I would like to tell the world that in the early 1990s back at the UW, I studied more than one langauge at the same time. In fact, it was my policy; taking both French and Spanish was exactly what I wanted to do. There was one point when I added Italian to the mix so that I could do the UW’s Rome Program. Anyway, the point is that semester after semester, I was studying two or sometimes three different languages at the same time; often on the same day.
People used to ask me, “Don’t you mix them up? Don’t you confuse them? Don’t they interfere with each other?”
And my answer was, no, not really. Then people would either look at me like I was a super genious (I’ve never been a super genious) or tell me that it was impossible, and that I must be lying somehow.
I don’t really know what their theory of language was. They must have believed that the human brain is a finite container, and that a one language filled a normal brain to capacity. My Linguistics 120 class taught me that we haven’t really found a ceiling on the number of languages a human could learn, but maybe I was the only one who got that memo. In other words, if there is a limit on the number of languages a human brain can hold, science hasn’t found it yet.
For me, speaking a language is just a habit, and we conjugate verbs by habit, the same way a basketball player has a habit to dribble a ball. Is there a limit to a number of sports someone can learn to play? If someone is a tennis player, does the tennis knowledge interfere when that person tries to play basketball? Are there stern warnings against learning too many sports or too many games? Is there a danger that a football player might get confused and start dribbling the ball?
Anyway, for me, French is an entirely different game than Italian; Italian is a different game than Spanish. So no, I don’t mix them up. Sometimes, when I’d be teaching a Spanish class and the bell rings and five minutes later my Chinese class is in the room, yes, I absolutely called a Chinese student “Señorita” or “Señor.” Does that count as mixing up the languages? Because it doesn’t seem very significant. Nobody seemed to care, not me, not my students. I feel like in those quick-switch situations, I wasn’t “mixing them up;” it just had a different langauge handy at that very second. I mean, so what if I call an English speaking lady “Señora,” or say “Hola” to a Chinese person? Everybody survives. Literally everybody survives.
I remember one time when got a paper back in Spanish class back in college. I had written, “he oído hablar que…” or something and the prof marked it wrong and wrote “Interference from French.” And I thought, this prof is a dick. We were in a Spanish class because we were learning how to speak Spanish; if I used a French structure it was because I DIDN’T KNOW THE SPANISH STRUCTURE. It was a strategy. But he called it “interference” as if my French habit was damaging my Spanish. Honestly, literature professors are not qualified to diagnose stages of language learning. I still think poorly of that prof (although I learned a crapload about Latin American short story in that class).
People love the theory of language interference, they love it like a dog loves a bone. Whenever I take a new language class, it doesn’t matter if it’s Spanish or Korean or German, there is always some precious snowflake who answers the instructor in French, and the breaks into English and explains that they took 6 years of French and French is just on their mind, and guh, it’s so hard to speak Chinese now because French is crippling them. Later I speak to them in French and find out that they don’t actually speak French; their Chinese is being blocked by a langauge THEY DON’T EVEN SPEAK.
I don’t believe in interference. I don’t believe that knowledge of one langauge is ever a detriment to learning another. I don’t think that langauge learning is ever bad.
When people ask me how many languages they can take at once, I tell them, “as many as you believe you can handle.” If they believe they can handle only one at a time, then they’re probably right, but it’s their personal limitation, not a biological one.
And when people tell me about getting “confused” with too many languages, I always wonder, do they know someone who is so “confused” with many languages that they are disadvantaged in life? Are there YouTube videos of genuinely language-confused people whose lives are ruined by too many languages? Have you heard of a single person? Sure, they say, this person speaks English with a horrible accent, they say, but in that case, it’s not someone that’s genuinely “confused.” It’s usually the case that they’re not good at English. Anyway the point is “confused with too many languages” is NOT A REAL AFFLICTION.
Finally, there are people who create monolingual policies for their children, because they don’t want their kids to be “confused.” Folks, little kids learn language like a superpower. Confining a kid to one language because you are afraid of confusion is like forbidding Superman to fly because you’re afraid he might fall. It’s adults that tend to suck at language learning; it is a shame that they project that onto their kids. Also, you might want to remind those parents who fear multilingualism that they haven’t read a single book, article, blog, tweet, nutrition label, or fortune cookie about raising multilingual kids before they sentenced their child to monolingualism.