Language learning is always a rocky road. With a lot of effort and hard work you can reach a level where you can use a second language with some confidence. Maybe even a third one. But perhaps not? This time I would like to share with you one of my personal experiences, but I’m absolutely sure that the phenomenon will be familiar to you as well.
I have lived in Hamburg for more than two months. I work in a totally international environment at bab.la and use three languages on a daily basis: Hungarian, English and German. So let’s see how it works in practice. I live in a German speaking country, I’m surrounded by the German language and I put some extra effort into improving my knowledge as well (tandems, exercises etc.). At bab.la I speak English during the day and sometimes I have to use English in daily situations because of the lack of my German vocabulary. At the end of the day comes Hungarian, when I speak with my family and friends. It looks easy, but it isn’t.
Many times I do not even realize that I’ve switched languages or used a foreign word or expression in the middle of a conversation. Moreover when I speak English or German and all of a sudden have to change one language to the other, I just freeze. So I tried to analyze this situation because the feeling – that you cannot even use one language properly – can be really frustrating.
Hungarian is my mother tongue, of course, with the deepest knowledge and biggest vocabulary, so I can express myself without any hardship or thinking. English is my second language; I’ve learnt it for years and have also used it for work. And then there’s German. I’ve learnt it for some years, attended some courses and now here is my opportunity to improve in Hamburg: that’s why I keep practicing every day, trying to widen my existing knowledge.
If I’m tired or careless it’s obvious that my Hungarian takes control. However, there are some expressions that are really location specific and that I don’t have Hungarian words for. It’s easy to understand, it sounds pretty normal. But the tricky part is mixing up two foreign languages and switching between them. When you learn a new language you combine the new words with the meaning in your native language, but if you learn your third language occasionally you link words to your second language because in some cases it’s easier to memorize. That’s the reason why if I don’t know a German word I just use an English one instead. My consciousness knows automatically that it’s not Hungarian, but it should be fine in the sentence. But the connection between the three languages is complicated. When switching between English and German you have to use your mother tongue, in my case Hungarian, as a common point in order to create an indirect bridge to connect the meaning of the sentence. (see on the figure)
Is there any solution? I’m still experimenting, but I really hope that this will work: now if I say anything either in English or German, I try to figure out how I should say it backwards.
If you also have such an experience, please share your opinions in the comments below!