#AskLucaAnything Episode 2 – similar languages, counting and pronunciation (PT,DE,IT)


“How do you keep similar languages apart (i.e Spanish/Portuguese Italian/French, Dutch/German)?” (PT) Elliot Van Cayzeele

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It is a very interesting question. I believe that at the beginning, when you know a language and you start learning a similar one, a certain degree of overlapping is inevitable. That happened to me when I started learning Dutch after learning German for 5 years, and the same happened with Portuguese when I started learning Spanish or – to a lesser degree, when I started learning Polish after learning Russian. The syntax and morphology of a language has a personality. When the syntax (and morphology) of 2 languages is similar, we tend to lean on the syntax of the language we know well to speak the other, and this causes interference. To give you an example, if you know Spansh well and you have just started speaking Portuguese, you might say “tenho que voltar a Roma” because in your head you have “tengo que regresar a Roma”, but in Portuguese you should say “tenho que voltar para Roma”.

This interference becomes weaker when I start “living” the new language, incorporating the experience of talking to people, observing the way the move their face and hand and the way they communicate through sounds and with their body. Although I am not a neuroscientist, I think that the reason why this happens is because the brain tends to associate facts, people, events, sounds, words and gestures. We start developing a specific side of our personality in a specific language that hinges on these elements. I once heard that to speak various languages, we always use the same “circuitry”, certain neural patterns. Imagine a highway in which different cars can drive. If 2 cars try to get in the same highway, it can create interference, some sort of “traffic jam” in our heads. Developing specific sides of your personality with specific languages means to being able to send just one car at a time down the highway. The more defined the sides of your personality are, the lesser the interference.

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“I actually have 3 questions 1) What language do you think in? If you have to make a list fo rthe supermarket or think of how to fix a problem in your house, in which language do you usually do it? Does it depend on the country you are in or on the people you are with? Which language do you use to count? From eperience I have  seen that even people who were brought up can only comfortably count money/do maths in their first native language. How is it for you? Why don’t you learn Aabic? I have seen several polyglots on YouTube, but Arabic speaking polyglots seem to be largely missing. Is there any reason for it? It just surprises me since it is one of the major languages in the world (DE)” – Artemisia Gentileschi

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That’s another interesting question. It really depends on the situation, the place and the people I am with. If I am in Italy and I have to go to the supermarket by myself, the first language will surely be in Italian, but if I am with a friend, I might think in the language that we share. If I have to fix a problem in my apartment, the same thing applies. Here in Italy I would think in Italian. When I was in France, I had to think in French, because I had to explain things to the plumber by phone or in person.  It was the same thing if I needed to buy something. So, yeah, it depends mostly on the place I find myself and the people I am with.

When it comes to counting, I always do it through Italian. I don’t know why, but it takes me a lot for me to think in numbers in other languages, when I was attending the interpreting school in Paris, I found out that numbers are also a big problems for interpreters, because the process requires and extra “step”.  We often have to first  recognize the the number in our native tongue, and then translate it mentally into the target language, and then same them out loud. In some languages, the process takes microseconds, with other languages, it takes more. For example, if I see the number “74”, it takes little time to think “seventy four” in English, but in French it would take a bit cause I have to think about 64 + 10.

As for Arabic, I always say that languages choose me, and not the other way around. Normally something “triggers” my desire to learn languages. Visiting a country, meeting special people, or eating some specific food. That has never happened with Arabic. I must say that I think that Arabic is a beautiful sounding language. Who knows, maybe in the future.

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“Hello Luca, I have been studying English for many years but still have some problem with my English pronunciation. I sound so Italian, can you suggest me some advice to lose my Italian accent and to improve the English accent and intonation? Which kind of exercises can I do? Answer in Italian, ciao” – Antonella Memola

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I think that intonation and pronunciation have a lot to do with the personality you develop in your language. To me, the people who develop really good pronunciation in a foreign language are not those who have talent pronouncing sounds. Think about it, if you pronounce your language well and have no speech impediment, you can pronounce any language, as every kid does. The people who speak really well are those who want it the most, who want to belong to a group, who “let themselves go”. Have you noticed that when you try to speak English with a British accent (or American) you feel strange, almost embarrassed. And sometimes your fellow Italian friends might make fun of you. That happened to me quite a few times.

Paper by Stephen Krashen mentioned in the video:


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