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!