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Learning a foreign language…in a foreign language?

Written By: katie_k on February 7, 2008 6 Comments

I’m studying abroad in France this semester, and just to keep in touch with my Russian interests, I decided to take a Russian history course. The first hour of the first class was all in French, and I was able to follow most of what was going on, as well as take notes (there have been a few classes here where I haven’t been able to take notes and still understand what’s being said). Then the second hour of class came, along with the second professor who teaches it, and suddenly everything was a blur. She started speaking in Russian, but then would switch into French to explain when the students had no idea what she was talking about, and then right back into Russian to continue with the lecture. I’d be listening, understanding Russian one minute, then not understanding Russian at all the next – because she was actually speaking French then. By the time I had switched to French, she had switched back to Russian and my brain was dizzy from trying to understand two foreign languages at once. My notes were a befuddled mess of Russian, French and a French that’s written in Cyrillic. Then to top off my mental foreign language confusion, we had a paragraph of Russian history to translate into French for homework.

Well, I thought that the homework would be the make-or-break point, and so I tried it, completely expecting to fail. I ended up translating it into English and then from English into French, because I simply can’t think in French and Russian at the same time. However, it wasn’t as terribly difficult as I expected, so I went to the second class today, thinking maybe I can do this two foreign languages at once thing after all- it might give me a better grasp on both languages.

That was my mistake. So today we had to read outloud in Russian (it felt like I was constantly making pronunciation errors, whereas the other students were speaking fluidly and fluently) and then she wanted us to translate directly into French. I was dumbstruck when she said that I should do that, but thankfully one of the French students spoke up for me and said that it would probably be kind of difficult for me to translate into French, seeing as how I’m not a native French speaker. By the end of lecture though, I felt like I was in the completely wrong place, and so I went up to the professor to ask her what she thought, if I shouldn’t take the class. Far from telling me that I should try a different level, she just said, I gave you the accents on the words, practice reading at home, and next week when I give you back your translation I’ll also give you the correct version so you can correct your errors. I’m not sure that was the answer I was hoping for…

However, in terms of studying a foreign language in a foreign language, several people now have told me that the reason it is so hard is because foreign languages are stored in the same part of the brain and so you can’t switch back and forth – there’s nowhere to switch to. It takes time to build up a truly multilingual brain, with different “compartments” for each language. I guess I’ll see if I can get my brain “organized” by the end of the semester, since the professor basically gave me the challenge, but maybe I’ll just end up so tongue-twisted by May that I won’t even be able to speak English.

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6 Responses to “Learning a foreign language…in a foreign language?”

  1. chigaijin on: 7 February 2008 at 9:39 am

    That’s definitely true about languages being stored in the same part of the brain. Even here in English-speaking Berkeley my Mandarin is overwriting my high school Japanese. Still, that’s very cool that you are able to try this at all, and apparently do pretty well, even.

  2. katie_k on: 11 February 2008 at 6:12 am

    I’d say more that I’m barely able to manage, but I’m hoping by the end of the semester it will have worked out, and I might have the two languages established. Then I can go back to my high school Spanish, which I completely forced out of my brain for French and Russian!

    I saw a film in Russian yesterday, with French subtitles, and that was actually very interesting, because there was a lot that I wouldn’t have translated the same way. So seeing the two juxtaposed gave me a slightly better grasp on their different structures (for the two hours of the film anyway).

  3. maia on: 21 October 2008 at 7:12 pm

    Wow, very cool!
    It’s always fun to have so many languages going for you. 🙂

  4. Marie Joelle Yveline Thuillier on: 20 November 2008 at 10:21 pm

    I know how you feel but again what a great experience and story to tell.
    I took Japanese classes at CCSF and most of the time, Spanish would come out of my mouth although I am French and the instruction was done in Japanese and English for clarifications…… What the hell?
    We belong in this Blog.

  5. daveski on: 20 November 2008 at 10:47 pm


  6. Benny on: 7 April 2009 at 6:07 am

    I agree, it’s funny how you get confused when you’re handling that many languages. I work for a translation agency now and we have a multilingual working environment, so I have to face that challenge every day 🙂

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