How Many Languages Can You Cram Into Your Head Before It Explodes?

Mia & Gert pouring coffee in Denmark

Gert’s head is about to explode!

We are in Denmark, staying with his family members who have varying degrees of English.  Some have none.

Not really helped by the fact that me, Kate & Jono know about 10 words total of Danish and almost all of them are the names of food.  We are absolutely no help in the Danish department!

After a week or so here this is how the scene played out when Gert’s daughter recently had a birthday get together.  The assembled party is us, Gert’s daughters Mia and Sarah, Mia’s husband Dennis, Mia’s mum and stepdad and her grandparents.

Gert and whoever he is speaking to yabber away in Danish.  We don’t mind.  We expect them to speak Danish and Gert to just translate if there’s anything we should know about.  It’s all good.

We sit at the table and everyone is laughing and talking.  Occasionally the English speakers will translate for us.  Whenever we talk it is of course in English and we have to remember to talk slower than normal.  Then Gert turns to Jono and tells him a story.

Except he talks to Jono in Danish.

Jono looks blankly at him.

Then Mia reminds Gert to talk English to Jono!

Bahahahahaha….we all laugh!!  The look on Jono’s face was priceless!

A few minutes later Gert is telling me something in English.  Then he continues his story to the end of the table in English.

Except he is talking to the non-English speakers!

They look blankly at him.

And the whole dance starts again!

Gert has spent 14 years training himself to talk and think in English.  He very rarely speaks Danish except if he skypes with someone in Denmark.

His efforts have obviously paid off because he’s having trouble switching back and forth and now seems to naturally speak English instead of Danish.

Don’t you think that’s interesting?

I do and it got me thinking about all the languages he knows.  He speaks and understands Swedish and Norwegian, some German and he understands Dutch.  Then there are roughly 10 or so different Danish dialects!!  And he can communicate in all of them, give or take a few words!

Plus he’s had to learn Australian slang which can seem like a whole language on its own!

Holy shit!!!

It’s no wonder the poor man’s head is going to explode!

I only speak English and I have some very basic German from school!

Can you speak multiple languages?  Have you ever had trouble switching between languages, depending on who you are talking to?  Did you ever speak to your own child in a foreign language and they looked at you wierd?  Do tell!

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How Many Languages Can You Cram Into Your Head Before It Explodes? — 14 Comments

  1. I have spoken two languages since I was little. I always assumed I spoke English first and THEN Croation, but only as an adult did I find out that in fact English is my second language. No one would guess, hey not even ME! I’m in my late 30’s now but have always spoken Croation like a 7 year old. I have really bad grammar. Apparently when I was a horrible teenager, I had told my parents to stop correcting my Croation, as they should be happy that I speak it at all. Ouch! Now I wonder why they chose that piece of ranting, psycho, teenage dribble to listen to. Bad choice parents! Wish I could speak more fluently now. I did Japanese at school for four years and that was a waste of time as pretty much all I can remember is “pikuniku” which is “picnic”. I dabbled in some German too which I grasped so much easier.
    Just today, my mother was reading some German text to me but she was translating it straight into Croatian. I loved that I was following the German text, able to mostly read it myself, and then I was listening to her Croatian translation of it and I didn’t even any brainwave activity happening in English!! I love being bi-, nearly tri-lingual!!!

    • You might be surprised – If you went to Japan you might just find those school years were helpful. That’s what I was like in Germany. Staggered to realise I knew some words and could get around pretty well!

  2. Ha just thought of a funny story. My mother was speaking, in Croatian, to a relative in Croatia. The relative was a 50 year old launt who had never been on an airplane. This aunt was a little concerned that she wouldn’t get fed on the long flight to Australia she was about to do. My mother kept trying to calm her down and explain that she WILL get fed and that she does not need a packed lunch, dinner etc. The aunt just would not listen and my mum was getting a little frustrated and was trying to say, “LOOK! LOOK! you don’t need anything…..etc”. Problem was, mum was actually saying “look” in English and then continuing in Croatian. Unfortunately, when we say “look” in English, it’s the exact same pronunciation as “onion” in Croatian.!!! Can you imagine the added confusion the aunt had when someone was yelling out “ONION! ONION!” to her! Being fluent in two languages doesn’t always mean you use the right one at the right time – as it seems Gert is experiencing!!! I totally understand his problem!

    • Hahaha…this is exactly what Gert is finding. Sentences half in Danish and half in English!! He doesn’t even realise it sometimes!

  3. Love this! I have spent many a soirée with a mix of Anglophones and Francophones, and it is crazy. There was even a night with English, Spanish, Italian, and French speakers. But we managed! For me, an American who can also speak French, I always have trouble switching quickly between languages. Once I start, it takes a minute for my brain to switch over to the other! 🙂
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    • Funny you mention it takes you a minute to switch Haley. I can almost see a switch being flicked inside Gert’s head every time he has to change!! Funniest thing ever!!

  4. I found this extremely interesting. I was brought up speaking English and Spanish in Puerto Rico which is a US territory. English was my first language, having been born in Arizona. When I turned 15 I became fascinated with French and Italian, so I started learning those two languages as well. Years later, in university I studied French alongside my main major, and learned Yiddish.

    The French helped as my husband is French and his family don’t speak a word of English.

    Whilst we lived in England, my in laws, my mum and my aunt came to visit as we had had a blessing for our marriage. As the in-laws don’t speak English and my family don’t speak French, I had to translate from French to English and Vice-versa, by the end of the afternoon, I was talking to my mother in French. She kept giggling and telling me to hit the right translation button.

    Same thing happens with our eldest who’s mother tongue is English but speaks perfect French. While taking Spanish lessons at school, in the middle of his oral report, he ended up speaking French, as the Teacher asked him to translate a sentence into Spanish.

    I guess our brains get exhausted with the translations!!

    • Hahahahah Lyn…Imagine speaking the wrong language in a school presentation! That’s hilarious – although I guess it wasn’t at the time!! Thanks so much for that comment – made me giggle all day!

  5. This cracks me up! I feel your polyglot pain. I went to Ecuador recently. Russian, being my second language and Spanish being my third, just about every time I try to speak Spanish, I’ll accidentally think it in Russian first.

    *AND* since Russian and Spanish share the same phoneme for the conjunction meaning “and” (pronounced ‘ee’ in both languages), I’ll often start a sentence in Spanish and end it in Russian accidentally! Like walking up to a teinda and asking, “¿Tiene pan y масло?”

    • I can only imagine how your brain hurts with all those languages in there!!! Gert is certainly guilty of sentences half in English, half in Danish!! And it sure is funny!!

  6. Before we travel to a foreign country we try to learn at least the basic pleasantries – like please, thank you, good morning and so on. And we make sure that our kids have at least one or two words up their sleeve. So, whilst in France, our 2 1/2 year old had us in stitches when she came out with Bonjour, Bonsoir and Sawadika. The last one was what she learned last year when we travelled to Thailand! From the mouths of babes!

    • Oh, she got her countries mixed up! How cute! Our 11 year old has picked up a sentence in most of the countries we’ve visited. I’m going to try to get him to learn a language when we get home – suspect he may have a knack for it.

    • Thanks for dropping by Jonny – I love your blog! We didn’t get to Christiana. If I’m really honest we spent most of our time in Denmark eating open sandwiches and herring! Maybe next time!

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