In a number of previous articles about language acquisition, I have talked about the concept of linguistic boxes, in order to learn multiple foreign languages. My idea is that, as we learn each new language, we must create a separate box for it in our brain. And if we keep these boxes distinct, we will not have interference from one language to the next.

A language teacher wrote me to say that she had read the article, but had some questions about the linguistic boxes concept.

She wrote: “As an ESL teacher (I’ve learned 6 languages to some degree in my life), I have commonly gotten the question from my Mexican students, ‘I know German and English/French, German, English, but I always mix them up. How do I stop doing that?’  Your explanation is interesting, but it doesn’t clarify how to create those boxes, especially if you’re creating them after learning 2 languages AND as an adult!”

Since many readers have expressed similar concerns about learning or teaching multiple languages, I have written this article.

The boxes will form best if you don’t translate in your brain. You have to condition yourself to think and use only the foreign language. When your Spanish teacher says “hija,” you can’t think “daughter.” You just know that “hija” is a daughter. You have a picture of it, a concept, but not the English word “daughter” in your head.

If you learn German, then you remember that “Tochter” is daughter, as a concept, not as the translation of an English word.

German and Spanish or Chinese and Italian are so far away from each other, it’s not possible to confuse them. But students often complain, “Teacher, I had two semesters of German once, and now I can’t learn Spanish.” This is preposterous. There is no way to confuse these two. And the students who utter these complaints are generally not fluent in the language they claim is causing the interference.

If you are not fluent in a language, how can it cause interference in learning a second or third or tenth foreign language? The answer is that they must be translating in their head. If they learned their foreign languages through a translation method or store them in their brains, organized by translated meaning, then any foreign language could cause interference. And the more languages you learn, the harder it will be to keep them separated.

You have already told your brain that “daughter” is “hija.” Now, you are telling your brain, sometimes, “daughter” is “Tochter.” And later you will tell your brain that “daughter” is “nu er” and “con gai” and, on and on. Obviously your brain will get confused. In fact, I almost think you could set up linguistic schizophrenia where your brain says, “First you told me ‘daughter’ was ‘hija.’ Now you are telling me ‘daughter’ is ‘con gai,’ I don’t believe you anymore because you keep lying to me.”

This brings us back to one of my central beliefs about language learning. If you never translate, you will learn faster. If you never translate you will not get confused. If you never translate, you will speak more naturally and communicate better.

Germans don’t translate from English to German in order to speak German, so why do we?

Also, how could your Spanish, or any other language, interfere with your German unless you are translating? If you train your mind to stay within the German box, then no other language could possibly enter your thoughts or your speaking or writing.

When the Spanish student tells you, “This weekend I went to visit my fathers.” The only explanation for this error is that he is translating the word “padres” as “fathers.” Literally, “padres” does mean “fathers,” but in practice “padres” is “parents.” In Spanish, when you have a plural, composed of males and females, you use the male plural. So, two people madre plus padre equals padres.

The native Spanish speaking student only made this mistake because he was translating directly, rather than functioning in his English box. If you look at any basic English textbook, the word “parents” comes up a lot. So, the students have definitely been exposed to it. And most students, over the course of a lifetime, don’t have a straight line progression of doing English book 1, followed by English book 2…straight on through graduating college. Instead, at various times in their lives they have probably worked with more than one English book or attended more than one basic English course. They may have had one or more basic courses in school and one or more at private language academy, and then again at university… By the time they are adults they have seen a chapter called “Your Family” ten times. And in that chapter, they learned the word “parents.”

And yet, even college educated, adult, native speakers of Spanish who complete a BA in the US will still occasionally say, “I went to visit my fathers.” Or “my uncles” or other similar mistakes. And the reason why is because they didn’t build an English box early on. ALSO, they were taught a bad translation at the beginning of their studies, and it stayed with them.

Part of the proof of this bad translation model is that English native-speakers, learning Spanish, don’t have a particular problem remembering to say “padres” for “parents.” They make a lot of other mistakes, but not that one. The reason why is that, remembering to say “parents” in English is conceptually very different from just adding an “s” to the word for father. So, in this instance, the English native speaker was forced to just accept something that didn’t follow a rule, but the Spanish speaker was trying transplant his logical Spanish grammar rule to English.

I have never taught German to Spanish native speakers. I would be curious to know if Spanish native speakers make the mistake of saying “Vaters” for “parents” in German. Somehow, I imagine that they don’t, because it is so far away from their Latin grammar logic that they wouldn’t try to transplant it.

If you have experience in this field, teaching languages other than English to speakers of other than English, please write me.

When you work with professionals who are non-native speakers who completed their law degree or advanced degree, MBA or PHD in USA, you may hear them make some mistakes in grammar and simple vocabulary, but they generally don’t make any mistakes when talking about their field of study. If they are a PHD in physics, they can talk physics all day and use words that native English speakers don’t know. And the reason is that during that part of their education, they were no longer translating. The first time they learned those words and subjects was at university in America, so they never meshed it up in their brain with a Spanish equivalent. And depending on what their native tongue is, there may not be a corresponding word, or at least, they may not know the word in their native tongue. So there is no interference.

As for interference from L3, L4, and L-infinity, the same student who said, “I can’t learn English because I had two semesters of German, and I get confused,” this student has no problem talking about physics and obviously the two semesters of German don’t interfere with his English anymore.

His physics knowledge is in a box all alone and there is no interference from outside.

Going in the other direction, Americans learning Spanish or another foreign language:

Earlier, I explained a common mistake that native speakers of Spanish make, saying “fathers” instead of “parents.” My explanation was: “Literally, padres does mean fathers, but in practice padres is the plural of parents and when you have a plural, composed of males and females, you use the male plural. So, two people madre plus padre equals padres.”

If I were teaching Spanish, I would not teach my English native speakers this logical explanation. First off, to teach them this, I would have to speak English, taking time away from their Spanish lesson. Next, by teaching them facts in English, about Spanish, we would be preventing them from building a clear and solid Spanish box. If you talk to a Spanish native speaker and ask him why “parents” is “padres” and not some other word, he probably wouldn’t immediately spit out the rule that I quoted above. But an English native-speaker learning Spanish would.

Does knowing this rule mean that the English-native speaker speaks Spanish better than a Spanish native-speaker? No, of course not. Does the fact that the Spanish native-speaker doesn’t know the rule mean that he makes mistakes when speaking Spanish? Also, no.

So, why bother learning the rule? Can’t we just learn to use, “tios,” “padres,” “abuelos”….and accept that these are the Spanish words, and use them as a Spanish native-speaker would? And if we chose this route, couldn’t we then, in a separate box remember that in German it is “Tante und Onkel,” “Eltern,” and “Großeltern.”

If we learned all of these words, or these concepts and just accepted them, and never translated them, and put them in their own separate boxes and used them without thought or without trying to follow a rule, as native speakers do, we wouldn’t have any interference.