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Learning new languages

"Learning a new language is fun!"

Have you ever tried to learn a new language? And I don't mean programming languages, but actual languages, the thing you use to talk to someone else in real life. For me, it's weird, cool and hard, all at the same time. You have to practice it way too much to actually learn something, and then one day you wake up speaking the thing. It's quite weird, but still awesome (thanks, brain)!

Anyway, yesterday I got an email from Duolingo saying that Russian is now available on it (beta). That's really cool - I wanted to learn Russian since years. And Duolingo is a cool website for that. Sure, it's not the same as living in the place where the language is spoken, but it might help you getting the hang of it. Ironically, I can never stay that long on it - eventually it get's way too boring for me and I end up leaving that alone.

In the last years (less than 10, more than 5), I realized that learning a new language, even though really cool, has a cost. Speaking of myself here, I could learn more languages, but eventually I'll start mixing them up quite a lot. You see, before 2011 or 2012, I used to speak Italian. Ok, maybe not really speak it, but I could understand when someone spoke it (slowly, of course) and I could read and write quite well. Italian is a language I learned by myself: it's not far from Portuguese and a lot of words (I would say over 50%) you can figure out the meaning by their sounds. I used to speak in both English and Italian at the same time in some IRC channels back them. And then I decided to study in Germany.

Studying German is hard. You see, German was a completely different language for me, with a weird-ass grammar and a complex word system. Well, that's at least what I thought for a while (a very long while). German is not that hard, but I didn't really study it: I took a few classes, did some of my homework and forgot about it. I was still able to speak Italian if I wanted to. Then I actually went to Germany (2012), and that killed all my Italian skills. Seriously, it didn't take much to essentially kill the language for me. Everytime I wanted to say something in Italian, I had to think really hard, otherwise I would just say it in German. It's like this new language has taken the slot of the previous one in my brain. Well, that sucks.

Now, in 2015, I tried once during my shower to say a full sentence in Italian. I don't have to say I failed. It took me forever to finish, and it was extremely hard, since every single word that came out of my mouth was in German. That moment I realized that, yeah, Italian is long gone in my brain.

Oh well. Oh, and there's one thing that most people that know me don't really know: I actually tried to learn Russian by myself once, after Italian and before German. I still remember the looks of people trying to figure out what the hell I was reading in the bus with that weird looking alphabet. Ah, good old days! I don't have to remind you that I failed, right?

So, now that Duolingo released Russian, I started taking some exercises on it - you know, just for fun. And of course, it's always fun and easy[1] adn bla bla bla. Then I decided to switch to German and finish some levels. And then something happened: I was asked to translate "the cows are drinking milk" into German. Here's the translation I came with:

**Die Kühe trinken *Молоко***[^2]

See the problem? Right at that moment I knew that either I switched from one language to another too fast, or that my brain crashed somewhere. Of course I soon realized my mistake, mostly because I have to switch to another keyboard layout to write in cyrillic. But it was automatic: my brain associated the work milk to молоко, and I even wrote the first letter uppercase, just like in German. Oh well.

Another weird (and awkward) one happened a few minutes after that when I was asked to translate Die Mädchen from German to English:

**Die girls**[^3]

Well, that came out wrong, right?

Or writing English as Englisch, and many others.

You see, those mistakes started to be automatic, which is bad if you're trying to properly learn a language. Of course, this is type of thing that you realize right after you write it, but it's still quite annoying. I end up having to double-check such things to make sure I'm not writing and awkward sentence before submitting them. It's like my brain is mixing up the languages.

Funny enough, that doesn't happen with Portuguese and English. Sure, Portuguese is my mother language, so I don't mix it with anything else (I just say or write it wronger as I get old). English is the first foreign language that I learned, and it was quite a while ago. I kinda learned it both by myself and at school. I make some mistakes, but people understand me and I understand them, so I guess I'm fine. And I think that, since I use it so much, I end up not mixing it up with anything else (maybe German sometimes, but only within a German context).

But the rest? Man, I gotta tell you, that's a hell of a crazy, weird-ass, confusing mix. I might end up creating my own language by doing that. Go figure.


  1. Not really easy. In fact, Russian is quite hard. And "hard" as in almost f*cking impossible, of course. ↩︎