If somebody speaks a language I’m not expecting, sometimes I don’t understand it, even though I should

During my visit to Göteborg, I booked a city tour on a tour bus. As I noted earlier, the tour is trilingual. Each point of interest is described by the tour guide three times, first in Swedish, then in English, and then in German. (Even the jokes are the same. You can tell which people on the bus speak which language by checking when they laugh at the jokes.)

I didn't know this when I got on the tour bus. I was simply expecting that the tour would be conducted in Swedish. After all, I'm in Sweden. They speak Swedish here.

The tour started, and the tour guide started by speaking in Swedish, which I sort of understood. Not great, but I got the basic idea.

And then she repeated herself in English. That was a pleasant surprise. Now I could fill in the parts that I missed from the Swedish narration.

Next, she spoke in German, but remember, I didn't know that the tour was trilingual. I just assumed she was returning to Swedish for the next part of the narration, so I thought to myself, "Wow, my Swedish suddenly sucks! I was doing so well and then boom, it's all gone!"

And then I realized, "Oh wait, that's not Swedish. That's German. I can understand this after all."

This is one of those weird language things I've noticed. The languages I learned as a child are kept in one part of my brain, and the languages I acquired as an adult go into another part. When people speak to me in a language I acquired as an adult, I don't even understand them until I first figure out what language they're using. On the other hand, the languages I acquired as a child I can understand immediately. (You can even switch languages in the middle of a sentence and I might not even notice.)

Comments (22)
  1. someone else says:

    And additionally, Swedish and German may sound similar to a non-native speaker. If the third language of the tour were French/Italian/Finnish/Russian, I guess you would have noticed (knowing these languages or not).

  2. Hardware Junkie says:


    “The Language Instinct” was all the rage on campus when it first came out. It discusses (iirc) the topic of birth languages versus adult-learned languages, and where in the brain the language processing happens. It’s an argument for teaching very young kids additional languages at the same time they learn their first one.

    My nephews learned Farsi as they learned English from birth, and some 30+ years after they left Iran, despite very little opportunity or need to practice it, they are both still fluent in it and can carry on conversation w/ native speakers. It’s potentially useful to have languages processed in two parts of the brain: due to brain disease a friend lost his birth language, but retained the ability to speak his learned languages. The loss of his birth language was the first obvious symptom of the problem.

  3. Mike says:

    My birth language is English.  In high school I learned (some) Spanish.  As an adult I took classes in Greek and found that I was constantly substituting Spanish words when I was trying to say something in Greek, even though if you asked me I’d probably say that I couldn’t remember what the Spanish word was.

    It felt distinctly like my brain was thinking in terms of "English" and "Not-English" with all languages that weren’t English being basically equivalent unless I put distinct effort into keeping them seperate.

  4. BCS says:

    I have a relative that was an airport taxi driver for a while and she noted that it was much easier to understand people after she figured out what accent they had. If her first guess was wrong, she sometime couldn’t even understand them at all.

  5. Leo says:

    Switching languages in the middle of a sentence happens a lot when I am with my Filipino relatives. A lot of people in the Philippines grow up speaking English and Tagalog from birth and the mixing of languages in the same sentence is referred to as speaking in Taglish (Tagalog – English).

  6. this has happened to me several times when I don’t expect a person to speak Spanish (my native tongue), it takes me a couple seconds to realize they are speaking Spanish, and by that time I’ve already answered in English

  7. Sebastian Redl says:

    This is undoubtedly related to the fact that you can get used to a language. Sometimes when I watch an English movie (not my native language) that is hard to understand,  I take a few minutes to get into it, but then I understand pretty much everything.

    But if there’s German voices in the background (e.g. from my parents), I never get into that state.

  8. Aaron Bingham says:

    I speak English natively and learned German in adulthood.  I currently live in a German-speaking area.  Although I unquestionably speak English better than German, sometimes — when I am immersed in a German environment — I fail to understand people who unexpectedly address me in English.

  9. tobi says:

    Klingt Schwedisch denn so ähnlich wie Deutsch?

  10. Jon Bright says:

    My mother tongue is English.  I learnt some French and German at high school.  Later, I moved to Germany and have now lived there for ten years.  In that time, I’ve gradually acquired fluent German.

    People talking to me can switch between English and German mid-sentence (this sometimes happens at work, where people are fluent in both).  I’ll probably notice at an abstract level, but it won’t trip my following the flow of the sentence.  I think the "mid-sentence switching" property might be a function of fluency.

    When in France now, if I’m missing a word in the middle of a sentence, the German word for that thing will appear unbidden.  Never the English word.  As far as I can remember, before I knew German well, if I was speaking French and didn’t know a word, I stopped speaking (or started saying "Ummm…").  So at that level, despite now being fluent in German, there’s clearly still some split in my mind between "English" and "Other languages".

    Interesting stuff.

  11. Cheong says:

    I don’t know it’s good to have child learn more language in their early years.

    Studies have found that for children that learn more than 1 language in before 3-4 years old, it creates greater tendency for them to mix-use these languages when they get older. It’s been thought that the common use of "Chin-ish" (mixed usage of Chinese and English words in the same sentence/dialog) in Hong Kong is caused by this.

  12. l duvall says:

    As a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco, I worked first with a French national and then a Belge. We only spoke French to each other. Towards the end of my stay my Belgian boss asked (in French) for my help and handed me a letter. I looked at it, and it was all gibberish. I tried again and still could not understand it.

    Then, I realized it was a letter, in English, from a company in the US. After the brief shock of realizing what had just happened – I proceeded to translate it for him.

    True story!!!

  13. Barry Leiba says:

    I had a related experience when I first say Bergman’s movie of "The Magic Flute".  I know very little German, but I was dismayed that I didn’t understand ANY of the German singing, even the bits I thought I should have gotten.

    It took me a while to realize it was because they were singing it in a Swedish translation.

  14. someone else says:


    Jedenfalls ähnlicher als nicht-germanische Sprachen.


    I wouldn’t say that is a bad thing …

  15. Cheong says:

    @someone else: At least many public examination candidates would agree. In the examination rule, marks will be deducted when you speak English words in Chinese oral examination, or speak Chinese words in English oral examination. It’s really painful if you want to speak some keyword in English but you know that you can’t, and worse if you had forgotten how it’s named in Chinese! (!)

    The problem is, if you’re used to think bi/multilingually, when any of these language is taken out, you’ll feel some part in the line of your thought is broken and make whatever you speak/write more likely to be in scrappy form. It’s because in your brain, the idea is stored in mixed language form, and you have to find the right words to replace in it. Sometimes you find you don’t know a particular word, the other time you find the word you choose have to be used in different syntactical way so you have to restructure the whole sentence.

    I found it quite inconvenient sometimes…

  16. someone else says:

    Ah, so the problem lies with the examination!

  17. rtv says:

    Although both languages are related neither a swedish nor a german native speaker would admit that they sound similar.

    Iirc Scandinavian languages "left out" a phonetical evolution step (consonant shift) compared to today’s german. Furthermore swedish would be described more melodious as german is spoken rather monotonously.

  18. cyanna says:

    Thank you for posting this, I thought I was weird!

    Another thing I noticed: I have acquired my languages b just living for an extended period of time (10+ years) in each country.

    Romanian is my birth language. Speaking and understanding requires no effort at all. So much so that when I no longer rember how to say something in Romanian I inadvertently use a word from the closest "other" language (French in my case).

    Also, when I’m tired I tend to revert not to Romanian, but to…."last known good configuration" (while in Sweden I’d revert to French, in England I revert to Swedish)

  19. Jay Bazuzi says:

    As a teenager I lived in Sweden and became fluent in Swedish. At one point I found myself reading some product packaging in a language I didn’t recognize, but was able to read. The inverse of what you experienced.

    (It was in Dutch.)

  20. Cheong says:

    @someone else: Not exactly.

    Just think about the case when I have to talk to someone who only know English, you don’t really expect me to mix Chinese words when I talk, right?

    When I write, I can have more time to choose the words to be used, but when I talk, the pondering time can be quite unbearable… :P

  21. abadidea says:

    When I first started learning Dutch, I was constantly accidentally coming up with Spanish words. Now, my *Engels* speech is peppered with Dutch vocabulary and it is my sentence structure affecting.

  22. daveli says:

    I live in Sweden, but I watch a lot of American and British TV series. When watching an episode of True Blood, two of the vampires spook a language I didn’t understand. I was surprised when my girlfriend commented on what they had said. They were actually speaking Swedish, which is my birth language. But since I was not expecting it, I didn’t understand it. I had to re-watch the scene twice before my brain switched to the right language.

    One of the actors is Swedish (Alexander Skarsgård), so he of course speaks perfect Swedish. The other one is not, so her Swedish was a bit hard to understand.

    It was a weird experience to not understand your own language.

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