Mixing languages - a good sign

In the last couple of weeks I have found myself using French and Italian words when writing or speaking Portuguese. I take this as a very positive development and I will try to explain why.

I was brought up speaking English (with a large Scottish influence that I only became awaree of later. I was useless at French at school (I will show my age and my incompetence by admitting that I got an ‘F’ at French O-level).

At college I studied Welsh and became fluent enough to study in that language - this was after a 2-month intensive saturation course inspired by the methods used in Israel.
After dropping out I moved to Britanny, and gradually learnt (by osmosis) French and some Breton. After 10 years or so I was capable of successfully completing university degree courses in French.
I now live in Ireland. My wife is French-Italian, and will use both languages. The most commonly spoken language in house is French.
I have been learning Portuguese because my activities as an international sports official have led me to work frequently in Portugal, Bazil as well as Angola and Mozambique.

To get to the point:

I am finding that if I don not know the Portuguese word I am substituting a French or sometimes an Italian word. I take this a sign of progress because:

  • it shows that I am no longer formulating phrases in English and then translating
  • it shows that I have acquired a practical knowledge of how Portuguese words and grammar works - so that I can take a French verb, pronounce it in Portuguese and the conjugate it (hopefully correctly). This is what happens naturally when words are borrowed from one language to another. For instance, French friends working in an EU institution will say ‘J’ai downloadé un document’.

A final advantage - as many Portuguese people have at least some knowledge of French they understand what I mean!



Hi Gordon,

Your line of work sounds really interesting. What is it exactly that you do? And how is your Welsh now (I’m assuming you no longer have to use it as much)?

The hardest part I find in learning a new language is compartmentalising them separately in your brain, especially when there are many similarities between the languages you are studying. I was fortunate to grow up speaking two languages (English and Hebrew), so they are both very much permanently stored in my head, but I am finding it very difficult to add both Spanish and Portuguese to the mix. I feel if I am doing well in one language and using it often, the other language gets a lot worse very quickly.


1 Like

I am a World Sailing International Judge - a referee if you like.
My point is that there comes a point in which you translate less from your mother tongue and start formulating phrases in the language that you are learning. At this moment it is easy to start speaking ‘foreign’ mixing languages as though you only have two languages - your original language and ‘foreign’! This is especially the case if you have been working on closely related languages. It is a phase that will pass, and I am not particularly worried by it as long as the borrowings are formulated using the appropriate grammar.


Ola Gordon, your story rings definite bells. I am Dutch, have an English wife and worked more than 30 years for the RAF in Germany as NL/EN/DE interpreter with some French knowledge; although it is more than 50 years ago that I lived for 8 months as an exchange student in the Saint Germain area near Paris. In november 2019 we moved from Germany to Portugal and unfortunately Covid did, still does not do a lot for practising the language with locals. My shopping Portuguese is getting beter though. LOL. Yes knowing French makes Portuguese easier grammar-wise etc.It is quite similar.Like every other language you have to hear and listen to it a lot but my wife hardly watches Portuguese TV and as such I don’t. I know, I should!! My advantage is like yours…I have a Portuguese old lady living opposite who wants to speak French with me as she lived there for 3 years. So we both mix Portuguese and French! .

I totally relate to speaking ‘foreign’. I am a fairly fluent French speaker and bizarrely since moving to the Algarve where there is a large French community I have found myself speaking French as much as I do Portuguese but I struggle to keep the two langauges separate. Often I start off in French and then throw in Portuguese words into the middle of the sentence but as we are in Portugal it is understandable but it is emabarrassing when I am speaking to a Portuguese person and I suddenly (and involuntarily) throw a French word into the sentence! So yes, I too concluded I speak English and then I speak ‘foreign’. Good to know that this phase will pass!

1 Like

When I am speaking to my Portuguese landlady in French (she speaks simple French extremely fluently) I say Sim rather than Oui. I can’t stop myself.

This is very true for me also, though I admit I hadn’t thought of it as being a good thing. (I’m always worried I’ll end up like Salvatore, the character in Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose, who speaks in a garbled mix of several different languages…).

I know some French already, which I find helps somewhat with the grammar and vocabulary, and it’s not too alarming when I use a French word by mistake.

However, I’m also learning Mandarin Chinese (I was meant to be working at a university there, but COVID-19 prevented this), and it’s more alarming when I accidentally reply to a Portuguese question in Mandarin. Especially since my Mandarin is really, really poor. A few times I’ve had to stop myself responding to questions/comments with ‘好的!’ (okay, alright) … :grimacing: