Is it possible to learn two languages at once? I don’t know what the research says, but it would seem to me that probably one at a time would be more effective. However, living as I do between the French and German parts of Switzerland, I don’t have much choice. I have to speak French when I go to the store or the dentist, and German when I go to work. At home, we still speak mostly English, but the language of friends and family is the Swiss German dialect, which I can somewhat understand but don’t even try to speak.

At first I was completely muddled, and words from various languages would get mixed up in my head and make me feel tongue-tied. But at some point the languages seemed to sort themselves out in my brain into their own “tracks” (though I still inadvertently insert words from other languages at times).

I’m trying to make progress in both French and German, but it’s hard to work on both equally at the same time, so I tend to take turns. Last month I pushed myself to read more in French, and it really helped. A book blogging friend who is also a French teacher started an online book club and that was a great way to get in some writing and discussion practice. I finished three books and felt as though I broke a barrier I had never managed to get through, even in my higher-level college classes. I should keep going with reading, though in a less intense way. Soon I may be able to tackle those classics that I never quite grasped in school — bring on Diderot, Flaubert and Camus!

Poster by the Office for Emergency Management. War Production Board.

I really need to make more progress in German, though. There is a very good free course through Deutsche Welle that I’m working on, and I have an online conversation partner. I’d also like to read more books in German when I get a little further (I’m kind of at the “Dick and Jane” stage at the moment).

I think it would be easier for me to make progress if I could really immerse myself in one language, but as I said above, that’s not a choice for me. And it does not help that I  spend much time at home by myself or with family, talking and reading and writing in English.

My method is more of a “quick-dip-in-and-out” than immersion. I know I should make myself write more in another language, in my journal, for example, but it would feel like breaking my own legs in order to learn to walk again. I’m not quite up to it yet.

I do find it fascinating to experience the different languages — which are both closely connected with English, and remind me of different aspects of my own mother tongue. I find French easier to understand, partly because I’ve studied it much longer, but also because much of the vocabulary and the whole way of thinking are familiar from the Latinate academic world.

On the other hand, German is easier for me to speak, in spite of some difficult sounds and extremelylongportmanteauwords. Not that I get the grammar all correct, but the wrong words come out of my mouth more easily. Maybe because it’s the language of my husband, and feels more gemütlich; or because it’s a stress-timed language, like English, and the rhythmic quality comes naturally to me.

But when French and German bump up against each other in Switzerland, they do not like to mix. There are many bilingual (and multilingual) people, of course, but I was surprised to find there are also many who live for years in this region and don’t learn the speech of the other side, even workers in official roles. The French and German regions stubbornly maintain their own character and their own language, to a greater extent than I had realized.

Meanwhile, I’ll be trying to bridge them both, and in the process learning more about English — the modern language of neutrality, it seems.

Have you ever tried to learn two languages at once? Do you have any tips?

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10 thoughts on “Doublespeak

  1. I so wish I’d had an extended period to learn at least one modern foreign language (two would be a bonus) but three stretches of two to three weeks as a teenager with a French family were better than nothing.

    I did French at school obviously, but also opted to do Latin and Ancient Greek for two years where the accent — forgive the pun — was on the written rather than the spoken language. The Latin was helpful for French and English, but sadly my poor assiduity at classical Greek was no help with Demotic Greek when we went to Crete — all the vowels were different, for example: ‘thank you’ was ef(k)haristòh in modern Crete but we pronounced ‘thankful’ as euchar’istos in school lessons.

    And all that two years of learning Welsh a decade ago has given me is now a handful of phrases and the chance of making a decent stab at pronouncing Welsh place-names and signs… So, no tips, sorry!

    1. I wish I’d studied Latin and Greek when I had the chance. Doing my whole education over again would be nice, but I have to pick up the pieces from here.

  2. I admire your efforts! You do live in an interesting place, with so many languages spoken in daily life. We were amazed by that when we visited, because the language spoken in one place was different from the language spoken in another, and it’s such a small country. We compared it to having three different time zones in the same small state.

    1. There is an interesting tension with language, because it’s part of how people build identity, and taken to an extreme every family and even every individual would have a different language. But obviously we also need it to communicate, and that would not work! So there is a kind of battle always going on between the two poles. In Switzerland certainly that is very evident.

  3. Wow, no tips from me, just props to you. That sounds challenging! I do recall that learning a second language makes it easier to learn a third, as you build those neural networks in the language-learning parts of the brain. Learning two at one must be giving an extra-good workout to your language-loving brain! Impressive.

  4. Actually, I’m currently learning Italian (for reading). I use Duolingo, but instead of saying: I speak English and want to learn Italian, I did: I speak Spanish and want to learn Italian. So it allows me to refresh my Spanish and learn Italian at the same time. You could put: I speak French and want to learn German. Obviously, Duolingo is not enough for Grammar for instance, and it would help you a lot in lots of simple sentence building. I’m sure you know Duolingo. It’s free, as a website or app.
    Even though Spanish and Italian are close, there are lots of differences. I don’t find it confusing, I use the similarities as help.
    I’m at the same time learning Russian with a tutor. Knowing several over languages help me a lot to memorize the vocabulary, by associating sounds of similar words I know in other languages. It’s great fun!
    My laugh today is when I discovered that the Russian word for cheese is something that sound like the French word for wax: la “cire”. Yeah, I guess cheese can somewhat look like wax, they are one in my head now and for sure I won’t forget that.
    Ok, another hilarious thing:
    in French, to speak about bad coffee, we say, c’est du jus de chaussettes. It’s ‘sock juice’.
    Well, I learned that the Russian word for juice sounds like ‘sock’. And as you may know by now, sock is the French word for chaussette. Jus de chaussettes sounds then like “sock sock” if I put together Russian and English, the fist sock sound being the Russian word, and the second the English one. That’s the type of connection I see that make me laugh so hard and memorize words.

    1. You are my hero in terms of language learning, Emma! I agree that finding strange, unique and funny connections between words and meanings helps in learning. I struggle with that with German because so many of the words are so similar to each other, e.g. all those verbs with prefixes (same in English and phrasal verbs, I suppose, but I’m used to that). One has to differentiate them somehow.

  5. I have no tips for learning multiple languages — just the thought of it pains my brain — but just wanted to say kudos to you! Thank you for sharing your experience. It’s fascinating. And I loved your line, “it would feel like breaking my own legs in order to learn to walk again.” That’s how I feel about trying to learn to read in one language.

    1. Thanks! I don’t know if I deserve kudos except for effort, but I’ll take them for that. And keep trying to learn to walk.

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