“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

冠状病毒 – The Coronavirus :-(

It is strange to think that about three or four weeks ago most people in countries like Portugal still did not think the coronavirus was a big deal. Most of us (including me) thought it was mostly the media feeding the flames of panic and hysteria. However, within a week, most people went from not worrying about it to not wanting to leave the house, and demanding the government to take stronger measures.

I wrote the first text below on March 8th. A few days before I had started to get a bit worried about the virus because a conference I was going to attend in May was cancelled. At the time, I was not convinced that it was necessary to cancel the conference, although it would be attended by hundreds of people from all over the world. However, only a few days after, I wrote the first text, and it is clear that I was already concerned about the virus, but not yet seeing what the situation would be like. Less than one week after that, my thoughts about the virus and the whole situation had completely changed. The second text was written two weeks after the first one.

Below are the texts I wrote in Chinese, corrected by my online teacher on Italki. It seems that the text was written by a child, but that is because my Chinese is still weak 😀

March 8th 2020


Coronavirus has arrived in Portugal. Coronavirus is not welcome! There have been more than a dozen infected people, and in my city there are sick people alredy.


I don’t think the virus is too dangerous, but if many people have the virus, maybe Portuguese hospitals can’t treat everyone. Besides, I take the bus every day, and I also work at a university. Because I have contact with many people every day, it gets more dangerous.

[…] 我讨厌这个病毒。我五月在一个其他的城市会有一个很大的会议,但是他们已经决定不会有会议,因为有病毒。 我希望在夏天的时候不会有病毒,因为我想要到荷兰旅行!

I hate this virus. I was going to attend a big in another city in May, but they have decided to cancel the conference because of the virus. I hope there will be no viruses in the summer, because I want to travel to the Netherlands!

March 22nd, 2020

外面天气很好,太阳很大,温度比较高。小鸟也在唱歌。看起来今天是完美的! 但是今天不是那么完美。所有的人应该在家里,不应该出去。从三月二号在葡萄牙有冠状病毒。 感染者越来越快速增加。 感染者已经增加到一千多人,已经有十四人死了。我觉得这样的情况会持续很久。

The weather is beautiful, the sun is shining, and it is warm. The birds are singing. It seems like the perfect day! But it is not perfect, because everyone has to stay home, they cannot go out. The coronavirus has been in Portugal since March 3rd. The number of infected people is increasing rapidly. The number of infected people has increased to more than a thousand, and 14 people have died. I think this situation will last for a long time.

幸好我不是一个人。而且我有一些目标,比如,提高我的中文。现在我有比较多时间学汉语,上网课,所以我可以开始准备, 然后考HSK 4。而且我有很多书。在圣诞节的时候,我的朋友和家里人送给我很多外语的书。现在我终于有空看这些书。我也有很多外国的朋友,现在我有机会跟他们聊天。我有空用skype跟他们交流。我跟我的男朋友也玩游戏。幸好我们在家里有阳台,我可以坐那里看街道或者一边晒太阳,一边写这篇文章。

Fortunately, I am not alone. Besides, I have some goals, such as improving my Chinese. Now I have more time to learn Chinese and take online courses, so I can start prepare for HSK 4. I also have many books. On Christmas, my friends and family gave me many foreign language books. Now I finally have time to read them. I also have many foreign friends, and now it is the opportunity to chat with them. I have time to Skype with them. I also play games with my boyfriend. Fortunately, we have a balcony at home. I can sit there and watch the street, or write this article while sunbathing.

April 3rd, 2020

The number of cases keeps on escalating all around the world. In Portugal, we are soon reaching 10,000 cases. I am sending virtual hugs to anyone out there who needs them, and wishing for the world to be over this crisis as soon as possible. I’m not really a Star Wars fan but… “May the force be with you”.