Language switching

January 11, 2012 by 14 Comments

Recently Micheal Erard released his book, “Babel No More”.  The book is the, “search for the world’s most extraordinary language learners”.  When I posted the link to an article in The Economist about the book on my Facebook page, I was asked if I agree with it.  At first I thought about the whole article and then I realised that the question related to a quote in the article by the journalist, “Switching quickly between more than around six or seven is near-impossible even for the most gifted.”

I was never approached during this search for multilinguals, but I don’t feel that switching is so rare amongst the limited number of people I have met able to converse in over 6 languages.  In fact I do polyglot-skyping with such individuals regularly.  I was interviewed by Luca Lampariello, an Italian polyglot, in 9 languages to demonstrate how this is done.  I have had similar conversations with Vladimir Skultety, a Slovak polyglot living in Taiwan,  Robert Bigler  from Austria and, a few years ago, with Professor Arguelles too (featured heavily in this project).


For me personally I have had roles where I had to switch between 8 languages daily.  I did this for work, on the phone and face-to-face with clients and I had to be professional in all of the languages.  This was not just a “hello, I will put you through to…”, this was dealing with people to get a job done.  Languages for me have always been a tool to get something done.  I love them very much for that reason – communication of thoughts, ideas, advice and information.

I cannot comment on the Mezzofanti-types because they are dead and I really cannot say how well they spoke languages.  I can say this…I have experienced the phenomenon of someone I don’t know coming up to me and saying, “Aren’t you the guy who speaks 60 languages?”…Chinese whispers are wonderful, aren’t they?  😉

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This post was written by Richard


  • Fasulye says:

    Hi Richard,

    I am also in the process of reading the book “Babel No More”. I would say that language switching is a key ability which is typical for polyglots whether they are hyperpolyglots or not. I can switch languages by transferring my thoughts into another language and the three polyglots where I have contact with can do this as well. To make switching possible you need a fluent thinking level of your foreign languages that’s why I focus so much on thinking in all my foreign languages. By the way, my new job will demand the switching of languages while speaking with customers from different countries. So I will appreciate, if my Skypies (you inclusive ) will switch more languages with me to train me well for the job.


  • Labas. Ar kada nors bandei arba galvojai mokytis lietuviškai?

    • I would like to learn both Lithuanian and Latvian. I have looked at both and think they are beautiful. Perhaps one summer I will get to go back to Vilnius for an extended period and learn it to a nice A2/B1 level. 🙂

  • mlhpolling says:

    I think switching between six languages or more is not impossible if you have lived those languages in a long period of time.

  • np1992 says:

    Buon lavoro! Je voudrais vous poser un question, quels sites Web utilisez-vous pour regarder des émissions en tant de langues?

    Et aussi, quand vous étiez à l’université, avez-vous su ce que vous alliez faire après l’université?

    Merci beaucoup, vous m’inspirez!

    • Merci! 🙂 J’ai mon Ipad avec des chaines differentes. Si il y a une langue que tu voudrais pratiquer, mais tu n’as pas encore trouve une chaine de TV/radio, dis-le moi. 🙂

      A l’universite je savais que je voulais travailler avec mes langues, mais je ne voulais pas etre traducteur! 😀

    • Fedz says:

      You cant say plain yes or no. Pros: simple silpelng like it was said, once you got a hang on the pronunciation, you can spell every word by hearing it (this is why there are no silpelng contests in german schools) shares roots with english this is a big one, it does not sound as alien as spanish does. Compound Nouns even you may see it as a disadvantage first but its very handy as you can build up your vocab on some simple words, complex words are mostly formed as compounds cons: Grammar german grammar is confusing for native english speakers as word order can change to almost anything. Genders of words unlike spanish, german has even 3 genders (der, die, das) (male, female, neuter) vocab german vocabulary is huge(!) Unknown sounds native english speakers sometimes really have problems with c4 d6 dc and the ch sound. lack to practice spanish community in US is way larger then german

  • I also found this interesting. Especially since when near the end of the book we see that when Michael was in Sekundarabad, Bangalore and Hyderabad it was discussed how the Indians did this daily at home and at work.

  • Jeff says:

    I don’t really understand this concept of “language switching.” Does it simply mean to be speaking in one language and suddenly switch to another one? How would you NOT be able to do that if you speak both languages well/fluently? I think that’s the biggest distinction when talking about languages – the level at which they are spoken. Speaking a language fluently is being able at anytime to understand it and speak in it with anyone that speaks it. I can understand “reactivating” a language after a long period of time I guess, however I have no experience with it. I work in English (America) however speak 100% Spanish (Mexico) to my wife in the house. Almost mfy entire non-work life is in Spanish, however at work I don’t use Spanish at all. Therefore, the entire day I am constantly switching between Spanish and English. Phone calls to her are in Spanish, then I have a converastion in English. This doesn’t seem like a chore to me at all. Perhaps it’s because I’m only switching between my native language and one other language. Obviously there is little to no thought going into the speach part of my native language, and very little in Spanish either. Most of the time at home I just stay in Spanish whether I’m talking to myself or yelling at the TV. The only thing about “switching” with regards to, say, translating between non-common-language speaking people is fairly draining mentally.

    Maybe there is a different spin to be put on this, and again, perhaps I don’t understand as well only speaking 2.25 (learning German, maybe A2 level) languages.


    • Jeff, I understand why you might find this a strange concept. With switching and difficulties doing it, the reasons could be many. Most commonly I have noticed that people learn similar languages (either in grmmar, vocabulary or sound) to X level (could be fluent), but they find it tough to switch immediately between them. They may well be able to have a fluent conversation to a high level in both on the same day, but with space inbetween. The hard thing would be to say translate between both languages or hear both and use both at the same time. The larger the number of languages, the more this becomes apparent, I have to say. Some switches are easier to make than others in my experience. 🙂

      • Jeff says:

        I figured that that would be the case. Only really speaking one other language than my native one to a high level, it’s pretty easy to keep them separate. And honestly, I guess I don’t always do it. Sometimes I’m speaking English and I say “pero” instead of but. I seem to only intermix the really short words though, like I never say “bicicleta” instead of bicycle, just words like “pero,” A ver,” and other interjectionary-type words in Spanish. And my German is at like an A2 level so it’s pretty easy not to mix that as it takes much more concentration to just say it in the first place it isn’t going to slip out of my mouth!

        I have actually intentionally stayed away from Portuguese and Italian because I’m afraid the cross-over will be too confusing. I would actually like to learn Portuguese as I’m a big UFC fan and a lot of the fighters are Brazilian, as well as Brazil becoming a bigger economic power these days.

        Also, at what point, or level of a language do you generally tend to start to learn another one? I have a few I’d like to start to learn however I want to get my German to say a strong B1 or maybe B2 level before I start spending precious time/energy on another language. Once I get “over the hump” or to the “E point” as Luca calls it, it will be a lot easier to just read and listen to some stuff in German and learn that way instead of intense, concentrated study. Then, I will probably start on a new language. Does that sound legitimate to you?

        One more question: My wife is pregnant and is having our child in 4 months. I would love to raise it trilingual, English/Spanish/German however my German, as I said, is maybe at an A2 level. Possibly a strong A2, but A2. What has your experience been with your daughter and teaching her, for example, French that isn’t the native language of either you or your spouse? How important is it to have a really good command of the language from the beginning? I figure I have time to be pretty fluent in it before my child would ever begin to speak, as I should have another 2.5 years or so, and generally bilingual children speak a bit slower.

        I’m interested to see what you think. Thanks Richard!


        • Jeff,

          Generally I think it is best to get a fair way into a language before starting another new one (especially if they are closely related, like Spanish and Potuguese). An A2 level is not a bad level, if you feel that you are comfortable using the language at that stage. That said, it really does depend on the individual a lot. I know people who had a B2+ level in Spanish and then started Portuguese and found it all too much to separate them. I know other people who started Portuguese and Italian at the same time and it was not a problem at all. My advice is to try it out when you feel comfortable and to be honest with yourself about how comfortabel it all sits with you. If you find you are getting confused or frustrated with interference from one language in the other, then it’s always best to admit that to yourself. It is totally normal to experience this in when learning multiple languages. I have experienced it myself. You can always pick things up again at a later stage, or try combining another language first and then go back to it.

          All the best,


      • Nia says:

        i’m from gearmny , and i think gearmn is a very difficult language. you have not only the’ there are so many words like for example der, die das’ its similar to french.. for me , it’s easy but i don’t know how it is for you.. try it and you’ll find out

  • Open says:

    English and German share a common root, so there’s a lot of siitalrmiies between the two, including grammar and pronunciation. It’s not hard to spell either, since you don’t have silent letters like French does, nor the wacky exceptions that English has.

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