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Do you ever mix up your second and third languages?


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I was trying to speak Spanish to someone the other day and as my brain reached for the Spanish word for garbage can, out tumbled German like a pair of dirty underwear at an airport security screening.

“Oh, I mean…uh…” I fumbled, embarrassed  My German hung awkwardly between me and the confused Mexican woman as I tried to think of a way to explain why a Germanic language had suddenly taken my Spanish language skills hostage.

“Sometimes…my head…” I said in staccato Spanish. I shrugged and smiled. Unfortunately my limited Spanish did not lend itself into conversations involving brain science.

But after I got home and did a little research, however, I found out that second (third, fourth) languages are all stored in the same area of the brain (separate from your mother language).

If those findings are anything to go by, then I can only imagine that the part of my brain that’s storing the bits of Japanese, German and Spanish I’ve collected over the years is now overflowing with a messy clutter of verb conjugations, noun articles and “Excuse me, could you please tell me how to get to the train station?”

Eric Weiner writes about this phenomenon in his book “Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine” (good book, by the way). He and an American woman named Sandie are on a Taoist retreat in China when they stop by at a local bar. Weiner writes (on page 211):

“Sandie orders two beers in Chinese. She doesn’t speak real Chinese but, rather, a kung-fu dialect she’s cobbled together from watching Taiwanese movies. This she supplements with energetic hand gestures and, oddly, French. Every time Sandie tries to speak Chinese her college French pops up like an old boyfriend she hasn’t thought about in years. Anyway, it works, and shortly two large bottles of Purity beer arrive.”

Has this ever happened to you? What did you do?

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4 thoughts on “Do you ever mix up your second and third languages?

  1. OMGoodness YES! And it doesn’t help that my first 3 foreign languages (French, Italian and Spanish) were all ROMANCE languages – all ever so similar yet… not at all.

    Furthermore, though I’ve never confirmed scientific evidence of such, I’ve often joked that I have but one separate cassette tape in my head labeled “foreign language” and thus… when babbling in say… Spanish and searching my brain for some stray Spanish word, most any one of a half dozen bits of French, Italian, Thai, Chinese or Vietnamese might suddenly pop out. Worse – I will continue on in Spanish without realizing a key word or two in the sentence (like “sucre” rather than “azúcar”) renders my blather utterly unintelligible to my poor listener.

    Indeed, and now that I’m living here in Asia, struggling to learn Vietnamese (w/ no fewer than 6 “tones” thankyouverymuch!), I quite often find myself silently mouthing “s’il vous plaît” or “por favor” when what I really need at that pho food stand is a simple “xin”! 😉

  2. YES, all the time! The language that keeps intruding is usually the non-English language that I was most recently using on a regular basis. I’ve never been in a situation where I used two non-English languages daily.

  3. Yes. I am English, currently living in Spain, recently visited Germany (where I lived years ago). I used to be ‘fluent’ in German, but that was before I learned Spanish. So, in Germany, Spanish words kept ‘popping up’ in the middle of my German sentences. Now I’m back in Spain, oh dear, the German words keep popping up. I’ve decided to do some research into this and will be writing a blog article about it. I’m particularly interested in how languages are stored in the brain because I’m a language teacher. So, if anyone would be willing to share their experiences, please e-mail me at you can also check out my blog at Thanks for posting this, Reannon, I’m going to send you an email.

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