One of the aspects of learning more than one language that I have found difficult over the years is being able to jump from one language to another.
A while back I described the frustrating experience of happily speaking Welsh with friends and neighbours one week, having an Esperanto-speaking visitor come to stay for a few days, then opening and closing my mouth like a goldfish whenever anyone spoke to me in Welsh as my brain had completely switched into Esperanto and refused to go back!
I went to the Polyglot Gathering this time last year in Berlin, and my head was swirling – words from different languages jumbling themselves up in my brain so I didn’t know what language to speak at all!
What to do about it?
After giving it some thought I realised, of course, that the only way to master any skill is to practise it. If I wanted to be able to swap easily from one language to another, then that’s what I needed to practise. So I set about forcing my brain to cooperate: reading in Esperanto while listening to the radio in Welsh, sitting down to a Duolingo session practising one language after another, reading in one language and thinking how I would say that in another … and slowly, slowly it started to work.
It felt like my brain was physically resisting at first, then some kind of barrier went down – or perhaps a different neural pathway opened up – and all of a sudden it became a whole lot easier.
Today I put my new skill to the test. After a whole week immersed in Welsh helping to run a SaySomethinginWelsh.com ‘bootcamp’ in Tresaith, I came home and welcomed Spanish-speaking AirBnB guests. We started chatting in English, discussing language learning in general – a common interest. I was asked about Esperanto and was able to produce a few Esperanto sentences without too much thought.
Then we decided to switch into Spanish! I was a bit rusty at first, but I didn’t have that ‘concrete in the head that won’t budge’ feeling that I used to get trying to swap, and lo and behold, the Spanish came flooding back and there I was chatting away in Spanish! Was I pleased with myself! Lucia is keen to improve her English so we’ve agreed to have language exchange sessions over Skype moving forward, selecting a topic beforehand so we can both research the vocabulary we need, then spending 15 minutes or so discussing the topic in one language, then the other.
And after my guests left, I immediately went back to thinking in Welsh! I might not be in the same category as some of the polyglots I’ve met, but I feel like I’ve climbed another rung of the ladder, and I’m definitely not slipping back down!