Culture and Mentality

3 Surprising Challenges Of Speaking Foreign Languages

Yesterday, when I was trying to fall asleep I’ve heard my neighbors´ voices  on the street chatting about something in German. I tried to listen more carefully in order to understand what is the topic but could only grasp some separate words, not being able to figure out a meaningful context out of it.

This reminded me of how strange our brains are when it comes to language processing (though, our brains are weird overall not only “when it comes to”). I gave up on listening and fell asleep with a thought that I should write about this.

What I write further down, might seem obvious for people who speak several languages but in the end, these challenges are not so simple and straightforward. Another reason why I want to share it here is to remind myself as well as any others who might read this post, that it’s normal to be un-perfect in languages (and in anything else). Our brains are doing a big job to keep things smooth and nice but failures are part of the system. In reality, failures are only confirming the complexity of our brain.

Now, let’s go through the surprising challenges we face when speaking / learning / using a foreign language.

1. Language knowledge is not a constant

The biggest misconception about language is that linguistic skills are a given. You’ve earned an A2/B1/C1 certificate, so you are expected to conform to the achieved level.

Not only is that untrue in terms of the definition of each language level, e.g. you might understand the reading to the level of C1 but speak only to the level of B1. Then, overall, you might have something in between, like B2.

But what is surprising and so annoying is that your language abilities are constantly fluctuating depending on many factors.

I can recall dozens of situations happening within a short period of time when some times I was speaking French or German to someone, and that person was amazed how good my skills were and how barely noticeable my accent was vs. other times when upon the first couple of phrases the person switched to English, assuming that my knowledge in her language is so poor that English would be the easiest way to communicate.

This does not depend only on the kindness or strictness of the person.

It is an objective truth that sometimes I speak well; I can seamlessly find great words and constructions, easily pronounce words imitating the local accent. And other times, my speaking is just miserable, I forget simple words, “translate” things literally from my native language, and my accent is disastrous.

I’m sure you would recall feeling similar even when speaking your native language. Our eloquence here also fluctuates. But with the “acquired” language this effect is multiplied by X times. I guess X depends on your experience and with time it decreases, but it’s still there.

The factors interfering with our language proficiency are simple: they are either related to our physical state (tiredness vs recovery) or related to our emotions (upset, stressed, insecure vs inspired, confident, motivated).

Practice, time, and self-confidence should help to partially overcome it; but not less important is to be aware of these variables and accept it.

2. “Decipher the whispers”

The second trap that not many are aware of is a whisper. Or any other obstacles for hearing words clearly.

This is exactly the case I described at the beginning of the article when I couldn’t decipher what exactly my neighbors were chatting about.

The common misconception about language learning is that we learn 1) vocabulary and 2) grammatical structure.

With this, a whole universe of things our brains are processing when learning the language is being omitted. In fact, when we learn a language:

  • we’ve got to identify where one word ends and other begins;
  • we learn the cadence, the pitch;
  • we have to re-build neural network from scratch because things do work differently in the foreign language, especially if this language does not belong to your language family;
  • to pronounce words, our speech systems have to be re-wired, new muscles built.

All these things are very subtle and require much more brain plasticity than our adult brains have (alas!).

This is the reason why fully getting rid of the accent is so difficult.

Ok, but what’s wrong with whisper then? It looks like hearing a whisper in the other language is more challenging than in yours. It might have to do something with the different tonality that is used during whispering so that our brain has to interpret more than usual in order to get a clear picture.

The same happens when the voice is heard from afar, or when there are many people are speaking at the same time.

I guess that even if we hear only 50% of words in our native language, our brain still can build up the whole scene because we know well all the possible connections between words, its collocations, and context when it is used. So, we do a lot of interpretation and guessing without even noticing this – and generally, it works out fine.

We cannot do the same in the foreign language simply because we didn’t have the same amount of exposure to the language as with our mother tongue and could not build all those connections.

No surprise that what feels usual and normal with your maternal language, is tricky in others.

3. Multitasking in the foreign language

And this last point that I think is already self-explanatory. Multitasking in a foreign language is not a piece of cake.

The foreign language uses a lot of operative memory in your head and therefore requires more focus.

I am always listening to podcasts or watching (actually listening to) the videos when doing my daily chores – from taking a shower to arranging the apartment.

I noticed that listening to the podcasts in English or French (which are the languages I feel more comfortable with) do not bother me so I can relatively easily concentrate both on the content of the podcast and my other “physical” task. However, when I listen to a podcast in German or Spanish AND doing something else, my mind often goes into a daydreaming mode, where I miss parts of the discussion without even noticing it.

The same happens when I visit friends speaking my “less developed” languages:

As soon as I am distracted from the conversation I would not get almost anything in the background. I have to make a mental “effort” to be present and to understand everything.

To a certain degree, the same happens even to the Russian, which is my mother tongue but it’s remarkably easier to put the Russian language in the background tasks.

Fazit? (= “conclusion” in German)

Our brains are fascinating, and speaking or learning the foreign language is just another way to discover the beauty and immensity of it.

night sky with bright star

The picture of the sky full of stars taken from the village in Switzerland

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Last week, Rhineland region celebrated a carnival, and today I want to tell you some things I know about this interesting German and not only German event.

Disclaimer: My knowledge of German and other carnival traditions is far from being complete and mostly related to my personal experience: I’ve seen and heard something here and there.

February-March is the season of carnivals all over the world. It seems to me that almost every country has it in one form or another. At the same time, carnivals are so diverse from one place to another, that two nearby cities can have totally different traditions for the carnival.

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What is the Relation Between Closed Shops on Sundays, Religion and Respect of the Individual?

Sunday morning I spent some time searching for an open bakery in the center of Bonn in order to buy the freshly baked bread for the Christmas Eve dinner. For the next three days, Germany will not show any signs of life – the streets are empty, all the businesses and shops, including the supermarkets, are closed. That is the law.  

In Germany, as in many other European countries, the religion keeps playing an important social role, so numerous laws and rules apparently still based on religious grounds.

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