The Lovely Land of Language Interference

Have you ever taken a dash of one language with a sprinkle of another, mixed them together and simmered to taste? Of course you have! You’re bilingual. You’re bound to have stirred your languages together at one point or another.

There’s actually a fancy name for this: Language contact. Language contact is the secret demon that lies behind many of our language mistakes. I would venture to say that it is also the secret fairy godmother that gives rise to new usage and even new ways of thinking.

Sometimes I understand French grammar better when I hear the syntax of a French speaker in English. Take verb tense, for example. Both languages have past, present and future. So finding equivalents should be simple, right? Wrong. Of course that’s not right. If it were right, learning languages would be easy, instead of incredibly exasperating! It always makes me wonder, How did this become the idiomatic way to say things? Who decided it one day? This, to me, is why language is endlessly fascinating.

Let’s take a look at some examples, shall we?

    • Present perfect: “Depuis.” Depuis is a magical French word that means “since.” In French, you literally say, “I live here since five years.” Note that with the magical word depuis, you don’t need the present perfect like in English: “I have lived here for five years.” It’s only when you see this that you realize how verb tense is so much more malleable than we would imagine.
    • Future tense: “Quand je…” Do you need to tell someone that you’ll arrive at their house soon? In French, when you are discussing something that will happen in the future, you actually put it in the future. So you would literally say, “Tomorrow, I’ll see you when I will arrive to your house…” Note than in English, the “will” is unnecessary and sounds a bit odd, because we use present tense after the word “when.” However, it actually makes sense, logically, to conjugate this verb in the future.
    • Addled adverbs: “Basically.” Oh, incorrigible cognates. In English, if you want to sum it all up, you can just use that lovely all-purpose word. So can I say basiquement in French, since basique is a word? No, even though I have tried. If you really want to sound natural, you can say en gros, which is kind like saying, “on the whole.”
    • Syntax: “Also.” This time, the issue is word order. In English, you can say, “I would also like some cheese.” You can say, “I would like some cheese, also.” But you cannot say, “I would like also some cheese.” In French, you can. And why not? Who decided where we were allowed to put “also” in a sentence? Nobody and everybody, it would appear.

The crazy thing is how nuanced many of our examples of language contact are. Sometimes it’s hard to even pinpoint why certain phrasings sound a little off. Usually the only way to know is by hanging out with people who are as nerdy about language as you are (take a gander at How to Shamelessly Steal Language Skills from our Friends and Colleagues for more on that topic).

And sometimes, even though something sounds off, I’ll use it anyway. Take the verb “to live,” for example. In both French and Spanish, you can live a day. You can live a situation. You can live a feeling. In English, you can experience those things, not live them. But there is a different impact when you say “live.” It feels fuller, stronger, more real, perhaps.

What have you lived in the lovely land of language interference? I’m curious to know. Comment below!


Portrait of Athena MatilskyAthena Matilsky fell in love with Spanish the year she turned 16. She chose it as her major at Rutgers University and selected a focus in translation and interpreting. After graduation, she taught elementary school in Honduras and then returned home to begin freelancing as a medical and court interpreter. She has since achieved certifications as a Healthcare Interpreter and a Federal Court Interpreter. She was the recent editor-in-chief of Proteus. Currently, she works as a freelance interpreter/translator and trains candidates privately for the state and federal interpreting exams. When she is not writing or interpreting, you may find her practicing acroyoga or studying French. Website: https://athenaskyinterpreting.wordpress.com/

Main photo by Enrique Hoyos from Pexels. Body photo by Benjamin Svobodny from Pexels.

13 Comments
  • Richard Palacio
    Posted at 18:03h, 17 September Reply

    Hey, Athena! Glad to see you’re still in love with the nuances of language.

    • Athena
      Posted at 15:11h, 20 September Reply

      Always!! Nice to hear from you 🙂

  • RAMON MIGUEL DEL VILLAR
    Posted at 18:07h, 17 September Reply

    I absolutely agree with Athena. My language combination is Spanish/English and one of the hardest things is when you are interpreting simultaneous and have to wait for a relatively large portion of speech before understanding what the speaker will say before you can begin your own rendition in English.

    • Athena
      Posted at 15:12h, 20 September Reply

      Right?! Hooray, décalage. 🙂

  • Sylvia J. Andrade
    Posted at 18:35h, 17 September Reply

    Or the other way around. There are a lot of idiomatic expressions. With Spanish, those vary from country to country, as with English. With Mexico, they sometimes vary from region to region, or city to city. I find myself mixing English, Spanish, German, and, occasionally, Chinese.(I know a bit of it, but not a lot.) My primary languages are English, Spanish and German, my work languages. There are jokes you have to be bilingual to understand. In my bilingual neighborhood, we all mix everything up.

    • Athena
      Posted at 15:14h, 20 September Reply

      A bilingual neighbourhood and jokes that take two languages to understand…That’s really cool!

  • Daniela Schmidt
    Posted at 18:58h, 17 September Reply

    Yes, we “live” the day in all Latin/Romance languages; it comes from Latin: Carpe diem- live the moment… Other language contact morsels I usually meet in idioms like don’t count the chicks before they hatch, become don’t sell the bear before you catch it, in Spanish, or count the chicks in the Fall in Romanian. Similarly, the Shit hit the fan becomes the Polenta expolded in Romanian. I agree, language is fascinating. It still enthralls me after more than 20 years. I love to learn something new every day and teach it to others.

    • Athena
      Posted at 15:14h, 20 September Reply

      I adore the polenta exploding idiom. I’m going to remember that. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

  • Armida Hernandez
    Posted at 21:02h, 17 September Reply

    Great article! I’m laughing at the moment because when I first read the title, I immediately thought it would be about language in New Mexico (the Land of Enchantment). In these parts we hear such gems as “he got down from the car” – perhaps related to the Spanish “se bajó del coche”, the Spanish verb being “bajarse” – to descend, or perhaps related to horseback riding which is common in many areas of the State. In any event, it makes for an interesting mix of languages. I’ll try to remember to say “when the polenta explodes” the next time things go awry. But I don’t think I’ll be catching a bear any time soon!

    • Athena
      Posted at 15:15h, 20 September Reply

      Ah yes, “into, out of, on, in…” don’t even get me started on prepositions. 🙂

    • Michelle Gonzales
      Posted at 19:27h, 22 September Reply

      My husband’s (Spanish speaking) family says “get down from the car” (in English) all the time and I didn’t understand why until I learned Spanish myself.

      Another example: One time, while at the mall, one of them said, “let’s get on the electric ladder.” Escalator! lol

  • Maiyim Baron
    Posted at 00:30h, 21 September Reply

    Love this article Athena thanks so much ! in Japanese , my working language it is those prepositions or articles as they are known there that lead to those kinds of interesting twists. Oh my goodness a group of people who pun bilingually – my favorite!

  • Michelle Gonzales
    Posted at 19:37h, 22 September Reply

    Speaking of syntax….My husband is bilingual. While growing up they only spoke Spanish in the home and it definitely affects the way he speaks English. I tell him that he speaks Yoda. Although most of the time it isn’t that the word order is wrong, it just isn’t the way we normally speak. Serious I am. Like Yoda he sounds.

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