in the brain. You only need a general grasp of German/Japanese word structure to be able to assign words to their language, even if you don't know them.


Yeah, see what you mean. The more dissimilar the languages, the easier it should be for the brain to distinguish them from another. So imagine if the 3rd and 4th language would instead be Spanish and Italian. Are you saying that this combination, in contrast to the Japanese/German equivalent, should be harder on the brain with regards to the topic of mixing languages? I would have assumed that, the further apart the languages, the longer it would take to learn them and also consequently requiring more capacity of the brain.


Yes. Let me give you an example. Let's say you are communicating in Spanish and want to say something about your cat. The correct Spanish word would be 'gato' but maybe you also know some Japanese and the word neko which is Japanese for cat is your first thought. If you have even just a basic grasp of Spanish you will immediately recognize that this can't be the right word.* But if you know Italian and gatto would be the word that comes to your mind, even an advanced student of Spanish could think that's the right one.

*the letter k is pretty much foreign to Spanish (and Italian too) and you will be very hard pressed to find any Spanish words that end in -ko and that are not asian/japanese loanwords

In your case, would you agree that it is far more complicated to learning Japanese compared to Dutch? Maybe if he were 100% fluent in both the 3rd and 4th language, the brain would be far more prepared to monitor or judge?

Learning Japanese is much harder than learning Dutch for a German native-speaker. And doesn't have to be 100% fluent, just enough to have a firm grasp on the morphology of the language/s.
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Re: How many languages do you know before you mix them up?

Postby Snarlock » Mon Jul 25, 2016 11:02 am UTC

lorb wrote:Let's say you are communicating in Spanish and want to say something about your cat. The correct Spanish word would be 'gato' but maybe you also know some Japanese and the word neko which is Japanese for cat is your first thought. If you have even just a basic grasp of Spanish you will immediately recognize that this can't be the right word.* But if you know Italian and gatto would be the word that comes to your mind, even an advanced student of Spanish could think that's the right one.


Yeah, that is a good example. However, the good part about mixing that word in Spanish and Italian, is that there is still a good chance that the listener would understand the word you are trying to get across. If you spoke with a Japanese person and ended up using the word "Katze(?)" instead of "Neko", or the opposite when communicating with a German, you would probably get a strange, confusing look from the opposing party :)
So the consequences while conversing are harsher when mixing dissimilar languages.

lorb wrote:Learning Japanese is much harder than learning Dutch for a German native-speaker. And doesn't have to be 100% fluent, just enough to have a firm grasp on the morphology of the language/s.


Yeah, I presume that learning Dutch for a German is comparable to a Swede learning Danish or Norwegian? Am I far off here?

My initial secondary assumption would be that, learning a language that also includes a completely different alphabet, such as ones using Arabic, Thai and Chinese characters et al., would be much more tiring on the brain, thus tougher to keep apart. However, on the contrary, what you just explained, the more similar sounding or structured the languages happen to be, the more demanding it is for the brain to distinguish?

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Re: How many languages do you know before you mix them up?

Postby Snarlock » Wed Aug 03, 2016 1:40 pm UTC

Craziest thing happened yesterday when my friend (from thread topic) and I were at a get-together for expats. He was switching between languages the whole night, going from English to German, Norwegian and Japanese etc. Mind you, we had had our share of alcohol throughout the evening, but just right before we were about to leave, he was speaking to a Japanese lady for about 10 minutes. On our way out from the location he met two German expats that he had spoken to earlier but COULD NOT get a single word out in German. He tried his absolute best because I could see how much he was concentrating, but only Japanese sentences came out!

I was both shocked and amused to say the least :) The Germans thought it was funny and wished him a safe ride home, haha.


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