Mixing up languages is a question that comes up quite a lot. Many people are concerned about how to seperate languages in their heads, how to avoid embarassingly speaking one instead of the other, and how to reassure themselves that they can actually speak lots of different languages at the same time, rather than just their native tongue plus whatever’s relevant at the time.
I’ve been very fortunate with this. I’ve rarely ever mixed up languages, and have always relied on the different associations I have with each one to be able to navigate my way between them. Languages that are similar etymologically have never been similar in my head. Speaking Dutch is nothing like speaking German – it’s an entirely different world! And as for Afrikaans, well that’s already on the other side of the planet.
However there were some strange crossed wires that I discovered. The most distressing of these was between Spanish and Greek. These two languages are nothing alike. Their vocabulary and grammar structures are completely different. But somehow there was something that linked them both in my mind – the pronounciation was similar, the expressiveness, the reliance on body language, the culture and so on. It was the actual physical and psychological experience of speaking them that was similar, and that is where I got confused.
I had to learn to keep them apart, and so I worked hard on finding ways to differentiate the two languages in my head. Eventually, I found some: Greece is nothing like Spain on closer inspection (although anywhere with good weather is indisinguishable to someone from rainy old England), and the cultures are very different too. The pronounciation seems deceptively similar, but when I tuned in to the different rhythms of the languages I realised they were totally different too. While Spanish has penultimate stress as a default, stress in Greek can appear pretty much anywhere, and moves in order to change the meaning of a word. There is also no ‘ch’ sound in Greek (at least in my dialect), and Greeks have no problems saying names like Stephanos, which get an extra ‘e’ in Spanish.
But despite working all this out, there were still frequent occasions on which I would speak Greek in Spain or vice versa, and so I decided just to make a mental note that I get Greek and Spanish confused, and to be aware of that whenever I need to speak one or the other. Since then, I’ve never had this problem again. Until now.
My first trip to Budapest was for the Polyglot Conference where I didn’t speak much Hungarian and was so rushed off my feet speaking 11 other languages that I didn’t even notice. But before relocating here in August, I visited for a few days in June to make sure that I really did want to make this my next home. I’d been studying some Hungarian since my exams had finished, and I was super excited to try it all out. Walking down Budapest’s main Andrássy boulevard, trying to navigate my way across to the parliament, I stopped someone in the street and asked in my best Hungarian: “Excuse me, do you know the way to the parliament? Is it far from here?” Now, I’m used to receiving blank looks from unresponsive people in these situations – they either think ‘Ugh tourist’, or perhaps they’re just unresponsive people in their normal lives anyway – but this was like one I’d never seen before. It was one of complete perplexity, contemplation and indignation all at the same time. Without responding, the person just walked off.
A little stunned, I wondered what could have gone wrong. I replayed everything I’d said in my mind, and tried to scan it for errors. I found none. But then I realised that I had no idea what the Hungarian word for parliament was, or how to ask if something was far, or even really how to ask directions yet. Somehow, without thinking at all, I’d opened my mouth and spoken entirely in Hebrew. From being stunned I quickly turned to feeling a little shell shocked, as you often do when discovering the disparity between the reality and your perception of it. I must have created another crossed wire, although this time it was with two completely different languages, with absolutely nothing in common.
On another occasion at a restuarant, I found myself doggy paddling my way through some basic phrases with a waiter and with lots of success. However, this being Hungary, the service still left something to be desired, and when needing his attention I waved at him and shouted “Efshar lehazmin bevakasha?” This was to be the second appearance of that perplexed, indignant and concentrated expression, although this time accompanied by a crushing “What? Do you speak English?”. Horrified, I realised that I’d done it again. The link had just been made even stronger.
I had absolutely no idea how these two languages had got mixed up. Budapest couldn’t be further from Tel Aviv, and Hungarian couldn’t be further from Hebrew. I racked my brains trying to think of what these languages had in common – they both started with an ‘H’, but that was about it.
But then I started to wonder whether there might be another explanation. Hebrew was (until that point) my only non-European language. Hungarian was to be my second non-European language. Perhaps they were sharing the same, non-European language drawer of my brain, which whenever opened could result in either leaping out. Both Hebrew and Hungarian vocabulary had taken an exceptionally long time to learn (the Hungarian for ‘camera’ took an entire week: fényképezőgép) and there were few cognate words to give me a leg-up, as there had been with other languages I’d studied. So was it just that they were both hard and weird, and therefore the same?
It turned out that there were even more strange coincidences. The Hungarian word for yes ‘igen’ was uncomfortably close to the Hebrew ‘ken‘, which meant that I could easily slip into saying ‘ken‘ and then finishing the rest of my sentence in Hebrew. Then the Hungarian for this ‘ez‘ was also not too far from Hebrew ‘ze‘. And of course the Hungarian for what? ‘mi?‘ is exactly the same as the Hebrew for who? ‘mi?‘
So that might go some way to explaining it, but it didn’t solve the problem, which was getting worse. If I’d zone out and overhear conversations on the Metro, I’d often think they were in Hebrew, and this culminated in the visit of a Hebrew speaking friend from Poland, to whom I could only ever reply in Hungarian. So what is there to do?
I’m convinced that I need to seperate Hungarian and Hebrew in my mind. I need to get used to speaking them simultaneously, and consciously choosing between one and the other. So rather than panicking about this new development, instead I’ve decided to embrace it as a sign that it’s time to take my Hebrew to the next level. I’ve invested in a new textbook, I’m looking for a Hebrew teacher, and I’ve started exposing myself to the language more, by watching some of the TV shows recommended for language practice on this site. The idea is not to let one language simply replace the other, but to get them both to learn to live next to each other and co-exist in peace and harmony.
That said, I still freak out every time I watch an Israeli series with a scene in a shop where the actor doesn’t say “Köszönöm!“