14 August 2009

Fear of Losing French

As I see it there is a simple choice, either try to study two languages at once or accept that once learned a language will be forgotten if not used and will need to be revived at intervals.

My experience so far this year supports the second option: I went to Caen in June for the D-Day commemoration weekend and ended up helping a Chateau tour guide (who didn’t speak English) as a "better than nothing" translator (French into English) for a couple of hours. Immediately after this I met a trilingual friend and I couldn’t think of a thing to say to her in Spanish, even though I had emailed her in Spanish three days earlier.

The lesson: learning two at once doesn’t work for me, it might if I was surrounded by trilingual friends and lived in a trilingual country but I don’t. So the strategy I propose is to take short "holidays" from Spanish during which time I revive French, typically for a week or less before visiting France or a country where French is spoken. On return to England I go straight back to Spanish. I am not sure how this will work long term but for now I hope that French can take the hit of being put in second place for a couple of years.

2 comments to Fear of Losing French

  • Charmian

    Hi Bill
    I realise you posted this some time back, but am just wondering how you are getting on with learning your third language, because I am having real difficulties. My first language is English, my second Spanish (I have lived in Spain for over 20 years and I have a very high level) and a couple of months back I decided to brush up my schoolgirl French by enrolling in the Institut Fran├žais here in Madrid. The problem is that I totally block when speaking (no problem with writing) French, I mix French with Spanish if I do manage to get a sentence out and sometimes even find myself wondering which language “las” belongs to. I have been told that this is because my brain has organised languages into “native” (English) and “non-native” (all other languages)….
    Many thanks for listening,
    From a very frustrated third-language learner!

  • Hi Charmian

    I have the same problem. I was talking to some French friends recently and every so often I would notice a blank expression appear on their faces and realise that I had lapsed into Spanish. It doesn’t happen so much the other way unless it’s a word or phrase that I know without thinking from French.

    I recently bought a French/Spanish dictionary and started looking up words that I know well and use a lot in one language to see what they are in the other language. It seems to me that there are trigger words or phrases that make you switch tracks and it should be possible to neutralise them by learning their equivalents equally well.

    Some of my common triggers are siempre/toujours, il faut/hay que, il y a/hay and no matter how hard I try the odd oui or si tends to pop out at the wrong time.

    If you are into NLP techniques you could try using a visual method to separate the two languages. Without being too analytical ask yourself the question “where does French live?” your eyes and or attention will want to go in one direction. If you want to stay in French mode in future, keep glancing in that direction.

    I just tried that exercise with each of my languages: English took up the whole of my front view about 160 deg, French was slightly left of centre maybe 5 deg wide and Spanish slightly right of centre and slightly wider than French. Let me know if that works for you …

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Bill Ferguson
Bill Ferguson

Spanish Teaching Resources

Getting good quality teaching and resources

The information I am going to share is an honest account of what I have tried over the past year and my opinions are just that, opinions. I will share my likes and dislikes, what works for me and what doesn't. This is a personal experience, I am not an expert but if you share my ambition of learning to communicate in a third, foreign language, then maybe we can help each other along the way.

According to Friedrich Nietzsche: "One who speaks a foreign language just a little takes more pleasure in it than one who speaks it well. Enjoyment belongs to those who know things halfway."

I think he is right. Its hard to define halfway but I think the fun starts when you know enough of a language to be able to make yourself understood, given sufficient time to think. At this stage you are not merely tolerated but treated as an honoured guest in a foreign country. People see you bravely struggling to speak and understand, and give you credit for trying. They are nearly always kind and supportive.

Go beyond this to fluency and its like a toddler growing up, you are no longer cute and vulnerable. You are competing for resources, in the adolescence of language acquisition unless you have a definite role you are treated with suspicion. Maybe that is the stage to consider moving on to another new language ...

Getting good quality teaching and resources is vital to success: encouraged by an influential book by Harry Ferber I now view language acquisition as a military campaign, I need to use my resources efficiently to overcome all resistance, I need to capture vocabulary and not let it escape. I need to wear down the opposition by attacking daily and not allowing it time to regroup. I need to learn the predictable tricks that the new language will play on me and be ready for them (this means learning grammar). Like any military campaign good quality intelligence is vital.

Learning a Third Language

My current ambition is to be able to communicate comfortably in English, French and Spanish. I began to study Spanish in 2008. I have been a student of French, on and off, for about 30 years and up to last year ....read more

Strategic Planning

When I started to think about taking on a third language I realised I had two main worries: firstly I didn't want to lose my second language ...read more

Fear of Losing French

As I see it there is a simple choice ....read more