Brains = Filing Cabinets or QuadPro Hard Drives?

Oh, naming this post that was just a ploy to get you to come here and listen to me muse about linguistics a little...

Thing is, right, this morning when I jumped into the taxi and gave him instructions to my home, I mixed up nahe with cerca.

I did that all weekend while I was in Spain...  

Trying to finding my way back to the Spanish I used to speak quite fluently (5 years now since it was part of daily life) was not so so hard... but then in mid-flow, for no reason, out jumped German:  filler words, prepositions - that sort of thing, words that had no business taking part in my conversation.  

And when reflecting on this annoying trait, I remembered how when I first got back to Britain after years and years in Asia I kept on slipping in Chinese whenever I got into taxis... despite the fact I didn't learn much Cantonese when living in Hong Kong.

Fellow ELT globetrotter, have you noticed that sort of thing happening to you too or is it just my funky brain?

Why does this happen?   

Do we store 2nd/3rd/4th languages within the same drawer in its gigantic filing cabinet?   Anyone know?

How can we help our students - those in the same boat obviously - how do we cut out the cross-circuitry and speed up the processing of lexical units?


5 Responses to “Brains = Filing Cabinets or QuadPro Hard Drives?”

  • Neil Barker says:
    March 16, 2010

    I've had the same problems with French & Korean. I find it difficult to form French sentences without Korean verbs interfering.

    I think for students, I feign ignorance of their native language and force them to speak to me in English. I try to have them form an English personality, that hopefully reinforces using English as much as possible. Harder to do with Novices, but the Intermediates adjust quite well.

  • Aaron @ Phrasemix says:
    March 16, 2010

    I wrote about this once on my blog as well. For me, it's French and Japanese. Whenever I try to speak French (which I don't know well at all), Japanese words (a language I do know well) slip in.

    Since I'm not actually proficient in more than one foreign language, take my advice with a grain of salt, but here's a theoretical response.

    I think that languages interfere with each other less when you've got a really strong network of connections between each item of knowledge within each foreign language. If your main mental connection for a foreign word is back to the native-language equivalent, it's easy to make the mistake of switching between one foreign language translation of a concept and another. But if the connections are formed strongly between the foreign language word and other words in that language, there's no way that you're going to mix it up.

    As for how to build more of these strong connections, I think the answer is ultimately lots of practice, but we can help students out by encouraging deeper learning of a smaller range of language rather than shallow learning of lots of different words and structures. Encourage learning lots of variations and uses of the core vocabulary.

    Of course, that all changes if the students are in an immersed environment where they have the chance to get lots of exposure to the language. Then the name of the game is to throw as much new language information at them as possible in order to increase the amount that they're able to comprehend while out in the world.

  • Mike Harrison says:
    March 16, 2010

    Yes!! With me it was French and Spanish. On holiday with my ex in Bordeaux while I was living in Pamplona, I tried to speak in French at the tourist information office. Not a problem you'd think, I studied it for 11 years at school and uni. But the only words that sprung to mind were Spanish!! The most interesting and/or annoying thing was the girl at the office was proficiently switching between French, Spanish AND English with no trouble at all - how'd she do that?!?!?

    I think it's got something to do with which language you use/are using/have used the most as to what pops out of your mouth when speaking another language you know.


  • Nick Jaworski says:
    March 19, 2010

    The brain needs to build a map of the 2nd language. When this process starts there is no map and so language interference is very common. As the map gets built this happens less and less.

    As far as I know the same regions of the brain are often used for both maps which is why mixing may still occur now and then.

    Mapping and memory are very much tied to previously learned material and situations. We always build on what we know. This is why taxis may trigger Spanish for you because the neural network was constructed that way. It's the same for me and my wife. Whenver I think of her I begin to think in Turkish.

    Aaron also makes a good point with the ease of connections between items. If we have lots of connections between them through wired use we won't slip into the otherwise more familiar realm of the L1

    A 3rd language works the same. The brain remembers the 2nd language learning experience and so that neural network is built with that in mind and when we start to learn the 3rd, we default to the 2nd until a 3rd map is built.

  • Sarah says:
    May 05, 2013

    Great post! I have written an article on this topic, I quoted you and linked to your blog. Thanks!


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