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Un, deux, trois, quatro, cinqo—Wait, What Just Happened?

By Amanda “Joëlle” Ruskin | Published: February 14, 2017

At the beginning of the school year, one of the Spanish-speaking students in my class came to me, frustrated that she couldn’t keep French and Spanish “straight” in her head, an example of an interesting conundrum: multilinguals are usually able to speak the language they intended to speak, but sometimes bits of one of their other languages sneak in.
 
This mixing up can happen accidentally:
 
Question:  “Classe, qu’est-ce que c’est?” [Class, what is this? (French)]
Response: “Das Buch.” [The book (German)].
 
The introductory French class was reviewing classroom objects, and the student named the object in German. He was not wrong—a book is “ein Buch” is “un livre.” A word's language doesn’t change its meaning, but he named the object in a non-target language.
 
Language mashup can also happen on purpose:
 
Una table para dos, por favor” [''A table for two, please,'' a Spanish sentence except for the the French word ''table,'' which the speaker also pronounced in Spanish.] 
 
The speaker noticed certain similarities between French and Spanish. She forgot how to say "table" in Spanish, but took the chance that she would come close if she "Spanish-ified" the French word she did know. Sometimes this strategy works. Not this time. In Spanish, table is ''mesa.''
 
Linguists such as Anna Herwig, Gessica de Angelis and Longxing Wei tell us that these mixed-language utterances are possible because of the way languages are represented in the brain. In a monolingual brain, language is represented as a web, connecting things and ideas to the words that name them, as well as information about how that word is pronounced and spelled, and how to use it. In a multilingual brain, a larger, more complex web is formed, encoding information about known words in all known languages and forming connections between languages.
 

At International Day, villages come together to celebrate and try to speak each other's languages--interesting mixes result
At International Day, villages come together
to celebrate and try to speak each other's
languages--interesting mixes result! 

Concordia Language Villages helped me explore this phenomenon for my Master's thesis by distributing a survey to adult staff members and alumni. Most respondents told me they sometimes experienced this kind of multilingual interference. They noticed it more often in speaking and writing than in listening or reading, and it seemed to primarily affect vocabulary and pronunciation. But most also didn't think much of it, finding it only somewhat frustrating.
 
What's the source of this interference? That’s where it gets complicated. When looking at the data from nearly 300 participants, certain patterns emerged. Usually the language to interfere (or "butt in") was the language in which the speaker was more proficient. The language learned earlier interfered with a language learned later more often than the other way around. Still, in one of in every five instances the source of interference was the language learned more recently and in which the user was less proficient.
 
In addition, related languages interfered with each other more frequently than unrelated languages. For example, a native speaker of English who is learning French, Spanish and German was  more likely to confuse Spanish and French (both Romance languages), than Spanish and German, or French and German. Nonetheless, it is still possible for unrelated languages to interfere with each other.
 
Interference between known languages is normal, and most multilinguals don't think it’s bad. Interference seems to go down as proficiency goes up. If you are learning French and you keep surprising yourself by mixing in Spanish, give yourself a break. Step by step, your brain is building your language web.
 
In the meantime, find the humor in it. I just started learning Dutch, and I am continually thrown by “je”, which means “you” in Dutch but “I” in French. So sometimes ''I'' am not the problem, ''you'' are....or is it ''you'' is? Luckily my research has made me confident that my brain will eventually sort itself out.

About the Author

Amanda “Joëlle” Ruskin is a seven-year staff member at Lac du Bois. Outside of camp season, she teaches French and ESL at Twin Cities Academy in St. Paul. She holds an M.S. in French from Minnesota State University-Mankato and a B.A. in French and English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In addition to French, she has also studied Spanish and German.

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