Thoughts about language learning

Sorry this might be long…
When I started year five at school I started to learn French, role on to year nine and German was added to the mix and once GCSE options came along I dropped French. Part of my reasoning at the time was that I was mixing German into French and I thought that was wrong and I needed to do one or the other. That is also to point out school language learning didn’t necessarily provide conversational confidence in either language. Years later I had a conversation about this thought process and was told it was actually a good thing as it was a part of language learning and it would all come separate in the end. Having spent the last six years learning Welsh and most of the last 15 years forgetting my German if I try to think of German I get a sentence half in German and half in Welsh.

This time last year I went to Tenerife and seeing the mixture of languages spoken spurred on my learning of Welsh. We have just come back from Tenerife again and seeing the fascination my five year old had in the different languages made me wonder is there a good time in the language learning journey when adding an additional language is ok? How does the separation of languages work?

I realise in talking in Welsh with my daughter and her attempts to correct I don’t have the ear for accents and I wonder how with any language I can ever get past my Midlands twang?

Thank you if you have read to the end I would love to know your thoughts.


Hi Theresa, Well a good long time ago I did French and German at A level. Those were the days when 75% of it was literature, and the language learning was heavily weighted towards grammar. Despite that, I was considered to have an aptitude for languages and was almost fluent in both. I must admit I don’t ever recall confusing the two languages. Anyway, all that’s long behind me now, any such ‘aptitudes’ have vanished without trace, and I am finding learning Welsh quite tough and slow-going.

I appreciate what Aran says about the thousands of synapses in the brain allowing language learning at any age and that we are - thankfully - all in principle capable of it; but I still feel that, as with most things from computers to rock-climbing, if you’re introduced to them when still fairly young and especially if you then stick to them, you’re more likely to build up more of an aptitude than if you first take them up later in life.

That being so, there’s little doubt in my mind that the sooner kids are introduced to a range of languages in as natural a way as possible, the more likely they are to pick them up. On the continent young people often grow up speaking two or three languages at once and, as far as I’m aware, don’t find any problems with this - though I’m willing to be corrected if others have first-hand experience.

These are just my personal thoughts. The question of accents is a tricky one and I’m afraid I don’t have any suggestions for that, others might have. Alan.


The “trick” (if there is one) with accents is probably to listen, really listen (ideally to first language speakers, or at least very experienced speakers), really well.

If one wanted to take it further, then I think recording oneself speaking, and then listening to it, and comparing it to a recording of a first language speaker saying the same thing, would be useful. However, I think that would be too intimidating for early stage learners. I’d consider that an advanced technique for people who really want to work on their accent.


Go for it, any time, any language… :slight_smile:

As for the separation - it seems just to be a matter of usage - there isn’t an academic consensus on it to the best of my knowledge (I’ve seen it as a talking point at academic conferences) - but I’ve never met anyone with conversational confidence in any language that is seriously interrupted by another language… :slight_smile:


raises hand (sorry!) I used to be a fluent, confident French speaker. I am now a fluent, confident Welsh speaker who struggles to get out even the simplest sentence in French. (Just come back from a few days in France, and it was immensely frustrating). I can, however, understand everything that is said, and can still read fluently. I know that the French is in there, and if I ever needed to use it again (who said it was a useful language?!) a week or so of immersion would get it flowing out again. But in terms of my speaking ability, the Welsh has definitely interrupted it (albeit temporarily).

I am hatching a plot to organise some sort of get-together with people that speak both French and Welsh to try to get me being able to switch from one to the other. Probably involving alcohol…


Very interesting - what was the longest amount of time you spent speaking French? We’ll have to crash test this the next time I’m in Cardiff :slight_smile:


Good point - probably about a month (in the 1980s!) But it never seemed to go away - I could slip into it at any time.

A crash test would have to involve beer … just warning you :wink:

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[quote="theresacorbett, post:1, topic:11706, full:true

I realise in talking in Welsh with my daughter and her attempts to correct I don’t have the ear for accents and I wonder how with any language I can ever get past my Midlands twang?

Thank you if you have read to the end I would love to know your thoughts.

Forgive me if this posting appears wrongly - I am not sure how to cite Theresa’s original words.
Hi Theresa,
I bet you are pretty busy with five year old and a full life, and how wonderful that she sees/hears you learning Welsh, and on a caring, respectful language journey that matters to you.

Personally a Midlands twang in a lovely person is a marker of belonging, heritage, associations deep and for your daughter (I am guessing here) something she heard in utero! (I can hate any accent that I come to associate exclusively with a bully.)

If your daughter is absorbing, acquiring Welsh in a Welsh locality, then she too will have a local twang, which - though you maybe cannot yet pick it out from other Welsh twangs - you will come to love and associate with happy times in that locality. You will never lose aspects of Midlands speech habits in any language, unless you are going in for high-level spying, politics, or possibly acting. Never hate your own accent, but do catch and celebrate yourself sounding like your daughter or another good role from a range you decide on. I like to try speaking English or Welsh like Huw Edwards; I need a North Welsh hero or two, though, as I am opting for North Welsh.

My English Dad (less my English Mum) insisted that his children growing up in Derry, NI should have BBC accents. Well, tape recordings exist of us all with Derry twang. (20-years-in-Derry-Dad with a West Mids Derry twang, my mother with a Yorkshire Derry twang. Twangs (to me) are lovable, and the days of dissing anybody’s twang are, imho, long past.

I remember that American Army kids in Derry, their accent, or a local Derry accent, would be disliked by one of our French teachers, but not at all by the French-born French mother-tongue teacher, who told us in the Division 2, class (less gifted?) about how her daughter (aged 5) stopped her reading “cows in the meadow” as “cows meed-oh”, and taught her “meddo”. How lucky are bilingual kids to be thus acknowledged & respected by their parents.

Mimicry is a skill like any other improves with (well received) practise, and relaxed play! Get your daughter to mimick you, and have fun mimicking all sorts of speakers in any language. Attune your ear to how the SSiW

Speech habits are habits of muscle use. French & Italian have great dexterity at the front of their mouths and ears attuned to making distinctions between vowels, even in rapid speech. Danish and Russian speakers swallow their words, by comparison - along with English they reduce many unstressed vowels to “uh”.

You need and I need to discriminate what habits and norms are particular to our current target language.

Aiming too much at accuracy in speech certainly gets in the way of fluency.

Speaking fluently in any accent is preferable to a speaker giving his/herself extra stress. Good speakers adopt local rhythms and pitch and intonation, too. Let them wash over you, and do them in English too, for fun, and with respect. (You may need to explain to others that it IS a language exercise).

Native speakers’ shortcuts will be those that do not obscure meaning, a “foreign” speaker is less aware of possible confusions. That is why SSiW is brilliant, emphasising what Welsh speakers REALLY say.

I think it is great when people speak really calmly and consistently. Our “as listeners’ ears” will attune to those we respect, amazingly quickly. No need to hide who you are.

Please ‘scuse this lecture delivered from the Black Country. Tararabit, duck.
I am new to this forum, but you hit a nerve, and I had to respond. No beating yourself up! Your unrepentant brain knows best! Love it!
Love to you. Thanks for posing your multi-faceted question.


I meant …rôle model… e.g. Huw Edwards

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Ah, that’s extra interesting info… and how long was the longest conversational period this last time in France?

Pan o’n i’n tua deunaw o’n i’n arfer honni bo’ fi angen tri diwrnod yn Ffrainc neu tri Pernod taswn i eisiau siarad Ffrangeg go iawn :slight_smile:
When I was about 18 I used to reckon I needed three days in France, or three Pernods, if I really wanted to talk French.


I’m rather similar. My Welsh, although quite good, isn’t nearly as fluent and complete as my German used to be. (I lived there for 6 years and used to have problems speaking English on the phone.) I still need to speak German quite a lot with my parents in law, who don’t speak English, but since I’ve been speaking lots of Welsh it has become a real struggle. It’s absolutely as if they are jostling for the same space in my brain, and can be really embarrassing! I find context helps - a certain person in a certain place can help it click, but it can still feel like wading through treacle. Trying to practise switching will be one of my next projects too.

Edit, to say that I’ll be there for 10 days from tomorrow onwards, so I’ll observe how it goes this time…

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Does it feel like the same experience the whole way through a conversation with your parents in law? Or is it worse at the beginning? How long to you tend to speak to them for?

I strongly suspect that practising switching is very valuable - I feel sure I move more easily between Welsh and Spanish than between Welsh and English, despite English still being what I would pick as my dominant language…

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I think the interesting thing is that some people seem to be able to switch languages fairly easily, and some find it really hard, for some reason. To relate it to the original question, I think you can only do kids a favour by letting them absorb several languages while their brains are young and malleable… I sometimes wonder if it is because of my monolingual childhood that my brain seems to have been formatted for just two languages - English and ‘other’. Reformatting it seems to be a painful process!

At home, I frequently need to talk to my mother in law on the phone for a good 20 mins or so, and I still tend to be wading through treacle at the end. (Well OK, I have to admit my heart isn’t always totally in it…)

However since arriving in Germany today, I have to say that it hasn’t been too bad. Context makes a big difference. But for something that used to be second nature, it is a ridiculous amount of effort. Today I felt like I was having to examine every word on the way out, question which language it is was, and translate if necessary - exhausting! And quite a lot of Welsh words still managed to sneak through the net and need hurriedly correcting.

I guess you can put a fair bit down to being out of practice of course, but it is also displacement. I still remember a really unpleasant experience, after the very first time I spent a whole afternoon speaking Welsh. I came home (from St Fagans) and my mother in law phoned up. I was by myself in the house, and I literally couldn’t find any German words at all! I couldn’t even explain that I was having problems - struck dumb, as if there was a wall in my brain - absolutely horrible!

I have definitely been building strategies since then, but if I wasn’t forced to do it regularly, I’m sure I’d still have problems putting two words together. On the other hand, it’s certainly something you can practise. (I’m resolving, as I write, to finally try and make a bit more of an effort!)

But as I said, there are millions of people who learn multiple languages without any problems at all - I think I’m pretty far down the bottom of the mix-up continuum!


Yup, I’d tend to think that a ‘not fully present’ 20 minutes or so is probably not enough to get the kinks ironed out - it’ll be interesting to hear how the next few days go for you, as you get some serious time under your belt again…

So far, both of these instances strike me as being about not having regular usage… :slight_smile:

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You have an answer for everything, Mr J!
I’m sticking to the displacement theory for now, in light of very limited evidence…

I still have a feeling there may be some reason that some people have more of a tendency to overwrite one language with another. I completely lost my school French when I later leant German. Someone like my husband, for instance, can happily pull out his rather imperfect school French at a moment’s notice after not using it all for at least 20 years, becoming extremely proficient in English and even learning a bit of Welsh.

(Not sure why I’m still arguing though! I really ought to be off to ymarfer some Deutsch now…) :slight_smile:

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One other factor here is also that just speaking on the phone in a non-first language is just about the most difficult language exercise there is, in my book! Especially if one is a bit out of practice.

Is there any chance you could arrange to Skype each other? If you could see each other might it make things easier?

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I think practice is the key thing with other languages.

Before starting with Welsh, French was my main second language. I was pretty much fluent on leaving school, as I loved the subject and used to put in so much work - I didn’t use it for the best part of 10 years after leaving, before picking it back up again… and arguably getting further than I did in school with it.

However because I only have a handful of French speaking friends - the language receeds into the back of my mind when I’m not using it (Aran will have a more technical term for what this is - but this is how I would describe it) - I know it’s there, and I know if really really needed, that I could get it out - but its all covered with some cobwebs and a bit of mould etc.

We visit France quite a lot, and if you take an average 3 or 4 day stay over there, my comfort with French always follows the same pattern:

Day 1: Making mistakes I know are wrong, slow speaking, stumbling.
Day 2: The old standards like asking for drinks, asking for food start sounding perfect again
Day 3: Chatting with general people feels comfortable again
Day 4: Back to the point where I’m not even thinking about and comfortably speaking about everyday things with complete strangers.

Welsh has come in there and changed things about - because my Welsh is a lot better than my French - and I think it’s kind of changed my thoughts on the level of my French? I always had a strong opinion of my French, but now when I compare it to my Welsh - it is poor in comparison.

The good thing is that I’m getting a chance to link my Welsh and French together nowadays as there’s a Welsh beginner who comes to our weekly session in town who is French born and she finds it easier to ask for help and everything in French, which keeps me on my toes.


I certainly wouldn’t claim this is impossible - a couple of the things I’ve seen on the intensive courses seem potentially similar - people seem to have different levels of ability with swapping words out of sentences (for some people, changing one word in a sentence is trivial, for others it requires building the whole way back up word by word) - also, people seem to have different levels of facility in terms of producing the language they’ve acquired (some people can go from input to conversation almost immediately, others need significant amounts of time practising reducing the level of prompt before they can start to produce).

It would be interesting to test levels of switching, particularly with people who feel that they can’t do it very well - perhaps a project for another day, though…:wink:

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Remember a couple (he was Swedish, she was Norwegian) and they raised their children in Thailand. The children where tri-lingual, but it took some years for them to be able to separate the languages. They could start a sentence in Thai and then finish it in Norwegian. So it is possible. Better being tri-lingual then mono-lingual.