Mixing Languages: The Challenges and Strategies for Multilingual Learners

Why do I mix languages and how to stop it! Strategies in this article!

Language learners often face the challenge of keeping their target languages separate in their minds. It’s not uncommon for a learner to mix two or more languages, such as French and Chinese, within the same sentence. In this article, we’ll explore why this happens and discuss strategies to help you keep your languages distinct and maintain your fluency in each.

I. Why We Mix Foreign Languages

Mixing languages, also known as code-switching, occurs for various reasons. Some learners might not have enough vocabulary in one language, so they instinctively fill the gaps with words from another language. For example, someone might say, “Je voudrais manger 一些 (yīxiē) légumes,” which combines French and Chinese to express the desire to eat some vegetables.

Another reason for mixing languages is the influence of a learner’s native language or another stronger foreign language on the weaker one. This interference can result in unintentional code-switching, especially when the learner is tired or under stress.

Code-switching often happens when you study several foreign languages intensively and you study these intentionally. For example, if you use spaced repetition systems to drill different words in different languages in your brain – mixing these languages are a given!

Interestingly, it is not only languages that are very similar that get mixed up. Obviously, there are many shared words and expressions in German and Dutch or Italian and Spanish, but mixing languages also happen in unrelated foreign languages like our example above of French and Chinese or Persian and Italian. It usually happens in learnt languages.

In multilingual societies, it is often the case that a creole language forms that incorporates different words and elements of different languages. That could be said for several dialects and languages in the Caribbean where Spanish, English and Portuguese get mixed up, but also in Mauritius or South-East Asia where several dialects and languages form a new mix that is widely understood.

II. Strategies Not to Mix Languages

  1. Practice each language separately: Dedicate separate study sessions and practice times for each language to help you compartmentalize them in your mind.
  2. Set specific contexts for each language: Assign particular situations or conversation partners for each language, so your brain associates that language with that context.
  3. Use monolingual resources: Whenever possible, use monolingual dictionaries and study materials to avoid direct translation between your languages.
  4. Acquire languages: Move from intentionally studying languages to naturally acquiring languages via comprehensible input.

III. Laddering Up by Alljapaneseallthetime

Laddering is a technique proposed by the Alljapaneseallthetime blog, in which you use one foreign language to learn another. This method can help you keep your languages separate by strengthening the connections between them and reducing the influence of your native language. 

For instance, if you’re proficient in French and want to learn Chinese, you could use French resources to study Chinese. By doing so, you create a mental “ladder” between the two languages, helping you maintain their distinctness. 

“Laddering languages is a tool for the sage who mastered a foreign language to near perfection – not for the average Wang or Satoshi who achieved mere fluency in a language.” Kungfucius

Yeah, my point is that laddering requires that your base language is already on a C1/C2 advanced level – which might not always be the case. At least it should be on a very high level to start laddering. Plus: It all comes down to intentionally studying a language instead of acquiring a language. My gut feeling is that comprehensible input is preferable to laddering up.

IV. Different Personalities in Different Languages Will Help Not Mixing Languages

Developing different personalities or personas for each language can also help you avoid mixing them. By associating specific emotions, mannerisms, and even accents with each language, you create a unique identity for that language. This mental separation can help you switch between languages more easily and avoid unintentional code-switching.

By the way, in my personal view, you don’t need to intentionally develop different persona, it will happen over time as you expose yourself to a lot of comprehensible input and move from intentional studying to natural acquisition and incorporate the language naturally in your everyday life. Cultures are different and you might use different languages in different settings will lead to different personality traits like extroversion or introversion depending on the language you use.

V. Deep Immersion for a Short Time to Purify a Language

If you find yourself consistently mixing languages, try immersing yourself in one language for a short, intense period. Spend a week or two focusing solely on that language – reading, speaking, and listening exclusively in that language. This “purification” process can help you reestablish the boundaries between your languages and improve your fluency.

Do not worry if you mix up languages in an initial phase of intentional study to create a good foundation. Having built that strong foundation, you will be ready for full immersion and maybe heading to a country and doing an intensive course and speaking only the target language for a month. That will make a difference as after a week you will not have the issue of mixing up languages. 

VI. Keep Frequency in Language Use Afterwards to Avoid Losing a Language

Once you’ve established clear boundaries between your languages, it’s essential to maintain regular practice in each language. Now, you really clear a language and make huge improvements when you go all in and have an immersion experience. But if you have several other foreign languages that you acquired or learnt before, make sure this 100% immersion period is not too long. As a rule of thumb, if you have a good foundation in a language, 2 weeks full immersion will make a difference, 1 to 2 months will really hone your skills and after the first weeks you will not mix languages and after a month you won’t “translate” from one language to another but really think and live in the primary language and that is when you solidify that language and form your own persona in that language. 

Careful: after several months of exclusive use of one language, you might lose some of your other languages. Therefore, I recommend you as a polyglot to only do up to 3 months of full immersion in one language and after that take a month to practice all your other languages as well. A month is plenty of time to fit in 60 lessons of an hour each. So you could have 20 tutor sessions on italki each for 3 different languages in that month, which will allow you to use these languages naturally without losing them and if you had a full immersion experience in each of these languages, you are unlikely to mix them up again.

 Even if you’re focusing on learning a new language, make time to review and use your other languages to keep them fresh in your mind.

In conclusion, mixing languages is a common challenge for multilingual learners, but it’s not insurmountable. By implementing these strategies, you can keep your languages separate and continue to improve your fluency in each one. Embrace your multilingual journey and enjoy the benefits of being able to communicate in multiple languages!