One simple trick for keeping multiple languages distinct in your mind

If you are learning your third or fourth (or fifth, sixth, seventh…) language, keeping them straight in your head can be daunting. Here’s a simple trick that I think will help you compartmentalize learning and using new languages.

I used to have trouble resetting to the local tongue when arriving in a new destination. Usually I could understand sufficiently but my first responses would come out uncontrollably in a totally different language.  I’d even visualize the response in the wrong language. It’s hilarious but ultimately useless to speak to passport control in Spanish when landing in PVG. As an aside, my fall back language when I’m first adapting or dead-dog jetlagged is almost always Spanish, my second language.

To overcome this, I developed a mental exercise to compartmentalize languages by associating each with a specific color. This works well for me for two reasons. First, the process is deliberate and places one in a mental state focused on retrieving a specific subset of knowledge. Second, I’m a grapheme-color synesthete and already associate colors with letters, words, and sometimes sounds. This experience is even more a cute for me when learning and recalling vocabulary of foreign languages.

In practice, my process works something like this:

En route, I review my language notebooks and listen to recorded dialogue and language lessons. While doing this, I meditate on the associated color sometimes with a small print out or colored sheet of paper in front of me corresponding to the language to further strengthen the association. Later, I will do guided meditations / yoga nidras focusing on the appropriate color, eyes closed.

For reference, here are my current color <-> language associations.

Spanish : red
French : blue
Portugese : green
Japanese : gray
Thai : yellow
Mandarin : purple

Do you have any tricks for keeping languages distinct in your head? I’d love to hear them!

Three MORE tips for quickly learning any language.

Earlier, I wrote about my five main tips for quickly learning any language. I realized I forgot a few very useful tips. I present for your consideration three more:

1. Smile!

You’d be surprised how many communication barriers can be crossed simply by smiling. Make a mistake with your pronunciation? Smile. Laugh. People will open up and make a greater effort to understand you.

2. Speak slowly and enunciate your words.

Didn’t your mom/schoolmarm/headmaster tell you not to mumble? Have you forgotten those humiliating wraps on the knuckles with the ruler?

Speak clearly. Speak slowly. And for Pete’s sake, speak up. If you mumble your words like your mouth is full of cotton balls, absolutely nobody will be able to understand you. If you are meek and demure and unsteady in the language, expect others to have much difficulty in comprehension.

Sure, maybe you’re uncomfortable and embarrassed with the state of your expertise (or lack thereof). Don’t be. You have to crawl before you can walk. Say it loud. Say it proud.

3. Stick with the present tense if having conversation difficulties.

Drop the flowery language and verbiage if people aren’t grokking you. You may have finished four years of high school Spanish, but guess what, vosotros isn’t really used in Mexico. If you speak in the present tense, people will understand your meaning in most languages simply from context. This is even better in languages that have few or informal tenses constructed with adverbs. Start with the basics, then get all Mr. Fancy Pants.

There you have it: three more simple and easy tips for quickly learning any language.

What’s next? Are you onto your third or fourth language? It gets confusing, right? Especially romance languages that are all basically the same. In a coming post, I’ll talk about my simple trick for keeping multiple languages distinct in your head. Stay tuned!

Five tips for quickly learning any language.

Rhodia notebooks are great for learning languages.

Your own personal language notebooks will help you track your progress and provide a great reference for review.

You’re never too old to learn a new language. It isn’t hard. You just need the right attitude and some tips and tricks to help you get started. Over the years, I’ve developed my own strategies to accelerate the process. Here’s my approach.

1. Learn some basic phrases.

Not only will learning some basic phrases give you a jump start in learning the language, being friendly and polite does wonders for how people respond to you. Even in countries jaded by tourism, like Canada, speaking a handful of words will open up doors to new experiences you could never plan and that could never be outlined in any guidebook.

It’s shocking how few tourists even learn to say basic things in the native tongue, things like “please”, “thank you”, and “one more beer”. It’s not that hard. Be polite.

2. Speak early, speak often.

With your basic phrases, get out there and start speaking. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Speak clearly, deliberately, slowly.

You may not yet have the correct tone or inflection, but if you are careful, people will still understand what you say. Better yet, I’ve found when you do so that people will speak to you in-kind, slowly, carefully, in simple tenses without using lots of flowery language. In other words, it will help you with your listening comprehension, too.


I cannot emphasize enough how important listening is in learning a new language. Listen to pronunciation. Emulate it. You might even need to exaggerate pronunciation when you are first learning to get proper tone, stress, enunciation. That’s fine. Don’t be afraid of sounding like a buffoon.

The more closely you listen to native speakers, the more closely you will be able to speak and sound like them. It’s a sure way to accelerate your progress on the learning curve.

4. Keep your eyes open when having a conversation!

What? What does having your eyes open have to do with learning a language. Everything.

When you are having a conversation with someone, be attentive. Watch their mouth. What shapes does it make when they are pronouncing words? It will help immensely with your own pronunciation. It will also help keep you focused and listening to the conversation.

Watch facial expressions and hand gestures. These will help smooth over gaps in your vocabularly. These gestures are also important cultural devices. Is it okay to point at people? Can you wave at them without being rude, and so on.

5. Keep a language notebook.

Keep a notebook of the things that you learn. Review it when you have a few quiet moments. I use one notebook for every language that I learn. In each notebook, I have separate pages for distinct parts of speech. For example, I have pages for adverbs, adjectives, verbs, common nouns, prepositions, etc. On each page I write a brief note — in my own terms — about grammar rules for using that part of speech. I’ll describe my process more in a later post.

BTW, Rhodia notebooks are great for this purpose. I highly, highly highly recommend them, in particular the 5.5″ x 8.25″ gridded web notebook. They come in orange (great for finding in your bag) or black (slightly more sophisticated) with great quality paper and superb binding.

You can pick up the Rhodia Notebooks on Amazon. I like the 5×7 gridded variants.

That’s it! Five simple steps to get you started learning any language:

  • 1. Learn some basic phrases.
  • 2. Speak early, speak often.
  • 3. LISTEN!
  • 4. Keep your eyes open when having a conversation!
  • 5. Keep a language notebook

Why I’ve given up reading the Huffington Post

The Huffington Post used to be a great place for center-to-slightly left leaning news coverage.

Over the last five years it has continued to slide as a serious news source. During the holidays, I finally decided it no longer merited a stop during my daily news perusal. I stopped reading on January 1st and haven’t been back since. Here’s why.

1. The annoying click bait titles are annoying.

“You won’t believe what this politician said next.” or “The top nine foods you need to eat RIGHT NOW” simply does not qualify as journalism. Give me an informative title to judge if I want to read your content please.

2. The annoying featured ads inserted directly into news content are annoying.

This is particularly egregious on the mobile app with “Presented by…” some corporate sponsor and formatting to look like any other of their other low-brow click bait articles.

Which brings me to…

3. A vast majority of the worthy content on HuffPost comes from 3rd party sites anyways.

The HuffPost reposts things from the NY Times and other sites anyways. I prefer to get my content from primary sources.

There are a few select people I continue to follow on Twitter but I have pretty much wiped the HuffPost from my slate.

Since I’m not going news free, I’ve replaced it with a renewed subscription to Harper’s, The New York Review, and of course, the New Yorker. For breaking news, Twitter.