November 4, 2009 | Italian

Multi-Language Confusion

I experience some linguistic disorientation.

Although the three Pimsleur language series I have worked on to date have different content, many of the words and phrases I am learning are the same. The effect, I think, is that one language pushes the previous one out the back of my head, at least for the moment. If there were more differences in program content, that would probably happen less.

This is by no means a complaint; I think Pimsleur does a great job. You can’t have radically different content each time—it would be too expensive—and anyway, there’s no need for it. Basic communication skills are basic communication skills. People eat, drink, sleep, and make love in every language. And most people aren’t running from one language to the next as I am.

I do think the rate at which I am forgetting Arabic far exceeds the rate at which I forgot Russian. There is just no pathway, no glue, for me to retain it. I never got a sense of rules to stick the individual sentences onto.

Tonight at a store in my neighborhood, I talked to an Egyptian employee who knew I had been studying Arabic. She asked me if I had learned any more. I said no, that I had moved on to Italian.

Instead of saying, “Oh, what a shame,” she surprised me by saying, with some force, that Arabic is a dead language.

I said, “But hundreds of millions of people speak it.” She complained that no one knows the grammar and that everyone speaks slang. She insisted she would never teach it to her children.

I was stunned to hear her say these things. How common is this attitude?

Another thing that is pushing Arabic out of my head is that Italian is so beautifully, wonderfully logical to my brain. It is weird to feel again as though I am actually good at this stuff. Although I didn’t often feel discouraged while I was studying Arabic, I felt pretty untalented.

Italian Now! (Don't Delay!)

Today in one of my grammar books—a big, green, enthusiastically titled one called Italian Now!—I was practicing numbers in an exercise. I had to write out 5,555,555,555 in words. I found the experience rather shocking. Here is the number:

  • cinque miliardi cinquecento cinquantacinque milioni cinquecento cinquantacinque mila cinquecento cinquantacinque

I thought to myself, that’s impossibly long. Then it occurred to me to wonder, what does the English look like? Here it is:

  • five billion five hundred fifty-five million five hundred fifty-five thousand five hundred fifty-five

Okay, it’s not quite as long, but these numbers are just ridiculous written out in any language. Thank god for actual numbers.

For me so far the biggest challenge in Italian is the vowels. So much of the language is so close to Spanish, but then the vowels are slightly different. Where there’s an e in Spanish, there’s often an i in Italian. Where there’s an o in Spanish, there’s often an e in Italian. And so on.

Compare these two sentences, for example, both of which mean, “How do you say that in English?”

  • Italian: Come si dice in inglese?
  • Spanish: Cómo se dice en inglés?

The beginning really gets me. Over the years I have said the words cómo se (koe moe say) in Spanish a few gazillion times. Now I have to adjust them in Italian to be come si (koe may see). Right now I am getting them wrong almost every time.

Tonight I called Time Warner Cable to get rid of one Russian cable channel and replace it with an Italian channel, RAI, which is 554 in Manhattan. The girl-woman who helped me was pretty nice and helpful. That thoroughly confused me.

Comments (5)

Sprachfanatikerin • Posted on Sun, February 02, 2014 - 3:33 am EST

Hi Ellen,

I’m on my fifth foreign language. I’m a visual kinesthetic learner, so I find I have to write things out for them to stick in my brain, but I often try to write my lists without including any English, e.g. [new language] & [2nd/3rd language]. I find this has three benefits:
- I’m keeping the other languages fresh without having to do any serious study in them, while learning a new one.
- I’m establishing paths in my brain between different languages, and not always back to English. I guess this also help me establish a word in the new language with an image/concept, rather than the English word.
- It highlights weak areas in my non-new language.

I guess this could work with theflashcards youuse too.

Another thing I have done, is learn a new foreign language though one of my other, stronger languages. I learned some Hungarian while living in Germany, but I’ve also found various things on the Internet.


p.s. I only found your blog yesterday after listening to the Language is Culture interview and am working my way through from the bginning.  I’m trying to ration myself though so I can still fit in my own langauage study.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sun, February 02, 2014 - 9:55 am EST

I loved your comments, Karen. I am trying to do more studying of foreign languages IN foreign languages, but I have a major backlog of English-based materials to get through…I do have a bunch of Assimil based in French for various languages. That is nice.

By the way, I write out so many things. I love writing things out. It’s one of my favorite activities in a new language and an important part of vocabulary and grammar acquisition for me.

Where are you from?

Sprachfanatikerin • Posted on Sun, February 02, 2014 - 1:09 pm EST

Yeah, I have a backlog too. Getting hold of resources is the fun and easy part. I definitely suffer from the initial rush/high they give you. And can get a bit down having to plough through them. But you have to push yourself! Anthony Lauder (fluentczech) has done a good YouTube video on this, but I can’t find the right link at the moment.

I’m from (and still live in) the UK, but I studied German at university, so I lived there for a year. I’m now a translator, and I go back often to visit friends and attend courses. I’m lucky I get to use my German every day. My other languages don’t get that much exposure.

By the way, I think I went to Cafe Margot about three years ago when I visited a uni friend who was living in NY, on the east side of Cetnral Park. The photos look familiar. You never know, we could have sat alongside one another once!

I’m also not dong very well at the blog rationing. I only started yesterday, and said I was going to stop after your Italian project. I’m now working my way through the ...

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Tue, February 04, 2014 - 11:45 am EST

That high…yes, I know it well!

I will have to ask Anthony about that video. Thank you for the tip!

The only Margot I know is on the West Side, but you never know where we might have crossed paths! NYC is a weirdly small place.

Sprachfanatikerin • Posted on Tue, February 04, 2014 - 1:16 pm EST

Ah, that will be the same one then. I’m in my mid-thirties and still can’t tell my east from my west. I may understand requests for directions and be able to answer them in various languages, but don’t assume the answer will be correct in terms of actual content!

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