“Does one language interfere with another?”

You are never quite sure which blog posts will prove popular and interesting and which will not. Last week‘s, on determining how many languages someone speaks, proved pleasantly popular! One question raised in response was whether one language can “interfere” with another? Here, I can only write from experience, albeit with some grounding in my postgraduate linguistic research.

The answer is yes, it can. However, it can in varying and often quite unexpected ways, depending on the level of competence and the relationship between the languages concerned. Noting the relationship between languages and cramming “core vocabulary” is important, at least for non-professionals like me! I can only explain this with reference to acting and CDs…

Here I again raise the distinction from last week between “native”, “fluent”, “proficient”, “limited” and even perhaps “potential” competence (these are not specific to me – the US State Department, for example, asks for competence on a scale from “5” to “1” roughly along the same lines).

Professional linguists can reach such a high level of competence even in non-native languages that they do not allow interference of any kind. An interpreter, for example, can move from one language to another (say, English to German) without even thinking about it and with no apparent interference at all. Mere mortals like me can’t…

Moving between English (“native”) to German (“fluent”) for me requires an almost conscious effort. Languages have different characters, and so it is almost the same as an actor moving into a different role. Without resorting to stereotypes, German is more clinically structured than English, and allows for less meandering (as a recent research paper noted, it is almost impossible to translate “There is my neighbour out for a walk” into German because German culturally requires an objective to the walk); consequently word order is a lot stricter and, I find, more preparation has to go into planning an entire sentence before even starting it. That said, I do not find any interference in vocabulary – I do not find myself accidentally saying English words in German or vice-versa, except where something has a particular cultural significance (for example, “central station” does not quite translate “Hauptbahnhof” even though that is literally correct, as the latter also usually conveys a meeting point with a shopping centre – therefore a German thinking of a “Hauptbahnhof” would be thinking of something much grander than, say, Belfast “Central Station”).

Spanish and French, in which I do not claim fluency (though frankly, as implied last week, many people with my proficiency would – beware such people!), are different because I find it harder to assume the character – it is like playing a role without knowing the full back story. I still find no vocabulary interference from my native language, English, and I suspect little grammatical interference (for example, knowing that “think of” in English is “denken an” [literally more like “think at”] in German at least makes me less likely to assume the French would be “penser de” – which, of course, it isn’t). However, there is significant interference between them – a French word will often come to me when looking for a Spanish one, or I may assume without checking that a Spanish grammatical construction also applies in French (e.g. Spanish has “Estoy en Paris” and “Voy a Paris” but French has “Je suis à Paris” and “Je vais à Paris” – Spanish as English changes preposition between “I am going to Paris” and “I am in Paris” but French does not, something I may instinctively miss in rapid speech).

Then if I move to Italian, this “interference” becomes profound. Discussing football in my best attempt at Italian with Napoli fans on the train on the way to the Emirates Stadium a couple of years ago, one asked after about fifteen minutes if I spoke Spanish – so evident to him must this interference have been! Yet along with the interference, there comes a “block” – for example if speaking Italian, once I have thought of the Spanish word it actually hinders me finding the Italian one from the back staircase of my memory unless it is similar; the same actually applies vice-versa (if I do get the Italian word first and someone were then to ask me for the Spanish, I would probably struggle to locate it without significant delay). Again, I am sure that for a truly competent professional linguist, this delay would rarely if ever occur.

This is also where the relationship between the languages matters. Italian and Spanish are, as mentioned last week, relatively close; both are less close, but still clearly related, to French (Italian more so than Spanish). All other things being equal, “interference” is more marked the more similar the languages involved, turning the normally beneficial similarity into an occasional irritation.

Then there is the issue of which language you are “thinking” in. This is slightly ludicrous, because we do not vocalise our thoughts as such, but I do find that I effectively think in a language (going back to my point that I have consciously to pick a language in use and almost act as if in character – unlike really competent linguists, I cannot just effortlessly shift between them). To be specific, I find I can at any time maintain two (but only two) languages in use and then opt to select one – almost like having two CDs in a multi-CD player and then choosing which to play. To switch to a third, I almost have consciously to remove one to allow the other in (as if taking out one CD from the player entirely and replacing it with another). To some extent, this experience is backed up by research into children’s language proficiency – children can retain two easily, but introducing a third complicates things and will at least lead to compartmentalisation (where, for example, one language becomes associated with one parent, a second with the other, and a third with school, and if any is then used out of “compartment”, confusion follows).

So, to use the above example: to try to speak or understand Italian, I shift my brain to Spanish (as noted last week, a language in which I have greater proficiency and was arguably once fluent). This in effect means removing the “German CD”, replacing it with the (somewhat scratched!) “Spanish CD”, and then hoping that works for Italian!  Similarly, if reading or overhearing Dutch, Afrikaans or even Danish, I will switch back to the “German CD”, as it is the nearest of the languages I really know. Broadly, therefore, to access a Germanic language I will go via German, and to access a Latinate language I will go via Spanish (with significant French interference) – a decision which is automatic but of which I am constantly aware.

The most bizarre aspect of this is that it really does mean, at least for someone with limited talent but lots of enthusiasm like me, that the other “CD” becomes completely inaccessible. I remember arriving at Cologne “Hauptbahnhof” having driven through France after several months in Spain, to find when someone held the door open for me that I had clean forgotten the word “Danke“; I then had to walk round a sausage stall for a few minutes, almost like a substitute warming up before entering the field of play, before being confident enough to approach and place an order (a supposedly straightforward task in a language in which I was and am nominally fluent!)

That brings us neatly to the ultimate interference issue – core vocabulary. Core vocabulary – key, usually small words like “here”, “left”, “also”, “yes” and indeed “thank you” – is held in my experience (backed by some research) in a different part of the brain and thus “interference” in any direction between any language is possible at any time. Speaking to Dortmund fans before a game in Madrid, I caught myself saying “Das glaube ich también” (“I think so” in German followed by “too” in Spanish); I came across a fluent English speaker in southern Spain who nevertheless always said “” instead of “yes”; and there are many more examples.

For what it is worth, I address this problem merely by selecting the required “CD” (Spanish for Latinate-speaking areas – French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian; German for Germanic-speaking – Dutch/Afrikaans, Danish/Norwegian/Swedish) and then referring to my list of core vocabulary in advance and trying to get that as far forward in my brain as possible.

So there it is – there is interference in both vocabulary and grammar between languages in which I am less proficient, between languages which are similar and between any languages in terms specifically of core vocabulary. This can be countered to some extent by adopting the character of the language, or at least the language family, but for amateurs like me it is like needing the right CD in the drive. As ever, the real lesson here is that with the right links competence in a vast array of languages is possible – but beware anyone claiming mass fluency! It’s much tougher – and more fun – than that!

I am running a course as Queen’s University, Belfast, touching on some of these issues in the autumn. 

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7 thoughts on ““Does one language interfere with another?”

  1. korhomme says:

    Interesting thoughts. I’m not sure that I’d wholly agree with the strict German word order. (I got tested for fun by the OU a few years ago; my German is “second year undergraduate”, though as the family also speaks Swiss-German I can get confused at times.)

    Anyway, German is inflected with word endings changing to agree with the case; this avoids some of the confusion in English. The Neue Zürcher Zeitung confused me for a long time. I knew that Zeitung was feminine, die Zeitung, but I didn’t see why under the masthead it read, “Der Neue Zürcher Zeitung 200. Jahrgang”. Der Zeitung? It took a while to realise that the “Der” actually meant “of the”, the masthead literally translating, “of the NZZ [the] 200 year of publication”. Reversing the word order confused me, but is easy to do in German.

    I also had a big problem looking for the exit from a building, when all the signs read, “Notausgang” which I took to mean “not exit”.

    • German in theory allows “Den Hund beißt der Mann” but in practice this very seldom occurs, and its word order is otherwise much stricter – from the location of the main verb in the clause right through to the order of adverbials (so-called “time, manner, place”, “Ich gehe morgen mit dem Zug ins Kino”, though in fact the rule is more complex even than that).

      Spanish, on the other hand, allows a bit of a free-for-all – for example “Messi has scored” can be either “Ha marcado Messi” or “Messi ha marcado”. One for another post…!

  2. William Allen says:

    Another interesting post. Reminded me of the Irish Language broadcasts on Radio Ulster. It always amuses me how often those speaking Irish come out with English words or indeed whole phrases. They always sound like they are struggling with the Irish. I wonder where that puts them on your scale.

    • It’s a good question, that.

      In that case they *do* have interference from the native language (English), although I suspect it is partly because actually English is native both to the speaker and listener in each case. It is for this reason I had omitted non-national languages like Catalan from my own consideration (although of course Irish is a national language).

      • Tuairisceoir says:

        It’s done on purpose sometimes so as to make the program bilingual.

        Secondly, the presenter 2/5 a native speaker from the Gaeltacht.

    • korhomme says:

      I hear this occasionally when family members are talking Swiss-German amongst themselves. Sometimes it’s because they have forgotten the Swiss-German. But it can also mean that an English expression can’t be properly rendered into Swiss-German without some loss of nuance. For example, although ‘troubles’ can be easily translated, ‘The Troubles’ has a very specific meaning.

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