Learning Similar Languages: What Can Go Wrong and What Can Work

 

One of the biggest issues I’ve seen with most novice language learners (and, being completely honest with all of you, most language learners, especially in the English-speaking world or with languages that are not English, stay novices permanently for a number of reasons) is the issue of learning similar languages.

Specifically, the issue of the Romance Languages comes into play often, and people scramble the vocabularies of Spanish, Portuguese and sometimes even Italian sometimes quite often.

To be fair, I’ve haven’t been COMPLETELY immune to this (for example, between German and Yiddish or between the Scandinavian Languages or similarly related Creole Languages). However, I found myself better equipped to handle this issue than most.

And there IS an easy way around it, and it has to do with emotional attachment to your target languages.

For most people, Spanish is an easy, useful language closer to English and Portuguese is an easy, useful language close to that one. But I’m curious if you asked them about what sort of native-speaker material or culture they genuinely associate with either of these cultures, what would you get?

I’ve put Portuguese on pause for the time being (and have for about a year now), but Spanish (despite my guarded antipathy towards popular languages) is something I associate with spunky YouTube channels and my experiences with my Spanish friends during my year in Poland. Sometimes the occasional Juan Magan song comes to mind as well. The language has a distinct flavor in my mind that I anchor with particular things, not phrases in Duolingo.

Here are some other anchored flavors for languages that are HEAVILY related to other languages that I know:

  • Danish: my time in Greenland, Rasmus Seebach, a host of ancient traditions and experiences I’ve had with Danish-speakers, Denmark’s animated film industry, THAT PRONUNCIATION OMG.
  • Tok Pisin: fiery opinion pieces in Wantok Niuspepa, Daniel Bilip, my Dad’s memories of Port Moresby, documentaries involving the police and the “raskols” (truly heartbreaking and 100% the fault of colonialism and aftershocks from World War II)
  • Trinidadian Creole: Proverbs, Calypso Music, my neighborhood, very memorable comedic sketches and talk shows, notable Indian influence in comparison to much of the Caribbean.

Most people don’t have any emotional reasons for learning and usually have an abundance of logical reasons or, worse, choosing a language because it is a combination of easy and/or useful.

Yes, it is possible to develop an emotional connection after the fact, but don’t try to bend your desires to what the world wants (the world is crazy enough as is and it doesn’t need another follower, please!)

Even if you do choose to pursue something for logical reasons, you’re going to be more drawn and put more time into things that make you feel better. I really, really like Swedish and Tok Pisin, French or Spanish not so much. Until that changes (if it ever does), improving my Swedish or Tok Pisin is going to be the path of least resistance and not only would I put more time into it but more of it would stick (which is even more important).

So you’re probably wondering what this all has to do with learning related languages?

If you have distinct flavors for each language, the possibility that you mix them up is going to be minimal. I don’t associate Norway’s country-music-infused pop hits with any other place, and Stockholm beats only belong in one place, regardless of how similar these languages may be. I’ve associated these languages with very different feelings and places in my brain and this is why I, at this juncture, virtually NEVER mix them up.

To not mix up languages, you need to collect experiences with them and anchor them in that language.

Interestingly, concerning the creoles of Melanesia, Bislama material on YouTube tends to involve a lot of Ni-Vanuatu flags, and Solomon Islander material uses the Solomon flag even MORE, thereby ensuring through a natural mechanism that I can anchor my material in Bislama and Pijin with their appropriate categories.

When people mix up languages or speak something like “Portuñol”, it’s a sign to me that they haven’t anchored their experiences in enough real-world happenings (or entertainment, for that matter). And that’s okay, as long as you take concrete steps to fix it.

I think that parents of twins may have no problem keeping them apart by virtue of the fact that they have different emotional attachments to each twin. You’ll have to do something similar.

Don’t be discouraged! Keep working!

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