“Unzipping” languages in your brain

Author: Inês Carvalho

I sometimes use a metaphor to talk about language learning that depicts the inability to simultaneously use all the languages you’ve learnt in “full potential”. I’ve talked with other polyglots and they share similar experiences. For example, let’s imagine that you speak French at an upper-intermediate level and Italian at a pre-intermediate level. You decide to put in a lot of effort to improve your Italian, but after a few weeks, you realize you’re struggling more than before with French. The metaphor that I’ll introduce you to also covers that phenomenon of feeling that you forgot a certain language and that it’s all lost forever, but after a few hours of practice you’re back on track.

At Mundolingo, “unzipping” languages

Maybe someone else has already thought of this metaphor before, but I consider that it’s something worth discussing, if only to alleviate the pain of those language learners who delved into another language only to, weeks later, find out that their language skills in all their previous languages have apparently become impaired.

Bear in mind that this metaphor has no background in neurolinguistics, and that I’m using it to rather describe a feeling that I often have when learning foreign languages. Now, to the metaphor. Imagine that your brain is a computer and that your language knowledge is stored in folders. For the sake of convenience, and because you need some of these files and folders on a daily basis, they are unzipped on your brain desktop. In my case, the unzipped folders on my “brain” desktop are: the Portuguese folder, which I use every day; quite a lot of the files in the English folder, since I need them for work and entertainment; the Spanish files for daily communication with my Mexican exchange students; and all the Italian files, because I am learning it at the moment and I watch YouTube videos in Italian every single day before falling asleep.

Now let us check the other folders, which are compressed: German, a large folder, lots of vocabulary and grammar inside, can be rapidly unzipped but some old files may have been lost; Swedish, a smaller folder, not very well organised somehow. It looks like it is going to be hard to unzip unless you pre-heat the computer – wait, you don’t do that to computers, do you? Never mind, it is just a metaphor anyway. And then there is the French folder. The Dutch folder. The Mandarin folder. The Latin folder. The Japanese folder. The Russian folder. The Esperanto folder.

So I am here in Lisbon and you tell me that there is a cool language exchange going on around the corner tonight. I’m all excited about it, of course I’m going. Will there be any Swedes? I definitely miss speaking Swedish! Of course, I also want to practice my Italian since that’s my focus right now.

We arrive at the bar where the language exchange is taking place. A tall blond person sitting shy at the corner. That must be a Swede! I approach them. “Hej hej”, I say. They reply and ask something, but my Swedish is so unbelievably rusty! I even manage to confuse Esperanto pronouns (“ni” first person plural) with Swedish ones (“ni” second person plural) and that makes me feel awful. Have I really lost Swedish? No, wait, don’t even think of switching to English! That’s nice of you, such a polite Swede, but we are NOT going to have this conversation in English! It’s just that it takes some time to unzip the Swedish folder. Please, be patient. Tack. Let me listen a bit to you speaking Swedish, let me think in Swedish while we’re at it and let me feel it again. After some minutes it is going to be much better, still a little bit rusty, I’ll still have to think a lot, but you’ll have no excuses to switch to English. Keep talking to me please, I can understand what you say, it is just that “unzipping the files” is taking longer than usual. Another beer, please. Or maybe not, my Spanish friend told me that my Spanish does not get any better after a few beers. Maybe we just lose the ability to notice our mistakes and stop worrying about grammar details.

We have now been talking for a while in Swedish, haven’t we? It’s now flowing much better than at the beginning. For my Swedish to reach its full potential I would probably need a couple of hours, but it’s a language exchange after all, maybe we should go and try talking to other people too. Just let me exchange Facebook profiles with this Swede.

Now you introduce me to your Dutch friend. You told him before that I could speak Dutch. Yes, you are totally right. I could. But then I started learning Swedish some years ago and now the Dutch is all gone. I cannot unzip that folder. It says that the files are corrupted, what can I do? This time I won’t even try. I politely say something in English to your friend and then from the corner of my eye I spot some people doing a lot of gestures and laughing very loudly. They might be Italians, let’s go and check!

After two hours, on our way home, you are puzzled. “Why didn’t you try to speak Dutch?”. I reply that I might have completely forgotten how to. “Why don’t you try to have it back?”, you ask. Well, I’m afraid that if I try to fix it, I’ll damage my Swedish files. I could have a simple conversation in Dutch a few years ago, but after living in Sweden I’ve never been able to speak Dutch again – not that I’ve tried that much anyway. Well, my fear is that if I learn Dutch again, it’ll negatively affect my Swedish – and I really don’t want to lose it! “Oh but that makes no sense according to your ‘zipped folders’ metaphor”, you say. “You just have to be careful not to unzip the Dutch folder into the Swedish folder”. Now I can’t even understand what you’ve just said implies in practical terms. I got caught in my own metaphor.

But what you said did get me thinking. So tonight, before going to bed, instead of watching Italian videos on YouTube, I’m choosing a very easy Dutch video for beginners.  Of course I’m able to understand it, I’ve never stopped being able to understand it. But this time I am pausing, I am taking the time to internalize every sentence that appears on the screen. Suddenly, a grey window appears somewhere in my brain: “Unzip file?”. And I click “Yes”. I fall asleep with a confident smile. There might still be hope for my Dutch after all!

Written in 2017

Language exchange & integration in a community

Moving to a new city or country can be challenging! Not speaking the local language further increases this challenge.

Marco, from Italy, came to Lisbon to do his Master’s in Psychology. For almost two years, he has been taking part in the language exchange meetups that I organize. Meanwhile, we have become good friends! After defending his Master’s dissertation, he wrote this text to let other people know how taking part in the language exchange meetups has helped him make new friends, and feel integrated in a new country. Besides, I have always seen him actively practicing Portuguese, English and Spanish at these events.

I challenged Marco to write a testimonial in a foreign language about his experience… Marco chose to write in English (I guess Portuguese is now too easy for him!) and here it is:

“First of all, I want to write down these lines in order to thank Inês for her initiative and her willingness to provide this opportunity to every expat living in Lisbon, and her enthusiasm every day we met. I say this, because I have met here most of my friends in Lisbon, who have been sharing their days with me.

It was so nice to be surrounded by people from all over the world, every two weekends, with a special “carinho” [let’s translate is as “affection”] for all the Brazilians that made my days so beautiful. I used to be, since the first Language Exchange in Intendente (I CANNOT forget it !!), wondering every day to live again this event and merge into it.

This event has a special power. It makes you feel connected to everybody, and it lets you feel the others as a mirror of the parts of your Self that you have yet to discover.

Opportunities like this should be provided by schools and by society for children and teenagers, in order to make us appreciate the beauty of human diversity from a young age, as a kind of pleasant vaccination against hate and racist speeches promoted by dominant classes, in order to manipulate the class conflict from the bottom and not from the top.

Marco, Italy”

Whether you are new in Lisbon or not, join the next language exchange! To find out more about languages and inclusive cities, check SPEAK’s website.

How to have a fruitful language exchange

Author: Inês Carvalho

Have you ever participated in a language exchange? It can be a lot of fun! It’s all about meeting interesting people from many different countries, speaking different languages and making new friends.

There are many different kinds of language exchange. In some events, there are tables assigned to a specific language, or to language pairs (e.g. English-Portuguese, Spanish-Portuguese), in other cases there are no tables and you choose who you want to interact with. Mundolingo has an interesting system, where participants use flag stickers to show which languages they can speak and which ones they are trying to improve. You can also have your own language exchange with a friend that speaks your target language and whom you help improving in their target language. This article is about language exchange events where you have different physical areas (such as tables) assigned to specific languages, and how to benefit the most of these events in terms of language learning (but there are many other benefits besides the language learning aspect).

SPEAK Language exchange at Casa do Impacto

If you have zero passive knowledge of a language, don’t expect that you will learn a lot at such an event. What I mean is that if you don’t understand anything in that language (let’s say you’re Portuguese and want to learn Japanese from scratch), it’s very unlikely that you will learn more than just a few words at such an event. That’s because most of the participants are not teachers and they don’t know how to “teach” the language from scratch. However, if you don’t speak a language but can understand a little bit (imagine you’re Spanish and don’t know any Portuguese), you might be able to learn a lot because you can understand what people say to some extent and take part in the conversation. My point is not that you should only come to the event if you already speak the language, but rather that you should adjust your expectations. It might still be great to get to know native speakers of your target language, make friends with them and learn a few words – maybe in the future you will be able to speak back to them in their mother tongue! If you’re a beginner taking the first steps in a language, another approach is to be proactive and bring with you a text or some words and ask a native speaker to help you read and pronounce them, or bring some questions/answers that you would like to practice . This way, it will be easier for your language partners to help you out in such an informal context.

Italian notes I took at one of the events

If you’re really focused on improving your language skills, I suggest that you bring a notebook with you to write down new words, “false friends”, and all the corrections you get (or just use your phone to take notes). This implies not only noting down words, but sometimes whole sentences. This is a great way of learning grammar structures. Always check if your spelling is correct after taking notes. At home, look at these words again every now and then, so that they slowly stick to your brain.

Another important aspect is asking your language partners to correct you, and thanking them whenever they do that. If you’re talking a lot and don’t get any corrections, you will intuitively assume that you’re speaking correctly, and the wrong structures and words will be “fossilized” in your brain (“fossilization” is actually a concept in linguistics). Once fossilization occurs, you are more likely to repeat the same mistake over and over again, believing that you’re speaking correctly. It will also be harder to get rid of this mistake in the future.

I believe that the best way of improving is to set times for specific languages, i.e. 15 minutes for Portuguese, 15 minutes for French. People are more likely to speak their target language, while their language partners answer back in their own target language. It also works well, but I still think that it is important to listen to people speaking their mother tongue.

In some kinds of events (at least the ones I organize), arriving early also guarantees better opportunities of being paired up with someone that speaks the language you’re interested in. At the end of the event, don’t forget to ask people for their phone number or Facebook addresses so that you stay in touch!

Finally, let’s not forget one of the most basic rules of language exchange etiquette, which is helping your language partners by also giving them the opportunity to practice their target language with you (assuming that you speak the language they’re trying to learn).

If you live in Lisbon, these are some of the Facebook groups where you can find more information about language exchange events. Have fun!

Language Exchange Lisbon: This group is managed by me. I share here the free events that I organize for SPEAK (usually on Saturdays) and other cultural and language-related events that take place in Lisbon.

SPEAK Lisbon – Language & Culture Exchange: SPEAK has several Language & Culture Exchange events, and not only in Lisbon. I organize some of the Lisbon events, but there are more events organized by other people. They also offer language courses!

MundoLingo Lisbon: There’s a language exchange meetup every Tuesday at Anjos70. You pay €2 the first time you go and then it’s free.

BlaBla Language Exchange: They used to have meetups on Thursdays, but I think that the last ones have been on Wednesdays. You should register beforehand.