It’s that old je ne sais what.

Once upon a time, there was a little criancinha,
Que estava pendurada from a little janelinha.
A policeman que passou said,
Qu’est-ce que tu fais ici, oh little criancinha?*

As many women grow older, they fear becoming their mothers. They see it in little things they say or in mannerisms they have seemed to pick up without noticing. It sneaks up on them like a predator, waiting to deliver the fatal blow when they realize that they’ve just made the same yukky face that they used to hate on their mothers’ faces.

Whew! Thank goodness I don’t have to deal with that! I know I’m saved from that fate because it’s been clear to me for a long time that I am the female incarnation of my father, right down to the way my feet twitch when I’m bored or relaxed. This realization came to me hard, like a Chuck Norris roundhouse kick, one day many years ago in grad school.

I had jerry-rigged created a solution for a broken wheel on a leg of our wire kitchen cart so it wouldn’t tip over anymore. I went in search of my roommates so I could show them what I had done and instruct them on how to replicate the procedure if it should fail when I was not around. I saw their quizzical looks, but I still turned around and beckoned to them to follow me to the kitchen so they could see. Then I stopped dead in my tracks as I got a mental image of myself. If I had been 50 years older and a man, I would have looked exactly like my father at that moment.

When starting from scratch, his work was far from clumsy. His stained glass doors are beautiful.

My father could fix just about anything, but it wasn’t always an elegant fix. It didn’t make him any less pleased with himself, however, and he liked to share his successes. Whenever he finished a repair on one of our cars, for example, he would come to find whoever was handy and insist that we come out to the garage to see what had been done. I lost count of the frayed fan belts, rusty connector pipes, and bent screws I had to marvel at as he listed the various catastrophes that would have happened if he hadn’t found the offending part.

After I noticed both the shared ability to inelegantly fix things and the urge to brag about it, I started to see more similarities: the foot shake, the wanderlust, the intolerance of bullshit. These past few weeks, I’ve taken yet another step towards turning into my father (Not literally. There will be no surgery, thank you).

I once asked him what the time was. “Il est huit o’clock,” he replied. No one batted an eye. We were all so used to his peculiar mixing of languages that this seemed like a perfectly normal thing. Start in French and finish in English. When he was angry, he would usually start in English and finish in Portuguese. This may be one of the reasons why Portuguese curses still feel as emotionally satisfying to me as English curses do. When he was happy, more Italian would creep into his speech. He associated his Italian-speaking days with singing and joyful exclamations of beauty.

These two never get confused when they're speaking the language of luuuhrve!

A few weeks ago, when asked what my lunch order would be, I responded “Je voudrais une omelette com queijo.” For those of you who may be wondering, I managed switch languages mid-stream, asking for the omelette in French, but the cheese in Portuguese.  About three seconds after I uttered this, I suddenly realized my mistake and blurted out, “AVEC! Avec FROMAGE! Pardon!” I’m not sure if the waitress laughed at my mistake or how excitable I’d become at conveying the fact that I did, in fact, know how to say “with cheese” in her language, but had simply forgotten it momentarily.

This was not the only time my brain had insisted on messing with me. I also often had to stop myself from using the Turkish word for ‘please’ (lütfen) instead of s’il-vous plaît. It has been a long time since I’ve spoken Turkish or Portuguese on a regular basis, but I was not surprised that they were dusting themselves off and wanting to come out and play. It did, though, startle me to see how often my brain would tell me the French word and my mouth would decide to go in another direction and do a little ad-libbing.

They were gabbing away in the rapid-fire French that was never heard in the language-learning videos we usually saw in school. Show offs.

As many other Americans did, I started learning French in 8th grade. Well, technically I started earlier because I kept stealing my older sister’s textbook to get a head start because I could barely stand to wait until 8th grade to be able to say the beautiful, exotic phrases of another language. I did well in my French classes all through middle and high school. By the end, we were quite good; we could read Victor Hugo, memorize and recite Baudelaire, and create fun, snarky, and even poetic chain stories in groups.

In college, I took a French composition class and wrote essays every other week. I met my first boyfriend at French club, which met every Friday at the campus pub. We’d speak slow, measured, practiced French for about an hour or two, then give up and switch to English for another hour, and then head back to my off-campus apartment and watch French movies. I still get a little choked up when I think of the tragic Jean de Florette.

This background with French has made it much easier to continue practicing by means of reading newspapers or short stories, but for as much as I can understand of written French, I felt lost when I was faced with speaking and understanding every day conversational French. I never learned ‘transactional’ French in anything other than an abstract, theoretical situation. To be perfectly honest, it always seemed a little unreal that people actually spoke this lovely language that I was studying.

I wonder how one says, "You lookin' at ME?" in French.

On the other hand, I learned Turkish by throwing myself into the deepest end of the pool that I could find. On my first day in Istanbul, I knew how to say ‘Hello’ (Merhaba) and ‘Thank you’ (Teşekkur ederim). Eventually, I learned to understand things like “She’ll never know we’re cheating!” and to say, “Please don’t take the long, expensive way home just because I’m a foreigner.” I could converse, make small talk, and eavesdrop on buses. Reading the newspaper was a slow, laborious affair, so I stuck to the television news. It was as far from my French-learning experience as I could have imagined. Some words still come as a knee-jerk reaction in a foreign-language situation.

Portuguese landed somewhere in the middle, since I had heard it quite a bit (but not all the time) while I was growing up, I studied it in college, and then I spoke it in daily life for two years. It’s no wonder it kept popping out of my mouth, unbidden, when I finally had a chance to use French in real-life, very non-hypothetical situations. After English, it’s the language that feels most comfortable on my tongue, and so, wanting to be comfortable but knowing I had to speak in a language other than my native one, I asked for omelettes ‘com queijo’ for lunch.

I don’t resist this transformation into my father the way I would avoid turning into my mother, if for no other reason than because he always had a better sense of humor about his linguistic foibles. We teased him about his unique pronunciation or how we never quite knew what language he’d launch into next, and he’d sit at his end of the table, nodding and smirking. It was pretty funny after all. And I’d take a little linguistic confusion over the yukky face any day!

What are some of your language-learning experiences?

*Once upon a time, there was a little girl
Who was hanging from a little window.
A policeman who was passing said,
“What are you doing here, little girl”?

177 thoughts on “It’s that old je ne sais what.

  1. Same this end – Turkish and French always got mixed up at uni (I studied French from age 11), and then in Turkey, and now here in France (I live around the corner from the Turkish Embassy incidentally). Both were learnt formally, and it’s only now that my french is finally a big, messy, grammtically incorrect, conversational type…wish I could have felt so free to stuff up my spoken Turkish too. Some words just stick in one or other language…for example…tepe in Turkish seems just perfect for a hill…I can never remember ‘colline’, it’s just not the right shape word…too rolling, not steep enough! And of course I’m also the queen of Franglais now. It’s such a jumble.

      • Is it bad that this was my train of thought: “Colline…sounds like Colleen…double Ls…wow, really big boobs!” ;)

        I suppose between ‘tepe’ reminding me of ‘steep’ (steep hill) and Colleen/Colline’s big boobs, I will never forget either of these words!

    • I always remember ‘tepe’ because I associated it with ‘steep’ in English. Your Turkish was always so lovely. I was proud of myself for finally getting over my need for the grammar to be perfect before I said anything. I even bargained on behalf of an American couple when all I really knew of the grammar was the ‘in’ location suffix. The fact that it worked (I got the guy down from 5 to 3 mil. for a hair dryer) was encouraging ;)

  2. Really good post! I studied French from 3rd-6th grade and again in 9th and 10th. I also had two semesters of it in college. My college professor only spoke French, forcing us all to become far more fluent than we would have if she’d taught us only from a text book. My five previous years of French made this experience much easier for me than for some of my classmates. I find now that I’m able to read French far better than I can speak it. (I’ll still read the French portion of an instruction manual when I’m putting something together, just for the fun of it!) I’ve always wanted to experience learning a language by immersion.
    This is also a very sweet tribute to your dad! :) He sounds adorable!

    • It is funny how when you learn a new language you then use some of the words from that language automatically, like they just fit better. I too learned French in school and still read teh instructions just to see if I remember. This is such a lovely post and shows how actually everyone has their own unique language. I t also shows how languages blend and evolve. Perfect FP!!!! AmberLena

      • Thanks AmberLena. I think you’re right about how we all take language – or languages – and make it our own, which is one more reason I find language so incredibly fascinating. It’s a more lucid window into the soul.

    • My French teacher in 8th and 9th grade spoke a lot of English and her French sounded not much different (God, the words “Ecutez et repetez!” spoken with a thick Brooklyn accent are forever seared into my brain!). My high school French teacher, though, spoke almost exclusively French, as did my teacher in college, and that definitely helped.

      It did amaze me, though, how quickly I started improving my listening comprehension after only five days of listening to the French news (our tv in the hotel only had French stations, and all American shows were dubbed). One night, I was dozing off and in my half-asleep state, I understood almost everything. Of course, the next morning, wide awake, it was a different story. It’s in there but our filters block it all too often!

  3. “Once upon a time, there was a little crianςinha,
    QUE estava pendurada from a little janelinha.
    A policeman QUE passou said,
    Qu’est-ce que tu fais ici, oh little criançinha”

    In this case, the correct word would be “que” not “quem”.

    • You know what? I had ‘que’ at first and then I thought that because it’s ‘who’ that it should be ‘quem’. I should have trusted my first instincts. Thanks for the correction and I’m off to fix it. :)

      • I wouldn’t bet my life on it but I think you use “quem” when you would use “whom” in English.

        My mother tongue is English but my father’s mother spoke only Greek…the only thing I could understand were her offers of food. I grew up in Montreal and because of the politicization of language there, it was kind of cool (read: stupid) to avoid learning French, so I never became fluent.

        I worked at a place where the cleaning staff management was unilingual French and most of the employees were Portuguese from the Azores. I didn’t know they were speaking Portuguese, I thought it was some sort of rural Quebec French, but I began to understand and ended up translating between the Francophones and the Portuphones (?). Supposedly, I had a pretty convincing Portuguese accent at the time but very llimited grammar and vocabulary that I got out of a wonderfully-easy-to-learn-from book from Barnes and Noble.

        Later, I made some Vietnamese friends at college and began to understand a bit. I tried speaking the language but not many people could understand my strange accent and inaccurate rendition of the tones. A friend’s family had had dealings with the CIA during the war in their country and her brother gave me the nickname “The Spy” because my accent resembled the intelligence men in VN and because I was able to eavesdrop on their conversations. I taught ESL in Montreal and some of the classes were especially for VNese people. When the students wanted to goof off, they would say “Explain it in VNese…we don’t understand!” while giggling. They just wanted to have fun hearing me butcher their language and I have a funny feeling they bet on which of them could correctly decipher what I was attempting to say. At times when a student was very selfconscious about how poorly they spoke English, I would tell them that if I had the nerve to speak VNese as poorly as I did in public, they should be proud of how well they could speak English.

        My wife is Korean, so I can understand a bit more than I can speak, which is very, very little. When we go to Korea to visit her family, her young grand-nieces and grand-nephews think it’s pretty funny that I cannot speak the language, but we get along great and get by with the help of charades and the universal language, candy! My wife and I used to work at the same place and she was the only Korean there so I used to leave her notes in English but written in Hangul characters.

        Great blog entry…I’ll certainly be back to see what else you’ve written!

        Unfortunately, English is the only language in which I am truly fluent and I live in a part of Canada where I can go months without hearing another language unless I go to an ethnic restaurant..

      • Well, I did a little checking and ‘quem’ does mean ‘whom’ in an object relative clause, but the ones in the poem I included are subject relative clauses, so ‘quem’ would be incorrect here. But as an interrogative word, ‘Quem’ would be used and not ‘que’ (Quem fala? Who is speaking?). I was confusing the two uses.

        It sounds like you’ve had some really fun experiences and have a good ear. I’m always interested in hearing from people who grew up in Quebec because their experiences are so diverse. Some embrace learning French in school and some resist, and I like hearing the stories about why one chooses one approach over another. And the French immersion schools in Canada are always held up as examples of highly successful bilingual schools, but it’s a much more complicated story when you start reading individual accounts like yours.

        I’ve only been to Montreal once (so far!) but I thought it was a fantastic city. I’d love to see the ice sculptures in the winter, but I have to either go alone or convince my summer-lovin’ boyfriend to suck it up and wear a heavier coat ;)

    • Correct it may be, but everybody in Brazil would say ‘que’ (also appropriate for the metric reasons).
      Accidentally, being a tri-lingual myself (Russian, English, Portuguese), I read the ditty without stop and paying no attention to the language change as if it were in one (MY) language.

      • ‘Que’ does seem to be preferred in relative clauses, just like ‘who’ takes over from ‘whom’ in English.

        I love that you just understood the poem without even realizing it was in different languages!

  4. I grew up mixing languages for fun (nerdy family), but especially French and English. I was so happy when I got to high school and found that my chemistry teacher also said things like, “There is pas de problem!” So glad there are more people doing the same!

  5. I speak only English….I dated a Persian woman for a couple of years and picked up some Farsi, which was great. But I’m not fluent by any means. I envy those of you who are multi-lingual!

    • I had a colleague who used to tell his ESL students that the best way to practice their language skills was to get an English-speaking boyfriend or girlfriend. And you learned some Farsi from a girlfriend, see! ;) I’d love to pick up some Farsi.

    • Thanks! And no worries – I’ve got plenty of tales of linguistic self-discovery, both my own and from my own language students. And I love hearing the perspective of other language teachers as well. Thanks for commenting!

  6. I’m glad I’m not the only one who seems to stick various languages in a blender in my brain. Try “Une autre bouteille de limonade, os gwelwch yn dda” or “Merci, pa mor neis!” if you want to make your brain cramp. I never would have imagined it possible to mangle French and WELSH but my brain knows otherwise …

    • Oh wow, I’m just swooning at the thought of French and Welsh together. It does seem unlikely but so very great! I have to confess that I’m a sucker for all those w’s, y’s and double letters in Welsh. And the Welsh accent in English. And that the language has been so tenacious and is still around :)

  7. Many years ago I was in Turkey and my friend Graham and I ordered two beers- they arrived but there was a lot of yeast floating on the surface. Graham not knowing a word of Turkish said : Scusi floaters! Floaters is a term from the NE of UK (i.e Geordie) meaning yeast in your beer! It was even funnier as scusi is certainly not Turkish and Graham wasn’t from the NE!

    I live in Italy and when I first came to live here, I occasionally found myself using Welsh words – I was brought up in South Wales – ‘vorrei due etti di caws’ – caws being a Welsh word I hadn’t used for probably thirty years!!

  8. What a lovely post. I am slowly becoming obsessed with all things French and attempting to share my journey on my blog. Actually LEARNING the language is the next step but I tend to be bad at absorbing languages… any pointers?

    • I would focus on vocabulary at first and maybe find some streaming tv programs from France. Start slow with grammar and don’t panic when you don’t understand something. If you are still getting the gist of something you are listening to or reading, then just keep going and don’t try to look up every word. This is more important in listening comprehension because speech is so fast that if you allow yourself to linger over every bit that you might have missed, then you end up missing even more that you might have understood if you were still listening. There are some sites now that pair up ‘chat partners’ so you could probably find a French speaker who wants to practice English and you can trade lessons.

      Good luck! I look forward to checking out your blog to see how things are moving along!

  9. I ‘code-switch’ so often that my kids don’t bat an eye anymore. I just won’t remember a word in English or whatever language I’m speaking at the moment so rather than waiting around for it to come to me, I use the word in the language that is cooperating with me. Makes for a wonderful ‘battle language’ outside the home when you don’t want people to understand what you’re saying…but it can be very annoying when you do it mid-sentence like your example. In Quebec you’re safe switching from English to French and back again. Most people will follow you. Throw in some Spanish and it will probably still be alright. But if you come out with Cree they’re going to give you strange looks. I hate that I can never remember the word ‘umbrella’ when I need it…it has to be parapluie or paragua. What is that? Some sort of linguistic dysnomia?

    • I don’t know about dysnomia – sounds like our typical, flawed human memory. I love the phrase “in the language that is cooperating with me”! I think there are reasons why one language might be closer to the surface than others at any given moment (context is always a factor) and that just makes things interesting! I love that Cree makes its way into your speech. Cool writing system, too!

    • He was born in Portugal but spent most of his life until age 18 moving between Portugal, France and Italy (his father traveled – I think he was a salesman. Not sure. My father didn’t talk about him much and he died when my father was young). He returned to Portugal when he was about 20 or so and came to America when he was in his early 40s. He knew Spanish as well, but it never crept in (I think there were bad associations there). His French was about equal to his Portuguese. His English was the last language he learned.

  10. Alors, maintenant, je suis in France, and it is so much fun trying to communicate in francais.
    My french c’est pas bon, but they are so happy that I try, and very patient with me. It has restored my love for the language – it’s been twenty years since I spent a summer in Quebec, trying to learn the language at Laval University (whilst having a very good time since I was new to being of drinking age).
    I, too, use sporadic bursts of french, but wish I could fill in the gaps better.

    • It makes it so much easier when people help you out. I found that it was sometimes hard to practice because so many people we eager to practice their English and they kept trying to switch. But for the most part, people are happy to help out those of us who don’t insist on speaking only English!

      Good luck!

  11. I love this post. Reading it reminds me of the time that my mother, while in Italian speaking Switzerland, insisted on speaking French anyway, simply because she felt speaking her native language would have been rude. Or the time I spent a month cycling around France barely able to order a sandwich, then rushed back to Germany to take an oral exam for my German course. I stumbled through my 15 minute presentation, until someone asked a very good insightful question. I was so absorbed in the answer that it took quite a while to notice the strange looks I was getting and realise that I was delivering said answer in perfect, flowing French.

    But actually the main reason I commented was to say your father sounds like just my type of person, so I am glad you are not resisting this transformation!

    • Yeah, he was a pretty interesting character so I’m definitely not resisting most of the transformation :)

      Cycling around France sounds absolutely divine! I think it’s hysterical how language can really mess with us when we least suspect it.

  12. Très cool. :-) Though I had a monolingual upbringing and the longest I’ve lived abroad was six weeks in the (then) Soviet Union, I’m another language nut and started studying other languages as soon as I could; and I do sometimes mix them up. Last week I was preparing for my Spanish class and for some reason couldn’t remember “leer” (to read); out popped “chitar” instead, with the Russian root for “read” + a Spanish infinitive ending. Instead of Spanglish, what … espruso? Language is fun in itself and a fascinating window into culture and the human mind.

    Congratulations on being Fresh Pressed. And on growing up with such a father.

    • I love ‘chitar’! We used to play like that, mixing the root word in one language with the suffix of another. I had a student in Istanbul who would use the English word “teacher” with the Turkish suffix for possession to create the word ‘Teacherim”, which is what he called me (the normal term for a high school student would have been ‘hocam’, which translates into ‘my teacher’).

      Thanks so much for the great comment and the congrats on both counts :)

  13. “You lookin’ at ME?” in french could be said “c’est moi qu’tu r’gardes ?” voire
    “s’moi qu’tu mates ?”. Often reduced to “qu’est-ce t’as ?”

    Great post. thanks. Even if I tent to think that you could take more of your mother as getting older.

    • Oooh, thanks for the lesson! The last phrase is the easiest one to pronounce for me, but I’ll get to practicing the first one. While saying the second one, I realized that I was inadvertently turning ‘tu mates’ into a Portuguese phrase, complete with pronunciation. It’s not exactly the same, but it feels too close to ‘tu matas’, which means ‘you kill’! I know my brain would betray me at the critical moment and I’d end up saying, “You killing ME?” ;)

  14. God One.
    French is a beautifully spoken language which I started learning at 50 (fifty) with my daughter.
    We decided to (but never did that) tease Amma (Mother in Sinhala, my native language) in French, with beautiful sounding words.
    I can read but never understand the spoken French (language) well enough.
    But I have never heard anybody mixing English with French and I am going to try it myself one day.
    I do speak little Tamil and never mixed two Western languages but we mix English and Sinhala (transliterate, we call it) very nicely in spoken language.
    Now, I realize it is a talent some people have including your father and please keep improving (both languages) this talent.
    Even though French will hate you for that but we who speak English will love it in spite of tongue tie and twist that it may cause us / you.
    I promote Linux (computer operating system) and give bonus mark for Linux distributions with multi-language capability.
    Currently I promote Linux with Sinhala and English.
    Please visit my blog site asokaplus to know about Linux and I posted few French Phrases and one day there will be some French Editions too, even broken French, patched up with English.
    I really enjoy your wits!

  15. I wish I knew that many languages. I’m taking French in high school at the moment, and when my friends and I don’t want anyone listen in, we switch to French. Unfortunately we’re nowhere near fluent, so our conversations become riddled with English. “Je veux s’asseoir dans le… le chair? Comment dit on?” Etc.

    • Hey, you’ve got to start somewhere and practice with someone! :) I think it’s great you’re willing to switch even with missing vocabulary. Just be careful in public because you never know when someone will understand you! I had a Russian friend who once complained to a friend, quite graphically and in Russian, about a woman who was blocking their way. The woman turned out and let out such a stream of angry Russian and my student was embarrassed for days. It’ll make for a funny story, though ;)

    • Thanks so much! I’m not sure where you are, but I’m sure there are ways to immerse yourself in another language without moving to the other side of the world :) I say dive right in!

  16. First of all: Congratulations on being freshly pressed. I was all excited when I saw your post on the front page! :D
    I do adore your anecdotes. And you must have a great ear, for languages I mean.
    I find myself switching between my native language and English quite often. I dream in English too. And once in a while I speak German spontaneously, which is a bit of a mystery (not because I don’t know German, but because I don’t use it very often normally).

    And lastly, for the the sake of language nerdery: Thanks for another rigtig godt indlæg på WordPress! [“really good entry on”]

    • Thanks! (I was pretty excited too :)

      My most spontaneous outbursts at the moment consist of which nickname I’m using for one of the girls. I alternate different words for the term “little nut” depending on my mood.

      I so wish English had more accent marks. I love the circle over the a in Scandinavian languages. I don’t know why, but just love ’em. Thanks for the language nerdery!

  17. I loved this post! Makes me wish I had learned more than Spanish in college. Also, I’m dying to go to Turkey! Congrats on FP, very much deserved!!

  18. An entertaining read! Also jealous of your knowledge of different languages. I some how got through school without having to take a language. Wish I had now. In my old age I have picked up very little, of a lot of languages; Polish, Russian, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Latin, Hebrew, Japanese and Slovak. The main two words of that last sentence are, very little.
    Congrats on being FP!

    • That’s too bad about not taking a language in school, but even a little bit of a language can get you a long way. I commend you for trying to make up for the lack of formal learning!

      Thanks for commenting! :)

  19. Merci, Obrigada,Teşekkur ederim, Gracias, Grazie, Hvala, Danke…many more that I’ve missed…Thank you! I truly appreciate all of you who have made it over here and commented, both new folks and treasured long-time readers. Learning about others’ experiences about language learning is really the best part of this! I will definitely be responding to comments individually, but I’m afraid it will take me some time, so I ask for your patience. In the meantime, I am really enjoying all of your stories, so keep ’em coming! :)

  20. I loved this… the French I learned in high school – Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Moliere – absolutely and utterly redundant in real life rural France, where ‘poule pondeuse’, ‘fosse septique’ and ‘bougie de pre-chauffage’ are the terms of the day, and most of the day I say ‘beh… oui’ and ‘tout a fait’ and ‘c’est nul!’ – but my default language is whatever I spoke last – so in Japan, having lived in Brazil, I said ‘Obrigada’ instead of Arigato, and then thought ‘ah… how similar’ (well, obrigado!) and learned that Arigato was imported from Portugal via traders! Languages are SO cool. I wish I could know them all!

    • I mourn the fact that my lifespan is just not enough to read all the books and learn all the languages! :) When I first moved to Portugal, Turkish was constantly making its way into my speech. I remember that I once forgot the word for ‘map’ not only in Portuguese (‘mapa’ – not exactly difficult for English speakers ;) but in English, too! I could only remember the Turkish ‘harita’ for about 5 minutes before it finally came to me.

      Yup – high school languages often don’t focus on actually using the language, but to be fair, most high school students don’t go on to use the languages they study. But maybe more would if we focused on more functional language. Hrm…chicken or egg?? :)

  21. I’ve always believed learning each new language means also learning how to think a little more differently about the same thing: therefore more language learning helps makes a person become more flexible in thinking in general.

    I didn’t learn English until I was in kindergarten…even though I am born and spent my whole life so far in Canada. My first language is Chinese and can only now speak it in a basic, broken way. Language retention is due to the reality that mother and some relatives know only primarily Chinese.

    I recently passed a written French language test in applying for federal govn’t Canadian job which was a surprise but it was a test of over 1.5 hrs. long. (Verbal fluency I failed). It had been over 28 yrs. since I last learned French but like any Canadian child had mandatory French courses until high school. Didn’t really enjoy it. I enjoyed my 3 years of high school Latin alot more since I had a great teacher.

    Then took French …again as mandatory foreign language requirement at university for my English literature degree. (Hons. BA) It is actually is an excellent requirement for any language degree –a second language study requirement.

    After that whole tortuous route for French learning, I did later find the few scraps of French words and phrases useful when travelling in Quebec and in France several times. In fact, I felt very grateful just to know the little that I did know.

    Language learning is not my natural love, but I have learned the hard way how much a person can use it to open cultural doors in life.

    • I’m interested in the fact that you had a foreign language requirement as part of an English lit degree. You’re right, I think it’s a fantastic idea. Studying another language can give a person a deeper understanding of their own language, and that can only help someone who is studying literature or who wants to write. I applaud you for carrying on even though, as you said, it’s not your natural love. Great comment, thank you!

  22. I would love to learn how to speak French, it just sounds like such a sexy language and when I’ve watched foreign language films where they are speaking French it just sounds great. I learned Spanish in college and ended up going to Puerto Rico. I had to order for my entire family since the place we were staying in was a small little community and everyone spoke Spanish. I must have said it right because we didn’t get anything too strange to eat for dinner.

    • Getting what you expect at a restaurant is ALWAYS a good sign! :) I consider that one stage of competence – for example, how much do I remember of my brief study of German? Well, I wouldn’t starve if I were dropped in the middle of Berlin. I couldn’t do much else, but that’s still an accomplishment. Maybe all language courses should start with food vocabulary and grammar!

  23. I’ve been back in the US for 15 years now, so it doesn’t come up any more, but when I was living n Europe I would mix languages all the time — and I couldn’t speak any of them, even then, except for English and German! But my smattering of Turkish, Hungarian, Russian, and French would work their way in somehow. I had many conversations with people from other countries who also didn’t speak these languages, but we’d keep patching together these lumpy polyglot sentences and somehow understood each other. It was fun — we’d always end up laughing. I miss that.

    • That’s also one of the things I miss the most – the language play that goes on among the ex-pats. That was fun. I’m so enjoying these comments because it almost feels a little bit like those days. I love that when the desire to communicate is strong enough, language differences and mixing don’t matter.

  24. I love this! I grew up in a family of French Canadians with several family members who went above and beyond the French and English combination & were fluent in 6 or seven other languages as well. Mixed salad sentences — my Nana called them — were pretty commonplace. Thanks for the reminder of home.

  25. Well, I myself am a pretty big salad of languages. My native language is Albanian, I am fluent in Romanian and English, advanced level of French and very good understanding of Italian (like most of Albanians). On daily basis I have to speak Albanian, Romanian, English and French, but when the night comes and I feel tired, I have no idea what I speak, it’s a mix of everything, Chinese and German sound attractive to me, but I don’t think I have the drive to learn either of them…maybe some Spanish could be easier :)

    • Wow, that really is quite the salad! I often wish we had the same need for other languages here in the US that exists in Europe. And yeah, I think Spanish would be easier for you :)

  26. Delightful text, congrats!

    Just one tiny correction: one shouldn’t use “ç” before “e” or “i”, the “soft” vowels. So the correct spelling of the lovely rhyme would be:

    “Once upon a time, there was a little criancinha,
    Que estava pendurada from a little janelinha.
    A policeman que passou said,
    Qu’est-ce que tu fais ici, oh little criancinha?”

  27. I love your blog and this post, in particular.

    Isn’t the going back and forth between languges mid-sentence or conversation called “code-switching” ? This is the word that comes floating up from the unorganized archives of information collected as an undergrad.

    Since I grew up speaking only English and little Spanish, I do not accidentally switch. However, I studied Italian for four years and lived in Italy for a little while, and sometimes I need a word in Italian to say what I am trying to convey best. For instance, a phrase that means “va bene” would be very useful in English.

    I (attempt to) blog at – check it out if you want!

    • Thanks! You’re right – it’s called ‘code-switching’ in general, though there might be differences in terminology based on intent. Sometimes the mixture is intentional, in other words, but other times it isn’t. I can’t remember if there was another term for unintentional code-switching. That term can also refer to switching between different styles of the same language (for example, speaking very informally with friends, but then switching to the ‘phone voice’ – or ‘teacher voice’ or ‘business voice’ – for more formal situations.)

      I’d love something like ‘va bene’ in English. In Portuguese, we’d say ‘pois’, which doesn’t really translate into anything, but functionally would mean something like ‘Well, yeah.’ or ‘I guess so’. Something like that, which is frustrating because I don’t want something like that…I want that!

      Thanks for the comment!

  28. I’m an Englishman living in France I do this all the time too. Even with my English friends I’ll occasionally come out with something at the pub like, “Alright mate, you got some alumettes?” and everyone tends to use franglais words like, how much money’s in the case (rather than till) and I’ve got a new coloc (rather than housemate).

    I think for me though I have the same thing where I have two languages in my head, English and “foreign.” The worst case of this was a few years ago, before my French was good enough to converse properly. I got a little drunk, and met and French girl and tried out talking to her using the few Nepali words I’d learnt while on holiday in Kathmandu. Fail.

    • We did that all the time. In Turkey, we rarely drank ‘tea’, it was ‘ςay’. we would sprinkle our English with Turkish filler words, too. When in France a few weeks ago, my boyfriend and I somehow attached ourselves to the word ‘tranche’ and are still using it when we talk of making sandwiches (“I got some tranches for lunch.”)

      I don’t know how you fail with Nepali. How cool would it be to be chatted up in Nepali? ;)

  29. Leonore:

    I really enjoyed your post. I grew up in a monlingual family, but became fascinated with the concept that there were other languages (and people understood them!) when I was about 10. I took Spanish in high school, and earned a degree in it at the university.
    My ‘jump off the deep end’ happened when I was talked into going to Brazil by a friend. I had always wanted to study abroad, and decided to try it. I had had one semester of Portuguese, and was told I ‘talked like a book’ by the Brazilians.

    I learned the bulk of my Portuguese by hanging out on street corners with other university students, drinking beer and talking about everything university students talk about. (I.e. everything.) After about 4 months of avoiding English speakers, I was speaking with an American visiting professor, and realized I was trying to use English words with Portuguese syntax. I was pretty fluent by the end of the semester, and returned to spend another year in Brazil later on.

    French came later, and is purely oral. I visited friends in Geneva periodically for a week or two at a time, and had to speak French to socialize with their friends. I can read it (it messes up my pronunciation when I do), but writing it, except for simple phrases, is very challenging.

    Like others who have commented, every now and then the first word that pops into my mind is not in the language I’m currently speaking. This confuses the people I’m talking to.

    Lately, I’ve been trying to get my Spanish back up to speed, and I recently started trying to learn Gaelic, getting in touch with my heritage.

    Interesting note: Spanish and French speaking friends tell me I have a Brazilian, rather than American accent.

    Thank you for an interesting read,

    Joca (my nickname from a maid in Brazil who said ‘John’ was way too foreign)

    • Funny, I’m told I have a Portuguese accent whenever I try to speak Spanish, which admittedly not very often anymore. It used to be more often in my bartending days and a lot of the kitchen staff were Spanish-speakers who didn’t know much English. On slow nights, I’d go back and hang out, rolling out dough with the pizza guy, and I’d learn a little Spanish while he practiced his English. Those were fun nights :) Plus, my pizza rolling skills are much better now!

      My English has taken on a bit of a foreign flavor in some ways. I now ‘open’ or ‘close’ the lights or electronic devices instead of turning them on or off, for example. All part of the fun :)

    • I’d also love to be much more fluent in Portuguese. It’s been several years since I’ve used it regularly, and that’s really the key. Use it or lose it, y’know? I have a co-worker who was born in Portugal and came to the US when she was 14. She speaks to me in Portuguese a lot, so I get to practice my listening, but I get so shy about speaking, which I really have to get over if I want to regain any sort of fluency.

  30. My mind also seems to have an affinity for Portuguese in uncharted language situations – thanks only to 3 years in the Minho. I had a very similar restaurant experience in France where it was only minutes later that I realized the woman at the counter wasn’t completely incompetent, but that I’d been throwing in Portuguese words here and there.

    Now I’m trying to learn Vietnamese. Amusement will surely follow.

    • Ah, have I mentioned that I am a minhota? :) My mother is from Braga and that’s where I lived for 2 years. It’s so so beautiful there, isn’t it?

      Oooh, 5 tones! Good luck!

  31. i like to believe i’m a nearly even combination of my mom and dad…others may not agree, but i think i tried to take the parts of them that i admired and generate those qualities in myself. I certainly fall short in some areas, and also picked up some of the characteristics i hated…my mother being clean in a totally freakish way, for example…but i think i turned out ok. thanks mom and dad.

  32. i have always loved language and other languages – I learned to swear from the Italian, Greek, and Slavs at high school, then did Italian for a couple of years, a year of French, then moved to Greece for six months, then lived in UK where French is much more commonly quoted in newspapers so picked up more. I still swear fluently in Italian when under pressure.

    At the same time, I was proud, wasn’t going to be like either of my parents – i was a world citizen. Then i saw my dad after 20 yrs, and i was so like him it was stunning. We had same habits, same mannerisms, same likes in casual clothing – even things i didn’t know about him, i was doing the same. Then i realised i was walking just like my mother. When i’m anxious i start her mannerisms in a huge way.

    It’s not just becoming one of them you have to watch – they both take you over.

    • What a fun language background you’ve had!

      It’s all well and good when the cute little quirks take over, but there are some annoying things about both of my parents that all my sisters and I will fight to the death to avoid! Perhaps it’s the special way that mothers can push their daughters’ buttons that make us sisters want to avoid more of our mother’s habits than of our father’s, but yes – both parents will haunt you!

  33. For a little while I lived on the Amalfi coast in Italy. I had been to a convent school previously (in NZ) so I spoke reasonably good FRENCH (with an Irish Nuns NZ accent God help us) ! I was managing the life and times of a British Film Director who was making a film in Italy. (And yes you are right they do not speak French in Italy).
    Anyway on the Amalfi coast where the company had rented an enormous house, on 4 levels right out to the Med, for 6 weeks, I had a housekeeper who spoke NO English (nor did she care to ) and my French was obviously useless. So we looked at each other in horror for the best part of ten minutes then with a few fits and starts – we were able to communicate alarmingly well with bits and pieces of accumulated languages, and my Italian/English dictionary and a LOT of mime. She in fact mimed for me why she left her husband!. It was brilliant. Well you can imagine .. he was a very naughty boy.
    We chatted all day long without a word between us. I could understand her and she could understand me and we laughed like drains leaning on our brooms, I always worked with her when I was home. i feel bad having someone clean when i am not cleaning too!.
    She and her sister came out to the house often after work hours, with a bottle hidden in a basket amongst aubergines and tomatoes and basil and cheese and that fabulous crusty italian bread that is stale after two hours- to teach me how to cook Proper Italian food. Appalled by my sausages and mash I suppose. No recipes just Cecilia (pronounced Chechelia!!) and chopping and wine-ing and pointing and tasting!!
    I love languages. Wonderful that you have the words. Thank you for your post.

    • What a wonderful story! It reminds me of meeting Portuguese cousins for the first time when I was 9 years old. One of my cousins is my age and the two of us were inseparable for our entire visit. She managed a few words of English, I managed a few things in Portuguese, and the rest was just the will to communicate.

      I love the phrase ‘laughed like drains’. I’d never heard it before and had to look it up immediately because I was so excited about it. I know, I know…it doesn’t take much ;)

      And I love a New Zealand accent, whether in English or in French ;) I would have been speaking French with a Brooklyn accent had been taught longer by my first French teacher!

  34. Loved the stories. Some years ago I overheard one of my daughters say to her sister “If you see me becoming like Mom slap me upside the head”. Their mom is a fine woman but she is not my mother so I can’t say they were wrong to say what they said or what you have said. It is hilarious. Great post.

    • There really is a particular way in which mothers get under their daughters’ skins. My sisters and I have a pact to shoot each other if we ever exhibit certain behaviors that our mother exhibits and which have have driven us crazy for our entire lives. There’s this one sound she makes that signals her complete dismissal of anything we are trying to say. It’s like ‘oh!’ but with a Portuguese accent (imagine my horror when I first moved to Portugal and realized they all make that noise!). If any of us make that noise outside the context of complaining about that noise, then we have orders to shoot!

      Thanks for your comment!

  35. I too count myself very thankful to be just like my dad. Although I might look like my mom, I’m my dad on the inside! Anyways, I just finished reading a book by CS Lewis and he remarks that you don’t really ‘know’ a language if everything you say you think of as substitutions for the ‘real’ word in your native language. So while I regularly mix up french with English just for fun, as in ,”je ne like that pas,” it’s dutch that is just as real to me as English. My parents are immigrants and there are some words I just can’t say in English–I don’t even know the translation! Those are the languages that live in my soul!

    • I like the CS Lewis quote, and I tell this to my students often. If they are still translating in their minds, they’re always going to be dependent on that crutch. If they want to speak more freely, they have to embrace the language in their inner thoughts, and not just in the sounds that leave their mouths.

  36. Great article, and it brings home to me the complexities floating through us and our language, particularly when it comes to immersion. For me, it’s dipping in and out of French over the years, and each time, I swim there, I want to swim there more.

    • Me too. Having so much of the language rush out of my memory felt so good and it made me want to study it again. I do plan on being more active in keeping my languages from atrophying. Love your swimming metaphor! Thanks for the great comment!

  37. Funny post! When I read “Il est huit o’clock”, I was like, “this doesn’t sound right” (because I remembered that it had to be “il est huit heures”), but then I remembered that this post is about mixing up languages, and well, everybody mixes up different languages anyway. In my French class, I tend to mix English in during our oral exercises and make it sound French (although I think that was more of a failed attempt) because I can’t remember the word for it.

      • I know right? You just have to be really confident. Too bad it’s my French professor who I’m talking to, so that might be a problem. But, who knows? He might miss the fact that I’m already speaking English as I try to speak French. Lol.

  38. I’ve always thought French was a beautiful language. I’m a double major in Spanish and English, and have studied Spanish since I was a high school freshman. Reading it is one thing, but speaking? Like you, speaking is something else. In words on paper, it is so elegant.
    Interesting you throw Turkish in there, since English, Portuguese, and French are Indo European languages and Turkish is Altaic I believe.

    • Yeah, Turkish was a fun departure from Romance languages (and Germanic English, of course!). I’d love to study Arabic next. And I also feel like I should learn something like Dutch or Flemish. When I hear Dutch, it feels so familiar because of it’s relation to English that I feel like it should be a freebie language or something :)

      Oh, so many languages, so little time!!

  39. Well look who’s FP’d! Woohoo! What a great post.

    Love this story. Reminds me of growing up speaking sentences half English/half Spanish til I got straightened out in school. :)

    • Thanks Tamara! (and belated congrats on your own recent FP!)

      My older sisters had that experience with half English/half Portuguese. My parents were afraid that they wouldn’t get it straightened out like you did, and that’s when they switched the family’s language to English. Otherwise, I probably would have grown up speaking Portuguese at home. It’s a shame, really. As you know from experience, kids will sort it out given time. But at least it gave me an advantage when learning it as a second language as an adult.

  40. I’m twenty once, from Mexico,and from little burdened with learning three languages. Spanish, because it was my native land, English because my dad said, “The best faith for you would be to leave and study in the U.S”; and then French because I didn’t particularly like English. English took me so long to learn. I find myself not only mixing languages but forgetting one altogether. It happens mostly with English, and I am glad I’m not the only one. I think it’s awesome you speak four languages, gives me hope I can learn oh, I don’t know Japanese, or Manderin. whichever comes first.

    • I think there is probably a limit to how many languages a person can learn, and that four or five is well below that limit, so definitely feel hope that you can add Japanese or Mandarin. In fact, there is research that says that knowing at least one ‘second’ language makes it easier to learn more, so you’ve got an advantage! As with anything, it just needs time, dedication, and consistency. Good luck and thank you so much for coming by and commenting!

    • It really is a great language, isn’t it? My theory is that it sounds the way it is because it evolved to be spoken with a cigarette dangling out of the corner of their mouths. You have to keep your lips pursed to both keep that cigarette in place and also speak French with that wonderful accent. (Okay, maybe it’s a sort of a tongue-in-cheek theory, but I like it! ;)

      Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  41. Wonderful post! I also learnt French at school, but in a very visual way – so much so that I am still comfortable reading French and other Latin derived languages. Not so confident in my audio and speaking skills, however. Conversely, I learnt Afrikaans purely by listening and picking up the language, one word at a time. I can happily converse with children and follow adult conversations, but cannot read it without stumbling over myself! Oddly enough, through my dodgy reading skills in Afrikaans, I now understand some Flemish, Dutch and German – although I’ve never studied them! I particularly love to work out connections between different languages.. once I’ve established my connections it makes words easier to remember, whether it’s direct English to Afrikaans, or English via French to Afrikaans!
    Incidentally, my mother’s favourite phrase is Scottish thrown in with French: “Je ne ken fit ‘boot ça” [ken: know, fit: what, ‘boot: about] Awesome ;)

    • First of all, I so so love that sentence of your mother’s!

      I also had a ‘learn one, get one free’ experience with Spanish like you had with Flemish, Dutch and German. I even was able to work out Catalan reasonably well when I visited Barcelona and all the signs were in Spanish and Catalan. I studied French, Italian and Portuguese, and also took a semester of Latin in college, so the Romance languages – except for Romanian – are pretty much covered :)

  42. First of all, congratulations for being freshly pressed!

    I remember when I was a language student, I used to get terribly confused. There was a hideous semester when I was studying Russian, German and Spanish at the same time and frequently in class spots next to each other. I always used to code switch, or use the vocabulary of one with the grammar of another (and I have therefore found out that Spanish verbs do not go very well on the end of sentences!)

    Thanks for an enjoyable read!


  43. Nice post! I’ve had my own language immersion in China for only six weeks, though. It was part of an innovation program of my alma mater to radically change how Mandarin was taught to us (for more than a few decades, students just memorized impractical things and forgot them after graduation). I was in seventh grade then and it really prodded me to open my mouth and speak the language with confidence (whereas before, I never dared speak and explore the language casually). From then on, I’d always looked forward to my Mandarin classes through high school. Now, I could say I’m trilingual at the very least (English, Filipino, and Mandarin). I’ve taken some French outside school before and Spanish (as part of a club in high school), not that I remember much from either. Now in the university, I’m taking Italian as a foreign-language elective.

    If anything, a lot of Filipinos in Metro Manila colloquially converse in what we call Taglish (Tagalog/Filipino + English). It’s a normal thing here, haha.

    • That sounds like such a useful program. We think of studying abroad as something students don’t do until college or sometimes for a few weeks in high school, but it’s really so much better to do it earlier. It really helps students understand right from the beginning what it means to really need to speak another language, and to make the language itself less abstract. Lucky you!

      In the NYC area, there are a lot of ‘Spanglish’ speakers, just like the ‘Taglish’ (love the name!) speakers in Manila :)

      Thanks for the comment!

    • You’re right, and the two are inextricably linked in my brain that I can’t write about that kind of code switching without at least thinking of my father (and since it’s my blog, I can write about it, too! :)

  44. Fun post! I speak English, French and Spanish — but speak so quickly I’ve been told I’m incomprehensible in all three! When I lived in France for a year, I mixed up my English and French — so airport became “plane station” and stationery store became “papery.” I enjoyed it.

    I now live in NY where people are in AWE of someone (non native) who can speak French, let alone more than one language. It’s the best thing ever to be able to communicate in different languages and feel at home in different countries and cultures.

    • Ooh, I might have to start using ‘papery’. It does seem to fit, doesn’t it? And I have an irrational love of Euro-stationary, so it seems appropriate that the word sounds vaguely foreign!

      It amazes me that people in NY aren’t more aware of the existence of bilingualism. NYC has one of the highest concentration of languages in the world…oh wait, I just made the classic mistake! NY doesn’t automatically mean NYC. So sorry! I grew up in the suburbs, close enough to the city’s influence, and ‘New York’ almost always referred to the city (when we weren’t just saying ‘the city’!). So maybe you are in NYC and maybe in NY state, but I shouldn’t assume one or the other.

  45. Hi
    I am a Spanish native speaker and apart from being a bilingual English/Spanish translator, I have been living in London since 1998. Language mixing is, in fact, very common among expats. I would find myself peppering my sentences with English words, not so much because I was making a mistake but because that is the word that would first pop into my brain or because the translation would be a long one as there was no equivalent in the other language. Call it laziness but when you know the person you are speaking to will understand exactly what you are saying, you go for the fastest route.
    I am also fluent in Russian, Japanese and Swedish and my French is OK I guess. I also found that the more languages you learn, the more difficult it gets to not have an accent, I guess you can’t have it all, can you?


    • We did do a lot of mixing in the expat community – sometimes purposely and sometimes not. It was fun. And you’re right – communication should be easy and sometimes the easiest way is not necessarily a native language. It’s whatever phrase most suits what you want at the moment, and what can come more quickly into your mind.

      That’s such a great collection of languages!

  46. Great post! I have a friend I’ve known since Kindergarten whose Mother is from Germany. All the kids had to go to German school, so they’re fluent enough not to wonder what’s going on when their Mother speaks in German and English at the same time. I studied two years of German in University so I was able to understand a little of what she said when she mixed the two.

    In Canada we start learning French in grade 1. It’s mandatory up until grade 9. I stopped after that because I was so frustrated with the way they taught us (badly…not the teachers, just the curriculum). If I would have kept with it I would have learned more in two years of high school than I did those first 9 years. I sang French (and Italian, German, Latin) in university, but lost most of what I had learned thinking – even though it’s my country’s 2nd official language – that I would never have a real use for it. Well, now I’m in Belgium for a year and I wish I would have stuck with it. It’s coming along slowly but surely. I can have a conversation with a child (I’m here as an Au Pair), but vocabulary to converse on a regular basis with adults….that’s a little more tricky. And writing it is not good for me, I suck at it. And I mostly forget the conjugations for ‘vous’ and sometimes ‘nous’ because I always use ‘tu’ at home.

    I studied Spanish for two years in high school and for a semester in University, but I don’t remember very much. Actually, even though it’s only been a year, I forget a lot of the German I learned. If I were to go through my old notes as a refresher I’m sure it would all come back. When I first got here I would sometimes know the German translation for something, but not the French. Now I’m forgetting all my German :(

    • I mentioned in a reply to another comment that I love hearing about the experiences of Canadians who’ve been through mandatory French in schools. I’m not sure of all the types of programs you have, but I know the French immersion schools in Canada have been held up as an example of highly successful bilingual programs. It’s a complicated issue (bilingual education) and it’s always great to hear perspectives from people who were on the front lines, so to speak.

      The most frustrating thing about languages is how quickly they can slip away if we don’t have regular practice. There’s some that stays there and comes back to you, as you said, but it’s harder to bring it up to the front of our minds when it’s been in the dusty corners for so long. A lot of my French came back to me after only a few days, and it was frustrating to leave just when I felt like I was getting the hang of it again. Hrm…might have to look into some summer jobs in France next year…;)

      Good luck with your au pair year! I’ve known quite a few European women who are here in the US as au pairs. It can be a challenging experience. Sounds like you’re doing well, though :)

      Thanks so much for your great comment!

      • Thanks for your reply! I used to know a girl who was in French immersion, but I haven’t talked to her in about 10 years. A friend of mine is putting her girls in French immersion, mostly because her family was originally French, but none of them speak it anymore (her and her parents generation). I think it’s a great idea and wish now that I had been in French immersion. It is complicated. I think it should be mandatory for everyone, at least in elementary school. Because don’t you learn better when you’re younger? Or is that just before you’re 5? I know that wouldn’t fly because a lot of people just really don’t like French (like my Dad, but that was mostly because he’s just bad at English too and got really frustrated!), and are prejudiced, but I think it would be highly beneficial.

        I still remember some rhymes/songs from my French days. Especially one for remember what on-top of, below, in-front of, behind, inside, and beside are. The great thing now is that after 6 months I’m actually starting to think in French. This is especially apparent when I’m counting spoons for the baby’s powdered milk stuff (he’s a bit lactose intolerant). I rarely ever count it in English, but sometimes I’ll alternate numbers in French, German, and English just to keep me on my toes.

        You’re a really trooper, replying to all your comments. But I think that’s the best way to ensure your readers will comment again! Although I do wish it was easier to find your comment again to see if there’s a response. Or a box to click to get notified of responses to just your comment. Guess that’s something to suggest! Unless I’m a tool and am just not looking in the right spot!

      • I could have sworn I had the “Subscribe to comments” button showing. I checked my settings and the box is definitely checked but I can’t find it on the actual page. That’s strange! It is hard to find your comment again if not subscribed. What I generally do is Control+F (to find something on a page) and then type in the user name. I know the comments form has gone through some recent changes, so I wonder if that has something to do with it.

        You definitely learn a language better when you’re younger. Or I should say that second languages are learned more quickly, for sure. I wrote a few posts about bilingualism and the studies that are coming out that suggest even being exposed to two languages before the age of one has clear cognitive benefits, and not just in language skills.
        If you’re interested, the posts are here:
        and here:

        Numbers are hard to internalize. Many people, even after years of living in another country, still like to count in their native language. I think it has something to do with the cognitive load of having to perform mathematical functions AND think of numbers in a non-native language. I suppose it partly depends on how good the language skills are, how often one has to do math, and how good one might be at math! The more I have to think about a math function, the less brain energy I have left for counting in something other than English! So you’re lucky that you get to practice numbers so often and start making them automatic enough to be comfortable.

      • I checked the box that says something along the lines of notify me of future comments, is that what you were talking about? Then I get an email notifying me of all the comments after mine and it fills up my inbox, lol. But that’s my problem, not yours. I didn’t even know about the Crtl-F function! I just used it and it’s awesome. There’s a lot I don’t know about the internet and computers. Things that would make life easier, but what can you do. You learn something new everyday!

        I will definitely check out those other posts. Also, it’s only counting to 8 or 9, but hey, it’s something. I hate math generally, because I’m so bad at it (or am I bad at it because of my dislike?), but counting in other languages is actually something I like. Especially German. German flows off my tongue a lot easier than some French. Or it used to anyway. I think I just like how the numbers don’t always sound like numbers in other languages (to my English ears). ^_^

  47. Love your post and congrats on being freshly pressed. I studied French and German at Uni back in England many moons ago and lived and worked in both countries. Strangely I never mixed them up and in fact, the reverse, couldn’t switch easily from one to the other. German did start to influence my mother tongue English though. When I lived in Germany I used to write letters in English to my mother (long before email) with a strange German word order, placing the verb at the end of the sentence. I wasn’t even aware of it but she thought it very funny. Thanks for sharing with us.

    • Thanks for commenting and the congrats! :)

      Other languages do seep into our consciousness in funny ways. I wasn’t aware of any weird speech patterns I adopted other than a few vocabulary changes (I now apparently open and close lights and electronic devices) or little ‘tics’ (I seem to insist on repeating affirmatives: yeah, yeah, yeah…uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh…) but I think my English was slightly accented for a few days every time I came back to the US for a visit. I was getting eye glasses shorty after I moved back and the woman asked me at one point where I came from. I said, ‘Uh…two towns away?” She said, “No, I mean where are you from originally? What country do you come from?” Huh!

  48. I know you’ve got millions of comments, but you did ask about our language learning experiences… I’m from South Africa and learnt Xhosa at school as a third language. I didn’t use it much and thought I’d forgotten most of it, but then when I went to China in my late 20s and started learning Mandarin, all this Xhosa popped out of my mouth! When I got home and tried speaking Xhosa again, it would turn into Mandarin!
    I do consider myself monolingual though, although I have a smattering of various other languages. I wish I was proficient enough in something else to be at least bilingual. But Turkish is next, and that’s hard!

    • I did indeed ask, and I don’t care if there were a gazillion comments – I’d still want to hear more stories! :) And I’m so glad you commented because I’m really excited to hear from someone who learned Xhosa (and as a third language…I assume your other language then is Afrikaans?). You do know how wonderfully exotic those click languages are to us in the States, right? I’d so dearly love to learn some Xhosa. I had a friend in graduate school from South Africa who spoke it and it sounded so lovely. The other people I’ve known from there never learned it.

      Turkish was definitely intimidating at first but it’s not so bad once you get used to it. Good luck with it and thanks again so much for stopping by and commenting! I truly appreciate hearing about your experiences.

  49. This is probably off-topic a bit, but I think it’s funny. Years ago we hosted a Finnish exchange student for a year, and he misused the words “shoulder” and “soldier.”
    “You have strong soldiers,” he’d say, or “The shoulders marched in such straight lines.”
    He was great. I think Finnish must be one of those impossible languages. I’m afraid we didn’t do very well with what he taught us.

    • Finnish does seem to be fairly complicated. At least it looks that way. So many letters!

      My students have always confused ‘kitchen’ and ‘chicken’, which is perfectly understandable and also really amusing :)

  50. Love this post! You have described your father so wonderfully. I’ve married a man who has a lot of my father’s qualities (and quirks) and I’ve adopted a lot of my mom’s ways… I’m currently trying to unravel the yucky stuff I’ve adopted and it’s harder than I would have ever imagined. It’s like in our bones or part of how we breathe, don’t you think? Thanks for sharing.

    • Thank you! I too have found myself with a man who shares a lot of my father’s qualities, though he thankfully doesn’t feel the need to take new appliances apart to see how they work ;) That drove my mother crazy! At least my boyfriend waits until they actually break to take them apart.

      They are in our bones, I agree. Good or bad, our parents are always with us, and hopefully, the good is often easier to remember than the bad.

  51. Freshly pressed again! You are awesome. Also, your dad sounds like a real crackerjack.

    I took one year of German and two years of Spanish in grades 7 through 9, and now that I’m trying to keep the old synapses in shape by trying to learn French, I find words from those long-forgotten other languages keep popping into mind when I’m reaching for the French vocabulary.

    I am, of course, still in the very early stages of French and I find listening comprehension to be a huge stumbling block. I found a daily 10 minute news broadcast that also publishes a transcript, so I try to get through that each day. I also listen to a live stream of a French radio station. I have absolutely no idea what they are saying 99.9% of the time, but I figure as my vocabulary expands from the written study, I will pick up more and more of what is being said. In the meantime I hope that, like an infant bombarded with its native language while having no actual comprehension, I will start to develop an “ear” for it.

    P.S. Any idea why the names of languages are proper nouns in English, but not in French, or am I misinterpreting what I’m learning?

    • Thanks, Keenie! The ten-minutes-a-day is great. It’s important to start getting the flow of the language and learning where the word breaks are, even if you’re not sure what those words mean yet.

      I think the names of languages are still proper nouns, but they are treated differently – not being capitalized for example. Romance languages are funny that way. In Portuguese, the definite article (the) is used with proper nouns, for example. The name of the city “Porto” is often written in English as “Oporto”, which actually is the combination of the definite article ‘o’ plus the name of the city. I was always “A Leonore” to my parents (‘a’ is the feminine definite article).

      Every language classifies its nouns slightly differently, too, and even when the categories are mostly the same, the ways they denote those nouns isn’t always the same. Just one more thing to keep things interesting! ;)

    • Thanks Georgette. I love the post you linked to. I often connect my days abroad with music. My first few months of living in Istanbul were pretty rough and I remember listening to Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” every day. Turkish music was so strange to my ears at first, and then I came to like it enough that I still listen to it on my iPod! :)

      Thanks so much for commenting and sharing your post!

  52. Congrats on being FP’d, Leonore! I’m an anglophone with an extremely limited knowledge of French. My children, however, are bilingual…perhaps they’ll support me in my old age (I live in the only officially bilingual province in Canada – New Brunswick).

    Jim delights in telling me that I’m just like my dad (he lives with us)…unfortunately, it’s usually when I’m being stubborn about something…


    • Huh. I didn’t know that about New Brunswick. This is very interesting. Tell me if I have this right: the federal government of Canada is officially bilingual, but then each province can set its own official languages for state, not federal, business. So New Brunswick is bilingual, Quebec is French only and the rest of the provinces are English only? Am I close? :)

      Isn’t it funny that the phrase “You’re just like your father/mother/other relative” so often refers to being stubborn? ;)

    • That makes sense, and is also very cool :) Sleeping brings things out of the dusty corners of our minds, and language is one of those things. I once had a dream that I was Eva Peron (I don’t even want to know what that was all about!) I was in a bookstore with my translator because I didn’t speak English. In my dream, I actually heard myself speaking Spanish, asking for a certain book that I wanted. Mind you, I don’t really speak Spanish, though I have picked up quite a bit over the years, not only through studying other Romance languages but also by working with so many Spanish-speakers.

      Our performance in a second language improves when our filters are lowered. Sleepiness can lower filters, as can booze! There was a study that showed how people spoke more fluently and accurately in German as a second language after 2 beers. Of course, there was a steep decline in language skills even in their native language after 3 or more beers!

  53. I have not turned into my stepfather, but he used to do stuff like that too. I can’t even use Duct Tape without thinking about him.

    • Oh, the duct tape, yes! I have similar reactions to soldering, too. It’s one thing to solder stained glass or car parts, which he did beautifully. But to fix eyeglasses?? :)

      Thanks for commenting!

  54. Pingback: For #100: Portrait of a polyglot. | As a Linguist…
  55. Pingback: Day 54: Introducing Lucille. « A Modern Day Dinosaur

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s