Mixing words

Although I can’t devote much time to it, I have resumed my French study using Duolingo. I took about a year of French a few years ago, and used Duolingo for several months earlier this year; I was surprised by how quickly I was brought up to speed just after a week and a half of review. I have about the vocabulary of a two-year-old in French, which doesn’t seem much right now. I hope to improve it steadily, with practice.

The other morning while I was eating breakfast, I realised that I knew enough to say what I was eating. I rattled off: Je mange un oeuf und du pain con de la confiture.

Wait a second, I thought to myself. That wasn’t right. I had said “and” in German and “with” in Spanish. It should be: Je mange un oeuf et du pain avec de la confiture.

The previous two languages were leaking in, as they do when you learn additional languages as an adult. It’s been years since I took linguistics as an undergraduate, but one of the things I do remember is that languages learned later in life uses a different part of your brain than you used when learning your native language. Instead, it gets stored in the ‘puzzle-solving’ area — which also explains why non-native language learners tend to be better at reading and writing the additional language rather than speaking and listening. Which is also why when I was mentally grabbing for a word that meant and in a language that wasn’t English, my brain offered the German und as a possibility. Because of choir, I’m probably spending more time singing (and thinking) in German than I am with my French study. And Spanish is always my brain’s fall-back language; I still dream in Spanish sometimes, even though I haven’t actively spoken it in years.

I want to say that mentally grabbing the wrong language’s word when trying to speak a different language is a form of code-switching, but I’m not sure. It’s been too long since Dr. Litherland’s linguistics class for me to remember. But, I will keep practicing French, and I’m sure I’ll keep mixing up words by accident for a while yet.

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