How to speak multiple languages without mixing them up
Let's face it; being able to speak multiple languages would be really cool. But can it be done by the average person without getting really confused?
When I was living in Spain, still only able to speak English, I hung out with a Brazilian who absolutely wowed me as he switched between people at our international meet-ups. He would talk to me in flawless English, make an aside to another Brazilian in Portuguese, turn over his shoulder to say something in French and shout over to the group organizer in Spanish. All with total ease.
There was less than a second between switches – how was he not mixing these languages up??
This “show” impressed me so much that it significantly influenced my decision to devote several years to learn languages. It was a long road to take on several of them, but you know what? A few years ago I was at a Couchsurfing meeting in Budapest and pretty much did what my Brazilian friend did – but in seven languages. I could have done even more, but nobody present would have understood them.
I didn't mix them up, my accent was pretty good in each one and I even transformed my body language and facial expressions enough that one of the Brazilians said it was almost as good as talking with one of his buddies from home, and then funnily enough the Spaniard to my other side said exactly the same thing in Spanish a couple of minutes later. And I made switches between each language in an instant.
In this post I want to share with you what I feel are the essential steps in taking on more than one language, while being able to maintain conversational fluency in all of them without mixing them up.
Taking on several languages
I already wrote a post about how to become a polyglot, but here are some of the key points from what I wrote there:
- If possible try to take on a language you would find easier FIRST. I recommend Esperanto. This will allow you to get the feeling of speaking a language quicker, and that will speed up the process for the second/third one.
- Only learn ONE language at a time! A mistake I feel a lot of people are making is trying to learn both (or more) of their target languages simultaneously. This will make it much more likely that you will mix them up. I may speak several languages, but I have only ever learned one new language at a time. The trick is focusing on that until you reach fluency, and then you can start the next language and only have to worry about maintaining the previous one, since you already speak it.
- Be ready to feel stupid: After mastering one language, you are starting from scratch in a new one and have to feel very frustrated once again. This is part of the journey and a frustrating stage I have to go through several times a year despite already speaking other languages.
- If you take on another language in the same language family (e.g. Romance languages) the amount of work you have to do to learn a second one is reduced, but the chances of mixing them up are higher. People who think it's a lazy short-cut to take on languages in the same family are blissfully unaware of the huge amount of work involved in skilfully compartmentalising them so you don't mix them up. When you do it right, and appreciate each one for what it is, you will see the vast differences between languages in the same family. Having said that, you can just as easily mix up vocabulary in distant languages if you don't apply the suggestions below.
The magic ingredient: a ridiculous amount of spoken practice!
I won't ever get tired of repeating the golden rule of my language learning advice: speak, speak, speak!! No, you can't study your way to speaking multiple languages (but you could study your way to understanding them passively of course). The main reason above all others that I can switch between all my languages is because I am constantly practising them.
Even when I was in Budapest and Berlin I was meeting up with Spaniards, French, Italians etc. The reason I can switch so “effortlessly” between my languages is because I am not out of practice for them.
The amount of work I put into practising them is so immense that I might not even decide to maintain a language after I leave the country because of the addition to my already pretty intensive workload. This is what I did with Czech and Catalan and is likely what I'll do with Hungarian too. Unless you are passionate about the language to be a part of your life, you will never maintain it well.
My first attempt of speaking two foreign languages seriously was in Rome, when I was working at a youth hostel learning Italian but getting lots of Spanish guests. At the time, Spanish was the only language I had a confident command over.
At first, I was indeed producing a kind of “espaliano” when trying to speak either, but forcing myself to speak Spanish constantly every day, while also doing the same for Italian while I was learning and improving it meant that I learned how to compartmentalise each language in my head.
I have other tricks below, but nothing can ever beat just using both languages on the same day (once you speak at least one confidently already) to get yourself used to switching between them and truly appreciating the many differences.
I'll continue to give you many more ideas for how to practice without travelling, so you have no excuse to not try to find a native or other learner and use your language with them in a real conversation, every day!
Being able to switch between accents
What I'm pretty proud of is that, while my accents are not perfect in any language yet, I do work hard to reduce my foreign accent and try to sound as local as possible. You can see me switch between languages in the Language Hacking Guide intro video.
What I do is incorporated into all stages of learning a language: putting your whole body and mind into learning the words based on a “persona” for each language.
When I learn a new French word, I don't just say it in my head or visualise it on a flashcard. I say it out loud, with my lips pursed French-like and even try to think in my French mindset.
I go back in my throat to speak Spanish and mentally set myself up for Spanish-like talk by remembering how my friends speak. It's not just a case of learning “voiture” is the French word and “coche” is the Spanish one. I learn and say these words for their particular language persona, voice, and even arm and leg position that is more likely for natives of that language.
Not mixing them up
Doing the above means that there are some words I simply cannot say in the wrong language.
Spanish and Portuguese may be similar, but I say “hablar” in as Spanish a way as I can whenever I say it and because of this it just isn't possible for me to say it in Portuguese. I have encoded it into the Spanish persona, body language, accent that I am so used to thanks to lots and lots of practice – rather than learning a simple one-way dictionary concept of “hablar means to speak”.
Saying that word in Portuguese sounds nothing short of an aggressive intrusion to me.
This is yet another reason why context with languages is crucial. If you just study vocabulary but try to think “it means to speak in Spanish”, it's simply not going to work. You have to have used it in hundreds of real sentences, so that you reach the stage where the portuñol combination “você habla” is way too strange, both in sound (because you learned it in another accent) and even because it just feels wrong.
So much practice means that I don't “know” it's wrong (as someone who has studied more than spoken would) as much as I feel it in my gut that it is wrong thanks to correct use in context so many times before, just as a native would do.
You have to put your whole body and mind into speaking a language.
And no, you can't do this by yourself. Stop being shy and meet up with others to get your words into a real context. I'm sure you can reach the stage of understanding “dozens” of languages while being locked in your room, but if you want to use each of them in spontaneous conversations and even eventually switch between them with ease as I described above, lots and lots of speaking is how you are going to do it!