Bilingual conversations  SEP 11 2003

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with someone (probably Meg) who had overheard a conversation in which the two participants spoke in a fluid mixture of English and their native language. Today at lunch, I overheard a conversation between two Hispanic women who were unconsciously switching back and forth between Spanish and English. Much of their conversation was in Spanish, but there were English words sprinkled in and the occasional complete sentences in English.

As a hopeless monolingual (I dream in Tetris when I play GameBoy too much and sometimes think in HTML markup, but I don't think that counts), I find bilingual conversations fascinating. A cursory search on Google turns up several mentions of research and inquiry about this practice (the technical term seems to be "bilingual codeswitching"). The results link mostly to academic books and papers, but I think the topic would make a great New Yorker piece. There are so many potential interesting questions around how bilingual codeswitchers choose words and languages during a conversation:

- Does the subject matter, um, matter? Are sports more "English" and politics more "Spanish"?

- How much of language switching is about brevity? Maybe people base word/phrase choice on how quickly they can speak a particular phrase in a particular language.

- Or is it expressiveness? The "perfect phrase" for what a speaker is trying to convey to their partner might exist in only one of the two languages.

- How do the grammars mix...if at all? Would a French speaker use English syntax when speaking French (or vice versa)?

- Does code switching happen in writing as well, or is it strictly verbal?

- How fluent does a speaker have to be in both languages in order to codeswitch fluidly?

- How much does a speaker's primary language determine language choice? Does their ability to codeswitch improve if they were bilingual from birth?

- Will a strong codeswitcher speak to his partner's stronger language?

- If one person finishes a remark in English, will her partner start her remark in English? What would prompt them to go back to the other language?

- Are some combinations of languages not amenable to codeswitching? Is Italian/Japanese codeswitching possible?

Not to mention all the questions about what changes in brain activity of a codeswitcher can tell us about the brain, speech, learning, etc. Like I said, I find this fascinating.

Does anyone know anything about codeswitching, either from researching it, personal observation, or otherwise hearing/reading about it? Any codeswitchers out there care to share their experiences?

There are 137 reader comments

brian01 11 2003 7:01PM

You apparently have never spent time in miami. It is almost expected for people to switch between english and their native languages mid-sentence in every day conversation. I think switching between romance languages (french, spanish, etc.) and english would seem more feasable than switching between english and japanese.

Didier Hilhorst19 11 2003 7:19PM

As a bilingual person I often find myself switching when my mood changes or the subject affects emotions directly. Although bilingual usually means you are fluent in both languages there's nevertheless a slight difference in preference and ability. Speaking both Dutch and French I usually tend to use Dutch in academic surroundings or situations (being a student). This is (obviously) in part due to the fact that I'm at a Dutch university. However when confronted with a French student I tend to prefer English (and not French) for some reason.

An interesting case is swearing. I will not go into details here but I usually swear in French. Rather odd. In situations where my temper rises it's French all over the place. Maybe because it just sounds better! Codeswitching can also happen for no apparent reason. It can be because I feel a certain word explains a feeling, situation or emotion better than the other.

To see if you are really codeswitching you can test if you have to actually translate words before you can say them. If it happens naturally (without much thought) it's probably codeswitching. While speaking Dutch I think in Dutch. Likewise while speaking French I think in French.

Furthermore I think codeswitching is something verbal. It would not make much sense in written. Except maybe for little notes or personal letters. Somehow I do not often codeswitch in writing. As far as grammar is concerned it depends. I think words are mixed but sentence construction not so much.

It's certainly an interesting phenomenon. Being raised bilingual you do not think about it that much, it's a natural process. I'm sure everyone experiences codeswitching differently.

jimmy jam22 11 2003 7:22PM

this is interesting stuff. codeswitching is often also tied to biculturalism -- "fluency" in the language and practices of two cultures (first generation immigrants being a prime example).

as you alluded to in your questions, i think there is almost always some imbalance between the two languages and unique association within each language with particular circumstances or topics. this is a very personal thing, usually tied to the circumstances under which the individual first learned the vocabulary regarding that topic (for instance, names of fruits and vegetables as a child at home in spanish or political theory as a student at college in english).

not to go too far off topic, but there have been some interesting findings about brain activity and language acquisition which help illuminate why this is so. when someone grows up speaking only english and learns spanish late in life (generally, after puberty is considered late in life), they use one portion of the brain heavily when going about their daily business, speaking english, buying fruits, watching a movie, etc. when they speak spanish, they are retrieving and processing information from a separate part of the brain (isolated from the portion of their brain which they call upon each day) and there is a noticable pause and difficulty whenever they switch from discussion in one language to the other.

when someone learns two languages early in life and uses both for their daily activities, brain activitiy for both languages and for daily tasks is much more localized, and there is not the same level of mental exertion in context switching (because of the inter-contextedness of the two languages).

for someone with this degree of fluency, there is no "leap" as there is with someone who has learned a second language later in life, without much of the context of their childhood. of course, as a monolingual, this portion of your brain waiting to be called upon for your second language is basically unused.

ant24 11 2003 7:24PM

I codeswitched all the time until I got to college, then I was forced to speak English most of the time. It doesn't happen much now, except when I'm upset or flustered somehow. I was raised in S. Texas, where most folks speak English/Spanish with different levels of fluency. I generally only codeswitched while speaking, but if I was writing something that could only properly be expressed in a particular language I'd swtich for that idea, then return to the other. I think it's very similar when speaking - you use the language with which you can best express yourself. For most me it's seamless, I didn't realize I did it so much until I got around non-Spanish speakers in college. They'd look like me like I was speaking a different language. :)

Victor29 11 2003 7:29PM

I codeswitch like no one's business (being fluent in Chinese and English) and I do it because I was born in the States, so my vocabulary isn't that great, and when I try to speak complicated sentences, I find that I don't know the vocab and tend to use English instead. On other occassions, I do it because I'm way too lazy to pronounce the whole word.

Generally the reason for code switching is because of the vocabulary. Even my parents who were born in Taiwan code switch when talking to each other (as they have much broader vocabulary). They do so since they generally don't know what the translation is for half the stuff they work with, such as programming languages and such.

Mike30 11 2003 7:30PM

In high school that was commonly refered to as "spanglish". I hope you enjoyed this contribution.

Jevon30 11 2003 7:30PM

In another province in Canada the RCMP actually had to get train special translators to translate a mixture of French/English spoken in only 2-3 communities. There were some drug dealers from those areas who did all their major deals in their brand of Fren-glish.

Heck34 11 2003 7:34PM

I am trilingual. English, Spanish, Italian.

I can tell you one thing that's happened to me only twice and scared me a bit. I began speaking Spanish once to an only-English speaking friend and I freaked him out. I wasn't conscious of it, and it's happened only once again since then. I guess that sometimes you're not aware of the "switch" as the categories in your mind aren't divided into "English", "Spanish", and so on, but only "Understandable" and "Not understandable". There really is no switch to speak of.

This is something I noticed as well with a friend of mine who really has a control issue over her bilingual skills (meaning she switches between English and Spanish all the time without realizing it). After a little while, I stopped noticing the changes, since I automatically understood anything she said, in spite of which language she used. There was no need to "switch", I either understood or not. And if I did, I didn't "label" the words as belonging to any particular language, it didn't matter.

Just real life cases that I think reflect some of what has been already written.

KolkataBoy54 11 2003 7:54PM

Anyone brought up in an Indian metropolis is at least bilingual, if not trilingual: English, mother tongue, and the local tongue, if different from mother tongue. Everything gets mixed together, no switching. Try googling Hinglish.

Richard02 11 2003 8:02PM

In the movie Double Happiness, the parents of a Chinese household speak to their daughters in Chinese, while they respond to them in English, having lived all their lives in Vancouver. This is a pretty accurate depiction, if I'm to believe some of my Canadian-born Chinese friends when they say they can hear Chinese just fine, but speaking presents a problem.

A personal anectdote: after returning from China--and having spoken the more *French* there than in the two years previous (it was easiest using French when talking with the African international students)--I found that some Chinese was slipping into the 4 or 5 French sentences (which was more French than I'd spoken in the previous two years to *that*) I said to the man I was speaking to. Not sure how exactly that came about, since I'm far, far more fluent in French than in Chinese, and Chinese being my third language.

Tina11 11 2003 8:11PM

I know only English, but my boyfriend speaks fluently in both English and Malay. (With English being his "first" language.)

Around me, he usually speaks only English, except for a few Malay words that he knows I understand.

When we are around our Asian friends, he usually speaks English until someone else talks to him in another language. Then he'll start talking in that language.

And every now and then, he'll speak in what we offhandedly call "Manglish"... a mix of Malay and English... and I can usually get a general idea about what he's saying....! :D

Alex13 11 2003 8:13PM

It seems to me that English-speaking expats in Japan sometimes have difficulty making due with a pure English conversation, even if they are less than fluent in Japanese. There are some phrases and comments that just don't translate with the same feeling.

My most memorable experience was in a restaurant in Singapore. The waitress came to a table where three women were code-switching like mad, and proceeded to take their order in English, Chinese, and Malay (I assumed), each in turn. I thought that was pretty cool.

tamaracks15 11 2003 8:15PM

I live with my boyfriend, who was born in Hong Kong, but moved to Boston when he was two. His parents and younger sister also live with him. He and his sister switch often because they don't know a word, though he is more fluent than his sister, who is more prone to switching back and forth. They learned to speak Chinese from their grandmother and didn't learn English until they went to kindergarten. He is also says thinks like "yeah", "okay", and "I guess" in English while speaking Chinese. It was rather amusing the one time I heard him talk on the phone to a relative in Hong Kong while his family was visiting there because he kept saying phrases like that and would have to stop and repeat it in Chinese.

I beleive a lot of technology terms are used as English, because there's no Chinese equivalent.

Scotty The Body37 11 2003 8:37PM

It is true that many folks switch into whatever tongue best expresses their current subject. German and English are considered "technical" languages, Spanish and Italian more lyrical.

That being said, my good friends, who are married to each other, are both native Spanish speakers. She is from Columbia and he is from the Dominican Republic. Sometimes they have to switch into English in order to speak to each other due to the fact that their dialects are so different.

Jay Allen39 11 2003 8:39PM

I do this every single day. I am learning Hungarian so I try to speak it constantly. When talking to friends (who speak Hungarian) if I don't know a word, I insert the english word and continue without a pause. Although all of them are fluent English speakers, they do the same with the (far fewer) words they don't know.

I also tend to do it when phrases fit perfectly in either languages. Some things don't translate...

And yes, I am beginning to unconsciously curse in Hungarian...

Michael Hanscom05 11 2003 9:05PM

The closest I've ever come to something like this was after my senior year in high school, when our German class visited Germany for two months. While there, my friend Mark and I wanted to talk about the girls we saw. We couldn't use German, obviously enough, and we couldn't use English, as Europeans start learning English somewhere around grade three.

Our solution? Pig Latin. Even after explaining what we were doing, the German students we were around couldn't ever quite wrap their heads around it fast enough to translate.

After a few weeks of this, Mark and I had gotten into the habit of practicing our Pig Latin, so we were constantly switching among three languages at any given time — English, German, and Pig Latin. Eventually, even the other American students on our trip lost the ability to follow our conversations, as we'd started subconsiously mixing all three, to a point where we would speak Pig Latin but use the German word order in our sentences. We didn't even notice that we'd started that until it was pointed out to us.

While my German is no longer near conversational capabilities, I can still keep up in Pig Latin without having to think about it terribly much (though the word order at least stays in keeping with English grammar). Ever since then, though, it's amazed me what the human brain can come up with when you're not really paying attention to it.

Steve Ivy08 11 2003 9:08PM

I spent several years in Europe, working with a friend with a very multi-cultural background. He's Armenian, born in Lebanon, was raised mostly in Cyprus, went to both English and French schools while there, and married a German.

He's very adept at languages, and as of last count, speaks Armenian, Arabic, Turkish, Greek, French, English, and German at least conversationally, if not fluently. His parents settled in Quebec, and I had the opportunity to overhear several calls home.

He, his siblings, and his parents would switch back and forth between Armenian, Arabic, English, and French mostly, in a single conversation. He explained that it usually had to do with whatever expression fit the circumstance, or in which language the joke was funniest. It was quite entertaining. ;-)

carol o12 11 2003 9:12PM

I'm exclusively monolingual these days, but as a small kid I used to be somewhat bilingual (Chinese and English) and I used to code-switch not just mid-sentence but also mid-word. I'd conjugate Chinese verbs using English endings (-ing, -ed, etc.) which is especially interesting because Chinese verbs (as far as I know) don't use suffix style conjugations at all. Seriously made me the least coherent kid in kindergarten. :)

Egor Kloos39 11 2003 9:39PM

You seem to hit nerve here. And in the global market that IT and internet seem to live is bound have this bilingual phenomenon. And strangely enough I've been looking at this bilingual dynamic from my own point of view and that of Semiotics in Interface design.

For example if I read a book and quote from it some time later to a friend I do so in the language of that person I'm talking to and not in the language of the book. In fact I often can't remember in which language the book was written in. The translation is transparent and I'm oblivious to it. Conversations with by brother for example can be bilingual. We don't notice the difference, others can't follow our transitions from one language to the next. That means that Dutch and English for me and my brother live in the same scope of reference. How they're mixed make no difference to us.

Talking to a monolingual I'm very aware of the scope of reference. Even if a Dutch person uses English words I still hear those words within the Dutch scope of reference. In fact many English words used in this way in other languages don't always mean exactly the same as they do in an English scope of reference.

The existence of the reference scopes becomes very apparent when I need to switch language. Mixing and switching languages with my brother is a breeze. Talking with Dutch friends and suddenly asked by a tourist in English for directions is when I need to concentrate. It takes effort to switch like that, not much but to me it's sticks out. I need to switch modes.

Users of a website have a scope of reference when they enter. If they enter a site that doesn't fit there scope of reference at the moment they entered they need to switch. The site should allow for this. If the site mixes two scope of references, and many do, the user still need to switch mode, but just the once. We all can handle multiple worlds like this when there used as if it's just one thing. Take Amazon for example, it merely a bookstore. But when I enter I know I can get a CD or something else, I'm aware of the different scopes and so I don't need to switch modes.

This is just one example of how we all can switch scopes (or languages) like that. So when building a site I need to be aware of the different scopes and when I my user may need to switch modes.

Michele43 11 2003 9:43PM

There's at least one US magazine that does some codeswitching in print -- it's called Latina.

Egor Kloos46 11 2003 9:46PM

Damn, I need to check my spelling and grammar before pressing the "Post Comments" button. My apologies.

Geof56 11 2003 9:56PM

The aerospace engineer in me screams, "Someone should talk to the International Space Station crews about this." I'm sure that they speak Russlish a lot up there, tovarishch.

Patrick H. Lauke56 11 2003 9:56PM

i grew up bilingual (german / italian), and learned two more languages early on (french / english). i often find myself reverting back to the language that i'm most familiar with depending on context. e.g.: i might have a conversation in italian with a friend, but when addressing issues of web design and coding, for instance, i would switch almost exclusively to english mainly because all the terminology and phrases i know for that particular topic i acquired from english sources. if i tried to first translate them into italian, the results would be convoluted and stilted.

to answer some more of your questions:

- Does the subject matter, um, matter? Are sports more "English" and politics more "Spanish"?

see above...depends on the topic, and on how much the person knows the correct terminology etc in a particular language.

- How much of language switching is about brevity? Maybe people base word/phrase choice on how quickly they can speak a particular phrase in a particular language.

some certainly is.

- Or is it expressiveness? The "perfect phrase" for what a speaker is trying to convey to their partner might exist in only one of the two languages.

that's another factor.

- How do the grammars mix...if at all? Would a French speaker use English syntax when speaking French (or vice versa)?

in most cases, i would have a "primary" language, and - where necessary - some rules of that one would apply to the intermixed snippets (if it's only a word or so in language B, in a complete sentence in language A - example: masculine/feminine/neutral forms in german, but only having masculine/feminine in italian/ which case i would, in a primarily german conversation, apply the correct german case to the italian/french word)

- Does code switching happen in writing as well, or is it strictly non-verbal?

in informal writing, certainly.

- How much does a speaker's primary language determine language choice? Does their ability to codeswitch improve if they were bilingual from birth?

quite a lot, i would imagine. and yes, being bilingual improves codeswitching, as it gives the speaker a "built-in" predisposition for it.

- Will a strong codeswitcher speak to his partner's stronger language?

yes, in my experience

- If one person finishes a remark in English, will her partner start her remark in English? What would prompt them to go back to the other language?

not in my experience.

- Are some combinations of languages not amenable to codeswitching? Is Italian/Japanese codeswitching possible?

not that i have found with my 4 languages, no.

on a personal note, having grown up bilingual i find myself thinking more in terms of images and abstract concepts, rather than words...much in a similar way to dislexics, apparently.

Eugene57 11 2003 9:57PM

You might want to try looking at this Wikipedia article on Engrish. It also contains links to other bilingualism articles such as Manglish, Franglais, Singlish, and Wenglish.

This is the first time I've ever heard the term codeswitching is this a real linguistics term? Seems really weird to me because it seems to make languages mere codes (which they arguably are).

Personally, codeswitching is very natural in the Philippines. Most people are bilingual, speaking Tagalog/Filipino and English, while many are also trilingual, speaking another local language (like Bicolano, Ilocano, Cebuano, or Ilonggo).

Basing on experience, every clause in a codeswitched sentence has a primary language, either English or Filipino. Some foreign words are inserted into the speech because that word is more commonly known for that object/concept than the equivalent in the other language. The primarly language of the clause determines the grammar and syntax and the language of the individual words rarely matters.

Also, it's common to construct Filipino verbs out of English nouns and verbs and vice versa (E.g., "mag-print" is an acceptable Filipino verb for will print; "nag-Internet" is a Filipino verb that means have used/logged-on the Internet; "make hatid" is an English verb for deliver).

Codeswitching is so natural that many Filipinos are forced to think about what they are saying when in a purely monolingual environment. Most often, they grasp for words when all they remember offhand is the word/phrase in the other language for the concept they wish to express.

soulonice01 11 200310:01PM

I can relate to the person who said he curses in French. Growing up in SW Texas, we used to curse a lot in Spanish, in fact almost entirely in Spanish.

A few years ago when I was studying German and Spanish, I would code-switch between the two a lot. The biggest reason was because one phrase or word I knew in German, I didn't know in Spanish or had learned first in German and vice versa. And to this day when I go home and may need to talk Spanish, German words or phrases creep in. I get a few strange looks.

What is intriguing me now is that I am learning Creek (Muscogee) and I wonder how that will get jumbled up in my head with the other languages.

Jenn01 11 200310:01PM

We're required to learn a language in high school in order to graduate. My friend and I are both in Spanish (although different years), and so we both chat in Spainglish during lunch. She's more fluent than I am, so she uses Spanish grammar and throws in English words only when she doesn't know the Spanish vocab. I, on the other hand, use as much Spanish as possible, but the word placement is more English-esque.

Now, things get interesting when my 'Azn Crew' joins the lunch table. Everyone then starts talking in a Cantonese/Mandarin/English/Spanish mix... which occasionally leads everyone to confusion.

Ah, but now I know a little Mandarin. Code-switching is pretty helpful for learning new lanuages...

Neil09 11 200310:09PM

An anecdote:

A good friend of mine was raised triligual - Italian heritage, raised in Montreal (French and English). She also speaks German and Spanish, as does my girlfriend, who also speaks all five. The most fascinating thing I can remember was one time when I visited with her and the rest of her family (grandmother, mother, father, etc.).

It turns out that her grandmother has three daughters, and speaks only English to one, French to another (her mom), and Italian to the third. She never makes mistakes, never speaks the "wrong" language to the wrong daughter, and always sticks to her lingual distinction when talking to all three.

So here we are, with everyone in the same room, and my friend's grandmother is switching seamlessly between the three languages as she speaks to her daughters, with each one answering back in the correct language.

On top of this, my friend's family's roots is in Serbia, so her father speaks Serb-Croat, so there were four languages flying around. I speak English and fairly good French, so I could follow around 1/2 of the conversation, but it really was dizzying. But very cool.

????? ?eg?owski22 11 200310:22PM

It's hard wymyslec jakies réponse intelligente, vu que ????? ????? is such intymn? phenomène dla ???????????? speakers.

jamie39 11 200310:39PM

From what my English teachers had said in high school, English is one of the richest languages in the world. I think it was Joseph Conrad who would read newspapers in English (I think he was Polish?) and learn English, because he knew that it was so full. (It's nice to have synonyms.) That's why we have The Secret Sharer and The Heart of Darkness in English. I speak English and Mandarin and codeswitching is something I do to explain something that might not be explainable in the other language. My parents do it because they forget the words in Mandarin, but they remember them in English. I believe our term is Chinglish.
I don't really think it's hard to switch between any family of languages. It relates more to your familiarity of the terms of that language that you're switching from.

Also I think it depends on who you're chilling with. If I hang out with my Chinese speaking friends more often, I find myself codeswitching more than if I am spending more time with my English-only speaking friends. Your mind adjusts to the environment its in and then carries on into other communication.

jkottke00 11 200311:00PM

Wow, thanks to everyone who has posted so far. Interesting stuff.

Ah, but now I know a little Mandarin. Code-switching is pretty helpful for learning new lanuages...

I never thought about that aspect of it. My French teacher in high school wouldn't speak English in class, obstensively to make us learn French so we could understand her. We might have learned more from the context if she codeswitched instead (Johnny drove his voiture to the bibliotech to study.)...although that wouldn't have been "proper" (because conjugating French verbs is fun!).

Red Wolf32 11 200311:32PM

I've overheard code-switching a lot and been interested in what words are swapped.

From the lovely elderly Greek ladies on the bus, whose English words of choice were swear words. Overhearing; "Greek, greek, greek, boolshit, greek", is hilarious.

And again, bullshit is the only English my friend's Vietnamese mother-in-law could think of when asking for fertiliser at a nursery.

A lot of foreign films also make use of common English swear words. Unless it's a French film, because swearing always sounds far cooler in French.

nick14 12 200312:14AM

just a few fun links.
The Lost in Translation multibabel translates an english phrase "back and forth between 5 different languages".
The Language hub for references like multilingual fish dictionaries.
and some language maps that i just found through

Ruth42 12 200312:42AM

My parents emigrated to the United States from Israel a quarter-century ago, so I was raised speaking both Hebrew and English. I have also been studying Spanish intensively for the past four years, so I am conversational in three tongues (though much more fluent in English and Hebrew than in Spanish.) I definitely "codeswitch" at home between English and Hebrew, using the language that allows me to express my thought more clearly.

And speaking of Spanish...It's somewhat embarrassing to be giving a presentation in Spanish class and suddenly notice the confused looks of everyone in the classroom, then a second later realize that I had just used a Hebrew word in place of a Spanish one. I'm sure that most, if not all codeswitchers have had a similiar experience at least once.

Ruben30 12 2003 1:30AM

I speak five languages and can passively understand three more. I've had a Spanish girlfriend for a while. She spoke Spanish to me, and I spoke English to her. Although I could have spoken Spanish myself, I experienced too many codeswitches while conversating with her. In daily life my Spanish is sufficient to express myself, but in these less shallow exchanges I stumbled over too many words or sayings I did not know in Spanish. It went automatically. I don't know where it happened, but one day I spoke English to her instead of Spanish.

I think there is the key to codeswitching. If you cannot think of a word in a fraction of second, your mind starts making the switch without you realizing it yourself. Once you happen to talk to someone who can understand other languages (clearly you don't make this assumption consciously), the switch will happen sooner than in other cases.

Moreover I know for myself that I sometimes use English phrases to express myself because I cannot come up with a Dutch equivalent, while Dutch is my mother tongue. And such a switch doesn't happen on purpose either. That's the way our brilliant brains work I guess.

anand22 12 2003 4:22AM

If you really want to do a research on languages and their intermingling, India is the place to read about. There are enough languages and dialects ( over 1600 at last count ) to keep you busy :-)

I know 6 and frequently switch among them depending on whom I am talking to and what I am talking about ( technical = english, literature = mother tongue ).

Lucian Teo26 12 2003 5:26AM

Singapore has four official languages, and almost all its residents are fluent in at least two. We've evolved a language affectionately known as Singlish.

It is a mixture of english words used in a chinese grammar structure and intersparsed with malay words. It is no longer a codeswitch, but an evolved code. I recently blogged about one Singaporean was quoted verbatim in an article that made YahooNews.

It sometimes leads to Singaporeans being thought of as english-illiterate.

Frog05 12 2003 6:05AM

Over here in The Netherlands, bilingual codeswitching is practically a national condition. Our own language (Dutch) appropriates English words at a frightening pace. People mix English in their daily converations a lot. The interesting thing is that our Southern neigbours, the Belgians, are far more puritanian when it comes to speaking Dutch (or Flemish, as they like to call it.) They tend to find alternatives in their own language for popular (new and/or modern) English words. Which, to me, is far more charming.

LN06 12 2003 6:06AM

I wasn't raised bilingual, but am now fluent in Bosnian (i.e. the Bosnian dialect of Serbo-Croatian). My expat friends and I speak what we call "Bozlish," which is codeswitching between English and Bosnian. At one point, I tried to figure out the linguistic aspects of it (namelink). One of the interesting aspects for me is that in its most crude form, Bozlish appears in SMS text messaging, where space is limited, so whichever language's word is shorter, in it goes!

I once was privy to a conversation by a family of Americans whose children grew up in ex-Yugo, so are completely bilingual. Their code-switching was astounding. Jokes all seemed to come out in Bosnian, as did anything that was originally said in Bosnian. So for instance, when one gal was talking about a conversation she had earlier, it went something like this: "Well, we were going to go out last night, but then [Bosnian guy] thought that Bosnian Bosnian Bosnian so we decided not to." For a wanna-be linguist like myself that whole conversation was fascinating!

andrew32 12 2003 6:32AM

There are some more subtle reasons for code switching. A generation of French educated colloquial Arabic speaking Tunisians I know could only express sexual passion in French, even to each other.
In fact there's a whole world of intriguing bilingual sexual behaviour worth examining - about how you have and talk about sex with other language speakers. Perhaps sex talk has ALWAYS been built around code-switching, either between *registers* in a single language (dirty v. medical), or between different *languages* (*always feel more erotic hearing you speak French/Italian/Russian* or whatever)for those that can speak them. Maybe there are strong cultural things at work here, but sex and err, mother tongue are weird topics that are rarely explored as far as I know.
A whole other dimension is the much rarer case of literary bilingualism: old Sam Beckett switching from English to French to scour out the burden of the past from his discourse, purifying it through another tongue; Nabokov switching to English from Russian one fine day, or Joseph Conrad from Polish to English. Nabokov left traces of Russian as wordplay in his English, but not much Polish in Conrad apparently. Wonder what language old Sam made love in...

tozé48 12 2003 6:48AM

as a portuguese worker in an office where most people speak english, i switch between portuguese and english uncounsciously, and end up talking english to my roomate and portuguese to my co-workers.
but answering your questions the best i can:

- no subject is more or less likely to be spoken in any language. i think it has more to do with your state of mind. when i'm pissed off at something, i tend to speak portuguese, which is my native, but if i'm calm or something, then it flows in english

- it sure has a lot to do on how faster we need to speak. if i'm having a normal conversation with my co-workers, i'll prolly speak portuguese as they apreciate i help them get familiar with the language. but if i need to say something quick over a phone conversation, then english is the choice.

- also, i definitly found that some phrases in english describe much better (usually feelings) than portuguese to someone who understands both.

- i don't mix grammar, because it gets very confusing as it is. maybe take some verbs from english to portuguese, like "postar" is a somewhat portuguese way of saying "to post", since there's not really any verb in portuguese that referers to post (at least, not one that i like using)

- i don't think i'll switch between portuguese and english, since i do it mostly because it's quicker. when i'm writing, i'll take my time. i will use a phrase in english, or something, because, like i said before, i think sometimes english is so much better to describe how one feels

- fluency in both languages is not a requirement, since, for example, one of my co-workers codeswitches mostly because her portuguese is not very good and she uses english words in order to replace the ones she doesn't know in portuguese

- well, i believe the language choice depends on who you're talking to, and her/his main language.

- i can't verify this one, as my partner is portuguese, but the same co-worker i mentioned above lives with a portuguese man who speaks mostly in english with her, so there.

- and like i said before, switching between one language and the other is mostly out of ease of communication, so it depends on the user.

- and i definitly can't verify this last one, as i can barely speak italian, and i can't speak japanese to save my life (arigato, maybe. heh.)


Joerg Diekmann13 12 2003 7:13AM

I codeswitch between either English and German, or English and Afrikaans. I suppose the reasons for it are quite varied, but the most common reason for me to do it is for expression. There are simply better phrases in Afrikaans say than there are in English - to let it all out. If French has twenty (or whatever) words for Love, then surely there are easier ways to express yourself in French than in English when talking about love.

It's also interesting that I begin thinking in whatever language I am currently using. But my thoughts, my internal monologue, my attitude - the way I relate to the world - changes when I switch languages. I become more serious when I think in German - there's not as much joy. The humour is dryer and more reserved. It's a very very subtle shift ... but language, and what you can and how you are able to express things in language, makes up a significant part of how you view the world. (re French with their words of love, Eskimos with their words for ice/snow)

Arthur18 12 2003 8:18AM

I switch between Dutch and English, but only if I'm speaking to Dutch relatives. They don't seem to have a big problem with understanding the mix of English verbs and nouns I throw in sometimes, which demonstrates the Dutch' tolerance of foreign words.

As for the Dutch people here: your institutionalized English (the English as taught to you in schools and universities) is nearly perfect. And that's also its weakness particularly in daily normal conversations.

Macubu50 12 2003 8:50AM

First of all, I just would like to share my admiration for Jason for the simple fact of raising this argument. It fascinates me that a successful designer can also write so well, and be so interesting and often quite precise in analyzing subjects: thanks.

My personal experience of two and more languages comes from an exchange year as student in Germany, as I was 17 years old. Being italian, and nowing nothing about german before leaving for Nordrhein-Westfalen, it took a while to being finally able to speak german fluently. Until that moment, codeswitching and mixing words together was the constant rule. I spoke phrases like: I know the german "Tränen" are alwyas on time - putting an italian word (treni) in place of the correct german one (Züge) telling as result that germans cry punctually, which had nothing to do with trains.

But then, very suddenly and inconsciously, my brain "switched" to german, and I started thinking and also dreaming in german. From that moment on, and to the present day, italian and german are stored in two quite separated "partitions" of my brain, I stopped mixing the two languages together, and it has become very difficult and tiring for me now to translate from one to the other.

Every time I find myself in Germany or in the company of germans, (and also when I come back to Italy) I feel very tired for two or three days, and then again my brain switches, and I start thinking in the other language. It's very weird, and I have no control whatsoever on this.

Macubu51 12 2003 8:51AM

(Sigh) I used the BR command. I beg for pardon.

Colin35 12 2003 9:35AM

When we're in New York, my wife and I use Portuguese as a way of having private conversations in public places (which shields us from eavesdropping from puzzled Spanish-speakers, who hear something vaguely familiar but can't quite tumble to what is being said). In Brazil, we use English for topics the taxi man need not overhear. As I get more fluent in PT, I've started codeswitching in my restless dreams, according to Neuza!

What's interesting is how Neuza's formal English training balks at my unconscious code-switching between standard English and the primitive Southern California valley dude dialect of my early life, which tends to creep in when I'm emotional. I'm teaching her to decode sentences with "like, y'know" thrown into the middle of every utterance.

Bill Mullin37 12 2003 9:37AM

My own code switching experience comes from bars
I have a Fench Canadian friend who when we really got going i would speak to her in French and she to me in English, Both working to better understand the others reference.

As an aside I have a good friend who is Aruban. In aruba you learn English and Dutch in School, speak papimento (local) at home . He also speaks spanish and German
I asked him one day "what language do you dream in?
His answer without skipping a beat "papiamento"

So another angle on codeswitching ...
Which language do you think in?

In college I had a good friend a Foreign lamguages major who went to Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. He Spoke like 10 languages fluently counting chinese dialects as tongues.
His explanation was that every time he could think in another language he learned anew way of expressing himself.

Kind of thought provoking eh?

Stephen Koch08 12 200310:08AM

Interesting thread here. After living in France for 4 years and teaching ESL for part of that time, it came down to convenience. Whatever language was most convenient for the moment. I do agree that swearing is better in French although I'm told that my vocabulary in that dept. is somewhat lacking. After returning to the US, unfortunately I find myself not practicing enough but one thing has instilled itself into my psyche:

I will always use putain in place of other expletives. In doing so, people around me have no clue as to what it means, although they've begun to wonder.

It also took me a while to get used to NOT saying pardon on the street/subway. In short, our surroundings and reactions to them facilitate our speech. What comes out, I believe, is a natural 'reaction', non? When I gather with French friends here in the US, I immediately switch to French until there is someone who doesn't understand. When there is only one French and several 'others' where the French isn't English-savvy, we speak French in consideration of him/her.

My main question then becomes: "What are the differences between bilingual and fluent ?"

Grammar: When one becomes fluent, we understand the difference between, say, simple past and present perfect in our native language. Often, these same rules cannot be applied to another language, thus codeswitching for beginners is nearly impossible. Is it possible to think in two (or more) languages at the same time? I doubt that.

Then, how about the vast difference between US and British English? Can that be considered codeswitching?

Susan Schweitzer45 12 200310:45AM

The linguistics department at CUNY runs a center called the Research Institute for the Study of Language in an Urban Society which is one of the foremost centers for research on bilingualism in an urban setting. The phenomenon of codeswitching is one area studied in depth, but also of interest is borrowing, when words in the matrix language are incorporated with a shifted meaning. An example a professor of mine recently discussed was the English word "brother" which has been taken into some NYC-Spanish dialects (pronnounced something like BROH-dare) with a slang meaning of "friend" or "pal". Anyway some of the papers are probably interesting to non-linguists, and there are always talks and colloquia for anyone in the NYC area.

Camilo17 12 200311:17AM

Bilingualism and multiculturalism go together, I agree. In my experience it has been the informal approach, that is, the conversation, whenever you see the switching the most: we will be speaking Spanish, glide into English, answer again in Spanish.
All my Hispanic friends are bilingual, but since we hang with a big monolingual group, we have to resort to switching. And it permeates everything: no subject is the sole province of one language: politics in America get discussed in English or Spanish, romance as well, parties and the like, even cuisine travels indistinctly between languages. I have received emails that shift from one language to the other, although it is not so common.
The grammatical structures, though, tend to be kept pure, lest we become completely alienated: Neither the English speakers nor the Spanish speakers being able to comprehend that which we say. It is only in the similes and figures of speech that you see significant seepage, perhaps because we are incorporating foreign ideas into an already defined structure.
And chicks dig it :)

Paulo22 12 200311:22AM

What Eugene said. I'm Filipino, Tagalog-speaking but weaned on English, and I often interject Taglish into my everyday speech, which has cased a few looks of puzzlement since I moved to the US.

There's a satirical form of Taglish in the Philippines called coño-speak. While the word is a nasty one in Spanish, in Filipino it is applied deprecatively to preppy colonial wannabes who mangle their speech with heavily American-accented Taglish, e.g. "How blue naman is the sky!" (The adverb "naman" meaning "very" or "excessive.")

afrael37 12 200311:37AM

The most codeswitching, I've experienced, is actually here in Puerto Rico, although Miami comes very close. It's just a reflection of modern multicutural societies. I also lived for a few months in Rio de Janeiro and it was very fun mixing, english, spanish and portuguese.

Andy53 12 200311:53AM

I had a terrific tri-lingual conversation while roaming around Europe this summer. A confused Russian was trying to find his way to Gar de Lyon, the same place a friend and I were heading, so I offered assistance. In return, he took the two of out for a round of beers and grilled me on American politics.

He had recently completed studies as a celloist in a Berlin-based conservatory but claimed to have spoken English years ago. The tri-lingual conversation went like this:
- English when he was calm
- German when he got frustrated
- Russian when he was drunk

Towards the end of the night, he'd begin a sentence in English, transition into German, and cap it off with a bit of Russian "zaebis."

jimmy jam10 12 200312:10PM

The grammatical structures, though, tend to be kept pure, lest we become completely alienated: Neither the English speakers nor the Spanish speakers being able to comprehend that which we say.

I think code-switching must assume a certain level of fluency: if fluency is lacking, and two speakers share no common language, might this be the beginnings of a pidgin language, often incomprehensible to native speakers of either of the languages from whence it sprang?

mileena59 12 200312:59PM

this is a great discussion topic!

i'm sure it's the same for other languages, but pick up a local chinese newspaper ( they have them in the los angeles asian suburbs, published locally ), it's a hodgepodge of codeswitching. and it's neat, because they have to find ways to fit the english into these paragraphs of chinese ( written vertically ). so you read up and down, and then have to turn the newspaper to read the english word they switched to.

Bilbo03 12 2003 1:03PM

My Polish girlfriend uses a mixture of English and Polish when text messaging. Mainly for brevity but also because some Polish characters aren't available.

Mike06 12 2003 1:06PM

I codeswitch (Vietnamese/English) out of necessity. When I don't know a word in Vietnamese, I'll swap it out with an English word. This typically happens with nouns since I know most Vietnamese verbs. The syntax comes naturally and it follows the Vietnamese syntax.

My wife is a trilingual codeswitcher (Chinese/Vietnamese/English) and I've heard her use all three languages in one sentence. Because I know a handful of Chinese words, I've tried to tri-codeswitch, but I find this very unnatural because I'm forced to think about structure; this doesn't happen when I bi-codeswitch.

If everyone around me speaks English, I'll sometimes codeswitch to create a sense of a little secret between you and me. Codeswitching is also handy for keeping your conversation private.

Also, when I substitute an English word into a Vietnamese sentence, I modify the English word. For example, "internet" becomes "internet-ah", "WinXP" becomes "WinXP-ah". It seems to be the universal norm when codeswitching between Vietnamese and English.

Armand31 12 2003 2:31PM

I routinely codeswitch from Bisayan to Tagalog or English to emphasize some points depending on the recipient/listener. Lately, I've been experimenting with an arcane form of Bisayan mixed with English to see how people react in chatrooms and our community message board. Natives think its difficult to read or even understand. Inversely, Filipino-American kids I know find it very interesting and cool.

Etienne40 12 2003 2:40PM

Here is Montreal, most people in my social circle are fluent enough in both English and French that we constantly codeswitch in conversations.

This is a fact we did not fully realise until one of us had a friend from Belgium come live and go to school with us for a couple of weeks. Since she did not really understand any English, she would often ask what we had just said and we would be surprised she did not understand. At first we thought it was because of the difference in accents and dialect (European French and Quebec French can be just as different, if not more, than British English and American English) but she then explained that even when we spoke french, we inserted so many English words that she had trouble following some conversations. We then made an effort to limit our conversations to French. I had to consciously think about each of the sentences I was going to say and filter them to makes sure they did not contain any English words.

I can practically say that the language I converse in most often is Franglais/Frenglish.

It is also common to hear sentences that are translated word-for-word so that the sentence itself is in French but has a completely English structure. For example, “laisse moi savoir si tu veux venir ce soir” is a word for word translation of “let me know if you want to come tonight”. It is not a grammatically valid French sentence but it will still be understood by everyone in Montreal.

As for swearing, it depends on what I am searing at :) If I stub my toe, it’s in French, but if I’m working on the computer, usually English comes out more naturally.

Rebecca16 12 2003 3:16PM

In response to Eugene's question:

This is the first time I've ever heard the term codeswitching is this a real linguistics term?

Yes! It's a real linguistics term. And code switching isn't just reserved for trading off words, phrases, or sentences between different natural languages (as described in the many interesting comments above).

Each form of your personal use of your own language can be described as a code. For example, you may have one "code" for talking to your friends, another for talking in a business setting (a meeting or a conference), and yet another for talking to your parents. Speakers often code switch between these varieties of their own speech -- and, as in the case of bilingual code switching -- may not even be aware that they are doing it.

Once concious case of bilingual code switching that I grew up with was when my grandmother would talk to her friends on the telephone. Most conversations were in English, but when she wanted to talk about something the kids weren't supposed to here, she'd put crucial words into Yiddish and Hebrew, fluenty bouncing between the three languages and not revealing any important details in the one language my sister and I understood (English). Of course, Yiddish and Hebrew became a signal to us that sometihng juicy was being discussed...

Patrik18 12 2003 3:18PM

My sister called me this morning and half way thru the conversation, I got this funny feeling that we had started out speaking to each other in English, but at some point had switched to Dutch.

I have become fluent in both languages and will rarely mix the two. Once in a while, I may dig up an English expression while speaking in Dutch to someone, but in many cases, it feels out place.

I also think in both languages although I'm rarely aware of it. It probably deepends on the subject at hand. If I think about someone with whom I would normally speak Dutch too, my train of thought will probably be in Dutch aswell and vica versa. Only counting is something I still prefer to do in English. Dutch numbers seem to confuse me.

More strange is the fact that I have cought myself thinking in French. The realisation usually comes when I can't remember a particular word. It's strange because I normally don't speak French in my daily life and the fact that I've never really been good at it either.

netflix17 12 2003 4:17PM

I often think in Spanish, it comes naturally when you are bi-lingual

jedrek17 12 2003 4:17PM

Wow... finally, something I feel I can comment on, here on I speak English and Polish fluently. I was born in Poland but spent 10 very formative years in the USA. I soaked up a lot of the culture, a lot of the language and speak better English than Polish.

- The subject matters. Right now, the only person I mix languages with is my brother. When we fight, it's in Polish; when we kid around, it's in English. I think it's logical - if you're talking about politics you're talking about local politics (all politics is local, right?) and you'll talk in the appropriate language.

- A lot of language switching is about brevity, but it's usually based on expression. Most phrases are tied to emotions and I'll usually chose the phrase that best describes what I'm trying to get across, what feels right.

- No grammar mixing, that's just bad form. Even though I speak both languages fluently (and make a LOT of mistakes in Polish) I'm pretty much a language nazi. I have a true dislike for the 'cool people' who try to throw in English words into Polish. And I can't speak English to Polish native speakers, even if there are non-Polish speakers around and we should all be using English.

- Verbal and IM. I'll never send off a mail half in English, half in Polish, although I have gotten a couple like that from my brother.

- How much does a speaker's primary language determine language choice? Does their ability to codeswitch improve if they were bilingual from birth?

- To trully be able to switch you need to be bilingual from a very early age, to learn the languages simultaneously. After a certain age, you translate, you can't help it.

- If you're truly fluent in multiple languages, you tend to speak what your speaker is comfortable with.

- There's no rule as far as response goes, although questions in one language are usually answered in the same language.

If you get really caught up in the moment, you might switch languages without taking notice. This is cool if I do it with my brother, but when I do it with my friends... well, they tend to look at me a little bit funny.

Code switching would probably be more prevalent among expat communities, where one language is spoken in public, another in private. I think me and my brother speak English because... well, because we can.

Charles Crabtree19 12 2003 4:19PM

I think in German quiet often.

Once, two years ago when my younger brother was learning the alphabet, I kept saying X, Y, and Z in German. I didn't even notice it, but it really confused him.

Jonathan Bruder36 12 2003 5:36PM

I think our codeswitching transcends spoken language to other sorts of interface. When we look at two communicators, some sort of authentication occurs between them to establish the protocol of the communication. In this way, I think people often shift between jargon-sets and levels of formality when authenticating, and continue to do so in any successful way after that process is complete. If you meet someone, and speak to them about music, and find that you also have politics in common, you are likely to start a conversation about the RIAA. Public speakers switch between formal informal language to reinforce some feeling about what they are saying, just as other codeswitchers do.

Also, I type fluently in both QWERTY and DVORAK. My process for switching between the two used to be intentional. If I didn't look at the keyboard, I would automatically type in DVORAK. If I watched my first few keystrokes, I would start to type in QWERTY and could look up. Now, I think it has more to do with the texture of the keyboard I am using. Sometimes, I'll find myself flipping over from one layout to another midsentence, and I'm not yet sure why.

Tina43 12 2003 5:43PM

In response to Mike...

My boyfriend does that too. If he's speaking either English, or Manglish to another Malaysian, he'll add "lah" to the end of some words (in either language).

vasta30 12 2003 6:30PM

if you think in the language, you undoubtedly will have the urge to speak in it. i cross between french, english, spanish, and gujarati all the time. my brother doesn't mind, everyone else gets freaked out by it.

sometimes its just a matter of finding the right word for the situation. if i can only think of the right word in another language, my natural instinct is to use that language.

writing, however is different. i feel when people are writing, they are more concentrated on using a particular set of skills in a language that doesn't allow them to think in another language as clearly (unless they're doing the whole translating thing) and therefore there's a lot less codeswitching in writing than there is in speaking.

shannon06 12 2003 7:06PM

I'm a native English speaker, and I consider myself fluent in Spanish. There are definitely words in Spanish that work so well that I frequently use them when I'm speaking English -- they are normally ideas that you can express in Spanish using one word, but require an entire phrase in English. I also speak Spanish to animals and babies, because terms of endearment are much more natural to me in Spanish. Go figure.

As far as switching back and forth, whenever I'm speaking Spanglish -- or Inglañol, if you prefer -- I tend to finish my sentences in English. I think it's because English will always be my dominant language (I'm not natively bilingual, I learned Spanish after that crucial birth - seven years window), and for my brain English is the path of least resistance. Similarly, it's slightly easier for me to switch from Spanish to English than in the other direction.

Kim Mellen15 12 2003 8:15PM

Codeswitching is an incredibly complex phenomenon, and the questions you ask are the very questions academics are trying to answer ... so there's no need to shy away from the "academic" writings.

You might want to check out Carol Myers-Scotton's "Social Motivations for Codeswitching: Evidence From Africa," "Duelling Languages: Grammatical Structure in Codeswitching," and "Contact Linguistics: Bilingual Encounters and Grammatical Outcomes." The first one (social motivations) is probably the most accessible ... the others are more about syntax and take a bit more background in formal linguistics. She's probably the most prominent codeswitching researcher, and she has equally controversial theories ... most of my fellow students in a codeswitching seminar last year thought she cared more about her theories than the truth. Still, nobody has all the answers, and she's definitely thought more about the phenomenon and looked at more language pairs than anyone else.

I wrote my master's thesis on what happens to codeswitching when there's brain damage involved. I'll be happy to send it to you as a .pdf if you're really bored.

Maciej Ceglowski32 12 200310:32PM

I always considered mixing languages as a kind of danger sign. I moved to the States when I was six, but always spoke Polish with my mother at home. At around the age of twelve, I hit a very rough patch, where it was becoming more and more difficult to express myself in Polish, and I was tempted to use a lot of English words. We had a lot of arguments about this - in the end, I started reading intensively in Polish, speaking got easier, and six months in Poland after high school got me back up to full fluency.

But I noticed a pattern among other first-generation families in my Chicago neighborhood. First the children would start using English words, then they would switch to English, and then their parents would switch to English when speaking to them. There was a big lag between the loss of active mastery (ability to speak), and the loss of passive fluency (listening comprehension).

The early teen years seem unusually volatile for language loss - maybe because that's when the brain switches from childhood "learn anything fast" mode, and adult "learn slowly and always have an accent mode". As an adult, I can go without speaking Polish for months without having it deteriorate.

None of this is meant to paint the phenomenon in a negative light - but I hadn't seen this aspect of code switching mentioned in the thread yet.

Joel17 12 200311:17PM

I grew up using sign language as I have deaf parents. We signed in English, but as I got older I started to use more and more American Sign Language (ASL) which has it's own grammar and syntax different from English (more like French sign, actually). There is a recognized, if not very academic, mix of the two called Pidgin Signed English which can be viewed as codeswitching... There are times when I am signing in English when a particular ASL idiom expresses my thought much more clearly than sometimes verbose English, so I switch. "TOUCH+FINISH" is so much easier than "Yeah, I have been there already" just as "TRAIN+GONE" is more clear, depending upon the audience, than "We've changed topics; you're too late-- keep up!"

Professionally, as an interpreter, I try not to codeswitch as there are English-using consumers I work with who don't know ASL, but in casual conversation I'm all over the place...

Here's a silly example: I'm telling a deaf friend that I am so excited to go swimming with my sons that afternoon that I've already put on my swimsuit and am wearing it under my jeans, so that as soon as I'm finished with work [I would have said in English] "I can shuck my jeans and bolt out of there like a bat outta hell!" I did it in ASL in two signs... Sometimes it's easier.

Jimmy15 13 2003 3:15AM

- Or is it expressiveness? The "perfect phrase" for what a speaker is trying to convey to their partner might exist in only one of the two languages.

A lot of the times, this is the case for me--I'm a second generation Asian-American fluent in both English and Vietnamese. There are so many times where I'll know the perfect word in Vietnamese to describe someone or something, but there is no one-word English equivalent that will capture all the nuance and subtle meaning of the Vietnamese word. So, many times my codeswitching is out of necessity. But, the interesting thing with that is, it may be due to Vietnamese being my mother tongue (even though I learned English at a very early age), so someone who learned Vietnamese as a second language might have the same trouble finding certain English equivalents in Vietnamese...

Also, a very common codeswitch among people fluent in Vietnamese is the interjection of "you" and "me" and "I" into Vietnamese conversations, because there is no "neutral" versions in Vietnamese. That is, in Vietnamese, you would have to pick a form of "you" or "me" that is fitting of the conversation or the person with whom you are speaking (similar to the French "vous" (formal) and "tu" (familiar), except we have about 5 or 6 ways of saying "you" ("may," "anh," "em," "chi," "co," "bac"...), and "me" ("toi," "ta," "tow"...).

zavach'36 13 2003 8:36AM


I think that the terrefic example of that language switching is ours.
We are kabyles living in algeria (north-afrcia, you know ;-) )

We do speack at least 3 languages each (kabyle, french and arabic) we do that transition in a fast and fluid way, that anybody hearing us will think that we are a kinda fools ;-)

Me for example i speak 5 languages (kabyle, french, arabic, english and german) that's a pleasure hearing me ;-)

and c'est très beau to speak using some languages, coz' it's so easy to say a phrase in some language than in an other.

Bye, Au revoir, Filamane, ibqaw ala kheir, Auf wiedersehen ;-)

Martin04 13 200312:04PM

I'm afraid I'm a bilingual illiterate - I can't read in two different languages at the same time.

Kingsley49 13 200312:49PM

I'm a frequent codeswitcher between Tamil and English. Most people I know are. I'll try and answer your questions from my observations.

Does the subject matter, um, matter? Are sports more "English" and politics more "Spanish"? - yes. Technical concepts are better discussed in English, the language in which we learnt them.

- How much of language switching is about brevity? Maybe people base word/phrase choice on how quickly they can speak a particular phrase in a particular language. - Nope. I often pick longer Tamil phrases for saying something, if it sounds better.

- Or is it expressiveness? The "perfect phrase" for what a speaker is trying to convey to their partner might exist in only one of the two languages. - Damn right!

- How do the grammars mix...if at all? Would a French speaker use English syntax when speaking French (or vice versa)? A number of Indians use English grammar, but fit as many Indian phrases in as possible. Eg. "Any need?" "That and all" etc., very common Tamil expressions, translated very literally to English.

- Does code switching happen in writing as well, or is it strictly verbal? In Tamil, it happens all the time, but there its only when the vocabulary is lacking.

- How fluent does a speaker have to be in both languages in order to codeswitch fluidly? High fluency in one language is required. The level fluency in the other can be pretty basic.

- How much does a speaker's primary language determine language choice? Does their ability to codeswitch improve if they were bilingual from birth? I primarily speak English at work and with friends a 50-50 mix of Tamil and English at home. Though Tamil is my mother-tongue and I've been told I'm very good at it, I speak more English than Tamil. I don't think the mothertongue matters very much -its the people who you talk to and the things you talk about. My friends are from all over India, so its easiest to slip into English.

- Will a strong codeswitcher speak to his partner's stronger language?
I do. I've seen most others do too.

- If one person finishes a remark in English, will her partner start her remark in English? What would prompt them to go back to the other language?
Appropriateness of the language to the sentence. If I where to swear harmlessly, I would pick Tamil. If I where to swear strongly, I would pick English. This is because the strong Tamil expletives are perceived as offensive and crass whereas the strong English expletives are not.

- Are some combinations of languages not amenable to codeswitching? Is Italian/Japanese codeswitching possible?
English - Tamil comes pretty naturally to me. Dunno bout others.

Rod35 13 2003 2:35PM

For us (in and around Moncton, NB, Canada) it's mostly about brefity. In straight conversations (as opposed to spontaneous exclamations or for specific purposes like swearing which is mostly english or made up words) we will use the english version of a word that has less syllables. All about getting your point or meaning accross in the quickest possible way. We're lazy :)

We can always tell the "fakes" from the true local speakers of the language just by the words they use. Some of the language is also old acadian french. We usually conjugate english words in french (keep the english core with the french conjuguaison). I don't know how we are able to tell the "fake" however. It seems like an inner thing (almost like Chiac is a language on it's own, although that can be argued).

Some call this language "chiac" (there was a National Film Board of Canada movie about this, see here.

The movie "Éloge du Chiac" (I haven't seen it, 25 min. in French) discusses the loss of the French culture (language mostly) because of immersion into English environments (the population around here is about 60/40 English/French). Mass media and other information sources are more than 60/40, I would guess more like 80/20 or worst.

There are less occurences of switching as opposed to mixing (switching to me would be full sentences in one language than switching to another where as mixing is the thoughtful arrangement of two or more language artefacts into one sentence).

French (from France) and other French Canadians (Québec and other provinces) usually have great difficulty understanding "chiac", especially when spoke at a fast clip.

jen56 13 2003 2:56PM

Between my husband and I, we speak about 10 languages and understand another 5 passively (because of language groups, similar structures, etc.) Most of our codeswitching is between English and French because I am completely fluent in both and he is knowledgeable enough of the French vocabulary to do it. When we talk about religion and theology (we're both studying to be pastors), we codeswitch between English, French, Greek, and Hebrew. In addition, we are both fluent in Spanglish (having grown up in California) and I used to be fluent in Chinglish.

Our rules:
-the other person has to have enough basic vocabulary to do it
-it has to apply to the situation

I find myself counting in French (it's faster for me), greeting and asking directions in Spanish, praying in Latin or Greek or Irish, swearing in French, cursing at people in Irish (sounds cooler), and my notes from class are a mixture of Greek/Hebrew/French/Irish/Latin for a class taught exclusively in English.

I think I should have been a linguistics major...

Adam26 13 2003 4:26PM

Yeah me and my friends always talk frenglish (english/french) i just find it much easier, some words just come to your head faster in one language than the other.

ren09 13 200311:09PM

Codeswtiching to and from English is done sometimes extensively in Japanese, mainly by the mainstream younger generation who find it to be "cool." Modern Japanese music is rampant with examples of it, but I'm not sure whether or not everyone understands it. Personally I do a lot of switching between Japanese and English when I'm speaking Japanese. Sometimes it's might have to do with the people I'm conversing with (use of English is much more common in areas like Tokyo) or it might just be out of convenience (e.g. I once just said the English word 'paycheck' instead of the Japanese equivalent, 'kyuuryoushiharaikogitte').

Someone in an earlier post mentioned mixing Chinese verbs with English suffixes. The same kind of switching is done frequently in Japanese, just in the reverse, using Engilsh verbs but conjugating them in Japanese styles. The English verb 'cancel' ends up becoming things like 'kyansu-shita', 'kyansu-shiyo', 'kyansu-shinagara', and so on.

Although in certain regional places of Japan doing any English/Japanese codeswitching will draw you some weird glances faster than you can believe.

Marcia40 14 2003 6:40AM

I have become bilingual later in life. I moved from Holland to Birmingham in England when I was 19 and lived there for about 18 months. At first I had trouble understanding the 'Brummy' accent but then, slowly but surely, I started to adapt and before I realised I spoke with a Brummy accent myself. I dreamed in English and when I encountered anyone speaking in Dutch it took me some time to recognise my own native language!

I have now been back in Holland for 30 years and since my partner is English I codeswitch a lot. To me English seems a better language for expressing myself, but then again, that is not always the case. It all depends in which language the thoughts pop up the quickest I suppose. It is hard to say.

I am not sure if I am as fluent in English as I am in Dutch or whether I can call myself bilingual like those who have been brought up with more languages. It does feel that way to me though.

Such a very interesting subjest this is!

Oliver Trific03 14 2003 8:03AM

Raised in German and English I seldom switch mid sentence. Although a topic discussed over the course of say an evening will be done in both languages. Strangely enough, now that I live in Germany again, most of the conversation with my Mom (german) areconducted in English. I definitely don't have a preffered language when talking to my family, and I speak both languages equally fluent, at what I believe to be a pretty good level.

Tobias Schwarz05 14 2003 9:05AM

I'm a German who has spent a lot of time in Anglophone countries over the last couple of years and had some strange bi- or even tri-lingual experiences. When I lived in with English people in an international expat community in Paris, France, working in French for a French company, switching back and forth between two or more languages was as normal as switching on tv. It's something on gets used to, I suppose. In my experience, some words are dominant, say, in Spanish vs. French. So even when speaking French the Spanish word would come up first in my mind and it would need some effort to use the correct French one. I also realised that sometimes I inadvertendly switch languages - for example - I'm watching a movie with a friend whom I speak English to, and suddenly, while watching (an English language movie) I start talking German to my friend and don't even realise that for a moment. Likewise, I remember one instance when I had a bad flu and bad fever, and talked in English to German friends taking care of me. These days, I guess which language I use to think in depends on the subject or, more importantly, the trigger. When reading in English, I will continue to think in English about the subject at hand. Likewise in German.

Evelyn03 14 200311:03AM

Jason, I remember studying bilingualism while pursuing my bachelor's and master's degrees in speech and hearing sciences. Codeswitching, as I recall, is the highest level of bilingualism, where the speaker is completely fluent in multiple languages, including in their thoughts, and effortlessly mixes languages as an accomplished painter mixes colors on her palette to achieve the desired self-expression. Codeswitching is verbal, not written. It is vernacular, not academic or formal. I love listening to it too! I hear Korean and Chinese women in the locker room at my health club doing codeswitching using English and their native tongues.

Jim05 14 200311:05AM

I'm a natural born trilingual: Turkish, Swedish and German. Plus English and French I was educated in school. The language I speak at a certain moment with a certain person depends on the language I spoke FIRST to that person. No matter if this person speaks any other language I could also speak. Somehow this is true for the whole lifetime of this person. It would be quite difficult for me to change the language afterwards.

Eugene49 14 2003 2:49PM

Interesting. I'm quite curious about the several people who said they didn't realize they were speaking a different language from the one they started with in the conversation. I find it interesting since I'm always aware when I'm speaking one language and not the other, even when I'm codeswitching. Like when I'm forced to speak pure English; I would probably stop in mid-sentence instead of blurting out the Tagalog/Filipino word I'm more familiar with.

mikebo25 14 2003 7:25PM

I worked the 'snowball circuit' [Northern Ontario towns] for many years as a full-time travelling pro musician in various bands, doing 6-nighters and driving to the next gig on Sundays. The lingual diversity in northern ON is quite unpredictable. The next small town might be predominantly French, English, or occasionally Franglais. The lumber town of Chapleau (approx 12 hours drive north of Toronto) is a wonderful example of a community where everyone unconciously speaks a mutant mixture of French and English (eg: "Je feel heureux") and no one seems to notice they're doing it... lol... except for les tourists comme nous :o) This kind of communal patois is rare in my experience, but Chapleau is somewhat isolated, and the four sawmills that represent the town's principal industry attract all kinds of northern [French-speaking or varyingly bilingual] Quebecker lumberjacks seeking gainful employment.

Previously I lived in the Caribbean for two years, going to school in Barbados and visiting almost every other island in the Antilles. After a few months I could accurately identify a speaker's island of origin very quickly from accent and vocabulary. Caribbean English is itself a generally similar patois everywhere; but in addition every island community has evolved a uniquely identifiable vocabulary based on inclusions from aboriginal and occupying cultures over hundreds of years, as well as local vernacular identifiers. I also noticed varying degrees of antiquated English terms and Britishisms ... if I was more fluent in Portuguese & Spanish I might have identified similar antiquities present from those languages as well. This spawns the idea that mixing modern and antique English (or any other language) is a related variant of code-switching, since not everyone will necessarily comprehend obsolete terms from even their own native language. Along that line it strikes me that I am fairly certain I will never find another person with an identically eclectic lingual background, even within my own family. But I totally digress.

Personally, I am basically a widely-read English speaker raised in a Ukrainian-speaking home with schooling in Latin, French & German... resulting in a lifelong interest in my own and most other languages. As a result I find it easier to express certain concepts in other languages... and I'm not alone: that's why words like 'angst' and 'kamikaze' have become imbedded into the English lexicon. From that perspective, most living languages code-switch as a matter of course. But just try expressing 'weltschmertz' to a non-German speaker sometime ... as far as melon-scratchers go, that's a real honeydoodle! It was such a relief to meet a German intellectual in Cuba last year and have a good long chat with someone who not only understood that fascinating expression, but who could also truly explain what it meant to be born into a culture that intrinsically instills a deep metaphysical sense of uniquely German 'world pain' into each thinking citizen's very soul ... what an eye-opener that was, y0 ...

Dan55 14 2003 7:55PM

While studying abroad in Germany, I took a week-long seminar in Italy, and played codeswitching with a number of people, including one Japanese who switched constantly between Japanese (which he spoke on the phone with his parents in Germany), German with my German friends and I, English, with my American friends and I, and Italian with all the Italians. Apparently, it is possible. And now I speak English with German word-order.

Iggie Krug59 14 2003 7:59PM

One culture who if known for "codeswitching" is the Amish. They do it marvelously in fact their language is made up of atleast 1/3 english. It is a fascinating cultural marvel. I spent 4 months living amongst them and find myself intellectually codeswitching. Where I actually start to think in Penn. Deutsch

nozlee26 14 2003 8:26PM

i'm bilingual, and i switch all the time sometimes bcs i don't know the farsi word, sometimes bcs there is no word in one of the languages when i'm talking in the other. you can tell it freaks people out, though. they can't tell what you're talking.
besides, the more languages you know the more you can think in more complex ways.

TC38 14 200310:38PM

I think it depends on what you're used to. I'm fluent in both English and Chinese, but I have a hard time switching between the two in one conversation, because I am usually either with English-only speakers or Chinese-only speakers. It's also like shifting gears into another personality. I think I'm a different person in Chinese than I am in English. Culture seeps into everything.

TC40 14 200310:40PM

I should add that "fashion" English, as I call it here in Taiwan, i.e. inputing English words into your Chinese conversation with your Chinese friends in order to impress them and any non-Chinese in the vicinity, is not true code switching, as the English involved tends to be not only incorrect, but totally inappropriate.

anand24 15 2003 2:24AM

Wow !

This is the power of the internet working for you. I wonder how many different languages and countries are represented by the comments in this post. An eyeopener really to the power of the net !

ramin38 15 2003 2:38AM

Interesting discussion on something that many have dealt with for their whole life. I guess multilingual vs. fluent has to do with when the languages were learned. Someone early on in the comments (sorry) mentioned studies on how different parts of the brain are utilized based on languages learned when young or older.

I'm trilingual, English from my mother, Persian from my father, and Finnish from the playground. When I was small my parents spoke to me exclusively in their own native language. They pretended not to understand me when I used other languages. Mom even overheard me telling a friend during first grade that my mother doesn't understand Finnish and I'll translate. What a fool I was ;)

One of the reasons they made a clear distinction was that at the time Finland was experiencing the effects of families moving to Sweden and their children only learning a mixture of Finnish and Swedish with no real skills in either. Mom (as an English teacher) has explained why this half-lingualism (?) occurred, but I can't remember it all. The jist of it was that the children didn't ever learn to distinguish between the two languages, i.e. they didn't realise that they were two different languages that they were combining.

I've noticed that I codeswitch quite a bit, especially with my father. We switch between all three languages, often in mid-sentence. While there are no clear preferences between English and Finnish, Persian is used as a conversation starter and then we switch. Alas, my vocabulary doesn't quite cut it.

I do know that my preference in writing is English. I've read a lot more in English and feel that my output is more fluent in English. I can express myself in a much richer way with English. Although lately I've been reading a lot more in Finnish and consequently Finnish is also an option when writing now.

While I've used Finnish more than English in everyday life, my English is much richer due to reading more. Both languages are rich in their own way. There are many Finnish concepts that I'd love to use in English, but there just isn't any good way of expressing many of the concepts. The same applies vice versa.

And I swear in Finnish, it's a language that goes well with swearing.

Pierce01 15 2003 9:01AM

As Irish struggles to update itself and maintain some kind of hold in our country, a lot of English words and phrases have crept into common use.
At this stage (it wouldn't have been so fifty years ago) everyone (99.99%) is completely fluent in English, and English is the first language of the vast majority (maybe 99.5%). It's the slang phrases that work their way in first. (cop on, etc). Also a lot of more modern words that Irish hasn't had time to create a word for. Technology related words.
We have an Irish language TV channel. It shows quite a lot of Irish speaking programs. Most of these switch constantly between engish and Irish for both phrases and individual words. Especially the younger presenters.
A lot of people say it's corrupting the language. Others say it's just a natural evolution, and the only chance the language has of staying alive.

ted14 15 200310:14AM

In southern New Mexico/Texas El Paso/ Juarez Mexico area the spanglish radios stations are common. The mixing of cultures along the boarder is almost overwhelming. It's pretty hard to describe unless you have been there.

nm27 15 2003 2:27PM

I was on a listserv some years back with a large number of lib arts academics, a number of whom had strong language backgrounds. One, a linguist, relayed the experience of social gatherings of linguists and academics who were highly fluent in 4+ languages. He was trying to explain how it felt to us monolinguists when he stopped thinking about what 'language' was being used, because the nature of casual social discussion, with multiple conversations with people cross talking and listening, often in 4 or more languages, transcended even the notion of codeswitching, since they were commingling syntax, vocabular, inflection, idioms, etc. The closest I ever saw myself was a friend who was seemingly only partially fluent in French, Vietnamese and English (having lived in Quebec, Veitnam and the US in equal parts growing up) speak to her father, and then her true 'fluency' became apparent, because it struck me as more nuanced that substituting vocabulary. I recognize French, and certainly an Asian language should sound rather distinct, and I am an English speaker, but what I heard was a melange that seemed to be entirely of its own particular logic. She spoke with a speed and confidence I never witnessed when she spoke any of the three constituent languages. So I wonder if closed communities that are multilingual become idiolects of their own, based on the particular patterns that require a level of intimacy for them to work effectively (this certainly works in English; for years, a friend of mine and I would say 'White Knuckles' when wanting to refer to someone of dubious character who we believed to be a potential spouse abuser, because of the Elvis Costello song).

Nic Dafis48 15 2003 2:48PM

I learnt Welsh as an adult, so I'm not bilingual, just reasonably fluent. I think adult learners of second languages are far more aware of code switching, especially in a context where everyone has a common language. When I was learning, all conversations with native Welsh speakers were overshadowed to a certain extent by the shared knowledge that "this would be a lot easier for both of us if we switched to English". Learners tend to think of code switching in terms of "reverting to English": once the Cymro switches to English, you've lost the battle - not realising that switching to English and then back again is the norm for many Welsh speakers.

I now teach Welsh to adults. Last year some students from my most advanced group said they'd noticed that I use more English words, phrases and even sentences by the end of their third year of classes than I had done at the end of their second year, possibly because I've stopped worrying about code switching and started doing it myself.

Blogeline01 15 2003 3:01PM

I am from Germany but live in the US. I mainly think and dream in English by now (although too much Gameboy makes me think/dream about it a lot too).
When I talk to other Gemans here and we speak English, we always switch words back and forth.
Especially words that are descriptive about something we are doing here in the US. For example, one of my former neighbors was from germany as well. We live on an Army base (we are Navy though), and so when we talked about military stuff we would use the English words, like commissary or even Army, but the rest was in german.
I mostly switch back to English words or sentences when I am talking about soemthing that has to do with theUS, like an experience I had. I don't think about it, it just happens.
Sometimes I talk to my parents, who are still in Germany, and I say something in English.
It's funny though, because hwen I speak German,and I say an English word, like Dodge, or freeway, I say it with a much stronger German accent than I normally would.
It is really funny. We call it Denglisch (as in Deutsch + Englisch). I really would like to know more about this.
feel free to e-mail me and ask more. I didn't want to post too much.

acid43 15 2003 3:43PM

Like in so many Asian countries with multi-national communities, we speak our mother tongue but basically we're educated with the country's native language and a lot of english. TV is mostly english anyway, because nobody likes watching local productions. In fact, most people I know including myself aren't just bilingual. Sometimes, conversations include more than 2 languages and multiple dialects, and words are chosen so that it brings 'oomph' to what we're saying, but unfortunately only locals can understand. And the slangs are all different, even within a country.
Just like Blogeline mentioned about Denglisch, we'd have Manglish (Malaysian English) and Singlish (Singapore English). It's like, culture.
But this is the first time i've heard of codeswitching. Cool, I'm a codeswitcher.

mjmatty10 15 2003 4:10PM

For a great demonstration of this, I suggest watching Mira Nair's film, "Bombay Wedding," in which the characters, who emgrated to Bombay from what is now Pakistan during the partition, segue fluidly between English and various dialects of Hindi throughout the film.

Though I'm a native New Yorker who speaks only English fluently, my grandparents spoke Spanish/Italian/Ladino and German/Austro Hungarian Yiddish in addition to fluent English, and appropriate languages and phrases were adapted to the occasion and mood, as I saw in "Bombay Wedding."

In my case, as in that of other relatives in my generation, there were additional reasons to switch between languages as well - the primary one being the ability to effectively insult, curse or criticize without the intended victim(s) understanding said invectives (when you gather family members descended from various rival tribes into one room, this is an inevitable result), and more frequently, to get down and dirty in a language "the children" within earshot couldn't understand.

But children do synthesize information more quickly than most adults assume, and the end result is that, even with years of mandatory language instruction in various schools and universities, my cousins and still do not speak any second languages fluently, though we can spit venom most effectively in many. And we can often understand what people are saying in other languages, though our ability to speak them might not be up to snuff.

I've also noticed an "adaptation of species" in the interests of brevity that begins within multicultural environments. Like the word "pristoon" (from the Yiddish side), which means someone dressed in an outfit they think is stunning that everyone else thinks looks like a Halloween costume.

There are interesting colloquialisms that have developed among New Yorkers of every background - like "y'all" evolved in the south. "Jeet," which means "did you eat?" is one example. With so many people of ethnic backgrounds that are oriented toward food, it's usually the first word uttered after the obligatory greetings when you visit someone's house.

And only as an adult travelling on business in a southwestern state did I find out that "agita" was not part of the standard English vocabulary. All sides of my family used it, as did everyone else I knew from many ethnic backgrounds, so I thought it was a word like "belch," which has become part of the general US parlance because its sound so effectively communicates its meaning.

Taylor04 15 2003 6:04PM

I'm from southern Louisiana, where in some areas a version of French derived from acadian (not unlike Chiac) is spoken, and vocabulary mixing and code switching is integral to understanding the language. In the 1940s there was a pushin the schools to get kids to speak mainstream American English rather than french, so for a time French was banned from schools, and only English, German, and Spanish were offered as languages that cuold be formally studied. In the seventies, it was realized that the entire french language culture in southern Louisiana was in danger of disappearing, so there came a push to reintroduce french in the schools and in the mid-eighties, there came an emphasis in the school system on the study of LA-french culture in french class. The problem was that most of the teachers hired to teach French were fluent in european-style french, and not 'cadian (cajun), which is effectively a patois. Cajun comes from a culture which values lingustic/conceptual flexibility over grammatical and lexical purity. This created an interesting situation among native cajun speakers: european french as taught in schools was viewed by many cajun french speakers as a greater threat to Lousiana culture than the ubiquity of English language stuff.

What's this got to do wih code-switching? When I hear european french, on TV or the radio, say, I find it extremely difficult to understand. When I hear cajun french I understand just fine. But I barely speak cajun french at all, because the french I was taught since the third grade was european french, taught to me mostly by French and Belgian instructors. So when I speak french to cajun folks, often times they can barely understand me, whereas actual french folk have no trouble at all, in spite of the fact that I can scarcely understand a word they say. So when I hear cajun french being spoken I switch codes easily enough, but I switch to the wrong damned code, and it's extraordinarily difficult for me understand that code if it's being relayed to me by someone else, except a select few people to whom I'm accustomed to talking with in french (most of whom have the same difficulties as me). This is probably similar to what the Finnish children mentioned above were experiencing in Sweden: the language I can speak effectively is similar to but not the same as the language I can parse effectively. I wonder how often this happens to people outside of Louisiana?

Asparagirl19 15 2003 7:19PM

This thread brings to mind the issue of codeswitching (neat word, BTW) within literature, and even within fictional languages. Take "The Lord of the Rings", for example, which has words from the various tongues being dropped into other languages' sentences. It's even used as a literary device to some degree to emphasize the growing bonds between the culturally-diferent members of the fellowship. Or, for another example, the mindset of Arwen and Aragorn dictates their language choice to one another (i.e. are they talking about love? fears? their respective worlds and races?), and vice versa. Tolkein was certainly no schlump when it came to languages, so I doubt this was accidental. (Oops, just codeswitched right there, with Yiddish.)

nick03 15 2003 8:03PM

One thing to remember is that the term 'codeswitching' is slightly misleading: that's to say, it's not an on-off switch between languages, but more like the left-right 'balance' knob on a stereo system. Speech codes go from formal to colloquial, 'standard' to dialect, literal to slang/idiomatic. We all code-switch to some extent: you seize upon different outfits in your linguistic wardrobe when speaking to friends, family, lovers, bosses, strangers. Studying English at university made me aware of the differences between 'tutorial-speak', 'friends-from-home-speak', and 'friends-from-other-parts-of-the-world-speak'.

But, as for multi-lingual codeswitching: I have a few college friends who have Welsh as their first language, who instinctively speak Welsh to those who also have it as their mother tongue, and the language is a little like Hindi for the way it steals English words without alteration: you'll lose track of the conversation as it goes into Welsh, and then it'll be '... sausage ... stereo ... tunafish'. All rather like a fading signal on a short-wave radio. Then you'll have a few switches into English to clarify a point, to add something to the mix, and it's back to Welsh.

I also have a friend who wrote his masters' linguistics thesis on code-switching in the north London Greek Cypriot community to which he belongs. Now, Bambos's own manner of speaking -- and writing -- is a great example of code-switching at its most visible: it goes from the style of a scholarly journal through Greek slang to street slang with a few expletives thrown in along the way. Much fun.

Rob Manuel14 15 2003 8:14PM

I'm an English speaker and as a teenager I spent a few weeks living with a Polish family living in the UK. They frequently flipped in mid conversation - even mid sentence - between English and Polish.

I asked them about this. They said something like, "Certain subjects are more Polish than English. Like talking about our parents is a Polish subject. Whereas talking about our jobs in England is an English subject."

Personally I felt that this wasn't the whole truth. I felt that more personal stuff (that wasn't for an outsiders ears) might have been conveniently been expressed in Polish. Saving my innocent ears.

Andy41 15 2003 8:41PM

Many people in Ireland are bilingual Irish/English speakers. The languages are almost completely different, and when Irish is spoken casually, there's usually quite a lot of English thrown in.

For most people, it's just a case of whatever comes into their heads first - that can be because it's quicker to say something in one language, or often, in the case of English, that it's a modern word which just sounds wrong in Irish (to me, anyway). But quite often the Irish is more conducive to certain kinds of expression or abstract thought.

lionel43 15 200310:43PM

you can't overlook the fact that it's cool. of course in some communities, especially asian youth, it's about impressing others with your grasp of english, no matter how weak. in my case however, in malaysia where nearly everyone is multilingual from early in life (who said "bilingual from birth"? being lingual at all since birth would be awesome, kottke :), especially when the english is fluent, it's no longer about being impressive... though it never stops sounding cool to anyone who overhears the conversation.

whenever i speak with friends, codeswitching — even while occuring subconsciously — just feels wonderful, if i notice at all. i can't put a finger on it, but maybe it has something to do with the freshness of the natural change of language at mid-sentence, even mid-word, or in answering a question. i dunno, but there's a tiny, subconscious sense of completeness-of-self in the back of my head when we fluidly speak english, malay, and bits of chinese and kadazan altogether. speaking english plus a third or fourth language says you're cosmopolitan, while at the same time native languages says you've got roots.

nonke00 16 2003 5:00AM

Although I do have an English mother I was brought up monolingual in Germany. After finishing my schooling I went to university in England and lived there for 12 years. I am now fully bilingual but still speak German to my mother and English to German friends I met while in London.
Especially in those conversations it was common for all of us to constantly code-switch, mainly because a certain word fitted better in the circumstance and also because we could be certain the other one would understand. In the German conversations I had with Germans in England we started, after a while, to substitute German sentence structure with English as well as constantly switching the vocabulary depending on which word we could think of first. Various friends asked me in which language I thought/dreamt and I couldn't honestly tell them because both were so familiar to me. When I consciously thought about it I noticed that I switched between one and the other, starting a thought in one and finishing it in the other. One thing that never changed though: I always count in German.

DaveP14 16 2003 4:14PM

My father was born in Greece (Macedonia) and all of my relatives spoke both English as well as Macedonian. I have two stories (at least) to relate to this topic.
When I was younger we would have up to ten people sitting around the dinner table and I would be the only monolinguist at the table. All of them to a greater or lesser extent would slip in and out of English. The sport of the event for me was to attempt to keep up with the conversation as little clues about the topic were slipped in English in to the flow of Macedonian. Great fun!!
Later in life, my grandmother who spoke english well but was failing mentally sat down across from me to talk. She didn't realize she was doing so but she started talking to me in english and then as she became more animated on a topic, started speaking Macedonian. The amusing part was she needed me to get my Aunt (her daugher) but didn't realize she had slipped in a language I couldn't grasp. She's sitting there growing more and more agitated as I continue to ignore her request to get her daughter. I guess that's as much a story about the failings of old age but it is interesting how people can think they are speaking English when in fact they are not.

dahl09 17 2003 2:09PM

I used to dream about Tetris too when I was a Game Boy addict back in the day. Fortunately, don't have Nintendo anymore so no longer an addict

O Lawless13 17 2003 2:13PM

Like, had Kottke never heard Spanglish before? Lived in the Bay Area -how- long?

What the hell, dude?

Jack Hampster51 17 2003 3:51PM

I once had an argument with my roommate in american sign language.. him speaking american sign language and me yelling... the neighbors looked at me strange ever since (we were both taking sign language classes at the time)

dan13 17 2003 7:13PM

switching languages within a discussion conjours up an image of a formalised .NET-esque communication development interface for the collaborative design and construction of context-adaptive inter-personal dialogue.

i'm such a geek.

my wife is fluent in english, high german, and swiss german. i've picked up a bit of german from her (i'm by no means fluent), and often use the odd german phrase sub-conciously, either just in my head, or in conversation with my wife - eg : ich habe keine ahnung etc.

peter03 17 2003 8:03PM

unlike many of the code-switchers, i never accidentally switch from english (with which i am more fluent) and mandarin (technically my mother tongue). when i speak with my parents, i definitely code-switch between english and chinese, because my chinese vocab is that of a 6 year old (when i moved from taiwan to the states). in all other situations, i do not slip into chinese ever, i avoid speaking in chinese at all even to those fluent in the language, because i am afraid of saying the wrong words.

Durf05 19 2003 3:05AM

Japanese kids (and long-term foreign residents) attending international schools in Tokyo speak "champon"--that's the term I usually hear used to refer to the mixture. I don't think Japanese-English is any less likely of a combination than French-Spanish or another pair of more closely related tongues; I think the one and only limiting factor will be the level of fluency in both languages.

It's not done simply on a word-for-word basis. It doesn't require identical word orders in the two languages. The kids I went to school with here in Tokyo flipped back and forth in between single words and phrases and sentences and long passages of speech.

yoyo57 22 2003 4:57AM

Try spending some time in countries with multiple national languages - for example I live in singapore and there are 4 official national languages : English, Chinese, Tamil, and Malay. By default, the person would know the language of their race and also English.
I speak english and chinese and mostly find myself changing languages depending on who I'm speaking to, and which language best fits the meaning I'm trying to convey. I don't accidentally switch.
However, I know people who are bilingual in two romance languages (french and english), and they frequently code-switch in the middle of a sentence, sometimes even more than once. They definately speak english with french grammar, and speak french with english originated words.

ina59 22 2003 9:59AM

Personally, I codeswitch (i.e. speak in Taglish, but the term codeswitching seems so much nicer ;) ) depending on the situation. I can rattle off sentences in straight English, or speak pure Tagalog when the need arises, but I usually find myself speaking English with a few interjected Tagalog words, or Tagalog with a few interjected English words. The subject matter has no real bearing as to what language I'll use, it depends on whom I'm speaking to. I'd usually speak to someone's stronger language. If I'm comfortable with the person, and I know the person is strong in both languages, I'm free to speak a mixture of English and Tagalog, sometimes switching mid-sentence if a more appropriate phrase comes to mind. Its not about brevity, its about how to best be able to convey your ideas.

I think the beauty of knowing more than one language is about having a wider range of ideas with which to express yourself. Certain words in one language may have only a rough translation in another, and will not be able to convey the idea as well as the original. This brings to mind Orwell's 1984, where Newspeak was the language officially sanctioned in that dystopian world. For those that haven't read the book, in Newspeak, instead of a language growing with time to include new words and forms of expression, the proponents of Newspeak prided themselves in publishing a thinner dictionary each year, by combining similar words and eliminating words that described undesirable concepts. Words such as freedom were stripped of their original meaning, or dropped from the language altogether.

Anyway, I'm going off on a tangent. Let's get back. Being bilingual or multilingual is a huge advantage in having the vocabulary to describe a wider range of concepts and ideas that may not even have appropriate words to articulate these fully in one language. When relearning my mother language, it was like discovering a whole other world of descriptions and ideas that were not available to me previously. It would be wonderful to learn a few more languages and widen my horizons even more.

Jake57 23 2003 7:57AM

NPR's Morning Edition woke me up this morning with a story about Spanglish. Are they reading Kottke.Org?

johnny lo33 23 200311:33AM

if you're interested, "portraits of a whiteman" by keith basso, an anthropological classic, is all about codeswitching.

Erich Ian43 23 2003 4:43PM

Watch Atom Egoyan's Ararat and you can see some interesting multilingual conversations. There's English, French, and Armenian.

It's also an amazing movie.

Richard53 24 2003 7:53AM

Is that the same as coding in C# and realising that the errors were generated by you slipping in some PHP syntax.

mark36 24 2003 9:36AM

I agree with posters above who think it is mainly to cover gaps.

Mixing of languages doesn't seem strange to me: it just means you can't remember a word in one language, can remember it in another, and are confident the person you are talking with will recognise the word from the other language.

It's probably the normal way words get introduced from one language to another - a computer 'file' seems a new kind of thing in some language, and only rather tenuously linked to the paper or cardboard file, so instead of extending to computers your own word for [cardboard] 'file' you import the foreign word, perhaps respelling [for Hungarians, this means respelling it 'fajl', instead of using 'akta', their own word for file - a word which was in fact the product of an _earlier_ importation to name a then unfamiliar concept] to fit your pronunciation rules. Hey presto, a new word in your language.

That's how we in English have both 'hostel' and 'hotel'. Hostel passed into French, they changed the spelling and sound by eliding the s, and we reimported it as a second word to mean something grander than, and distinct from, a hostel. Likewise, we are so used to using 'cuisine' to mean a [usually national] style of cooking, it is a bit of a shock to realise in French that 'cuisine' means both cooking style and just 'kitchen' - the room where you cook food.

People who can speak several languages must often be this pioneers in this ancient process.

What is "code-switching", by the way? Changing from one way of saying something to another way of saying something?


Kathy33 24 2003 7:33PM

The only thing I know about bilingualism firsthand is that when I can't think of a word that I want to use, I can usually sign it in American Sign Language, so finding the 'perfect' word is important to me. At least the sign gets the right concept across, if the person I"m talking to know's ASL.

In any case, it sounds like you've got a fabulous start to a PhD earning dissertation! If you need an editor, let me know...I'm willing to edit for the sheer pleasure of the info! Sounds facinating!

saint52 25 200310:52AM

Migrants and their kids are notorious codeswitchers down here, especially as the migrants forget their mother tongue and their kids never learn it properly. But we also get situations where their kids, having grown up in another country, codeswitch amongst themselves as a form of self-identification, or a 'badge', even if they are not very fluent in their parent's native tongue. Almost a form of anti-language.

Daniel Luke39 29 2003 2:39AM

A bit off topic, but one thing I've been intrigued by is the notion that the only languages you can't hear are the languages you speak. Since the brain cannot avoid assinging meaning to sounds that are already known to it, it is impossible (or at least very difficult) to hear what these sounds sound like. I've always wondered what English sounds like to a person who doesn't understand it. There will never be anyway for me to experience this.

Celia49 29 2003 2:49PM

Wowee, 123 comments and yet I am compelled to add to the rabble. I'm a Cantonese/English bi-lingual (fully fluent in English, conversationally fluent in Cantonese) and codeswitching has long been the norm of family conversations and is a subject we often joke to each other about. It's also something we do unconsciously amongst ourselves, but sometimes consciously in the presence of non-bilinguals in order to talk amongst ourselves, almost conspiratorially...

"Maybe people base word/phrase choice on how quickly they can speak a particular phrase in a particular language. Or is it expressiveness? The "perfect phrase" for what a speaker is trying to convey to their partner might exist in only one of the two languages."

I would say it's both of these that make up codeswitching. It's the ease of reverting to one's native language to more accurately express an idea.

"How do the grammars mix...if at all?"

I find that grammar is determined by whichever language it is that takes up the bulk of the conversation. Usually, if the conversation is started in English, it becomes an English grammar-based convo, interspersed with non-English phrases, which retain their non-English grammar (non-English words would be simply be inserted within English sentences, following English grammar.) I think it really depends on what language the convo starts in. When the convo becomes more and more peppered with non-English words and phrases, the speakers may unconsciously agree to switch the language the convo is based in (either realizing one or more speakers are more comfortable in the other language, or the topic becomes more culturally-specific) and the reverse would happen.

"Does code switching happen in writing as well, or is it strictly verbal?"

Yes it definitely happenes in writing as well (my mother writes letters home in Chinese, interspersed with English terms, and I have communicated in my English-based emails with Chinese terms and phrases in pinyin--the alphabetical language-system of Chinese).

"How fluent does a speaker have to be in both languages in order to codeswitch fluidly?"

I am not nearly as fluent in Cantonese as I am in English, but I can codeswitch comfortably enough to do it unconsciously most of the time. My younger sister is barely fluent in Cantonese, but does it unconsciously on occasion.

"How much does a speaker's primary language determine language choice? Does their ability to codeswitch improve if they were bilingual from birth?"

I think the environment you grow up in determines your fluency in languages. You'd be surprised how easily one can "pick up" another language, given enough time spent immersed in a different environment. Codeswitching has more to do with one's knowledge of, and ability to, grasp another language's phrases, slang, cultural references, ideas (I think).

"Will a strong codeswitcher speak to his partner's stronger language?"

Yes, it's very likely. Again, if one speaker is stronger in one language than another, there will be an unconscious decision made to converse in the stronger language (ie. after speaking to my mother for a while and I sense that the ease of switching to Cantonese will benefit her ability to converse with me better, I will switch the conversation to a Cantonese-based one.)

"If one person finishes a remark in English, will her partner start her remark in English? What would prompt them to go back to the other language?"

Perhaps. If the conversation is English-based, then yes, unless the partner finds it more apt to express a reply with a non-English phrase or wants to reply with the other language as a way of referring to what his partner just

"I don't think that photocopier bay lay yong"(for you to use)

Reply: "Bay mm bay lay yong, I'm going to use it anyways" (Whether it's for you to use or not, I'm going to....)

this also has to do with subject matter...and convo would switch language bases if the topic is culture-specific.

Are some combinations of languages not amenable to codeswitching? Is Italian/Japanese codeswitching possible?

I think Italian/Japanese codeswitching is very possible, but both speakers would have to have near equal fluency in both languages for the conversation to flow smoothly. I guess this relates back to your grammar my personal experience, both parties in codeswitching conversations do it unconsciously, but may become aware in the differences in grammar and syntax. Often in my personal conversations this becomes an opportunity for inter-textual jokes in the form of language puns (classic Chinese jokes are often pun-based) -- using an operative Chinese word in their Chinese phrase as a pun for English. Or if their non-English phrase coincides perfectly with the topic, I can reply with a humorous reply (in English) using the non-English grammar in their Chinese phrase, to remark on the fact that we are codeswitching.

Phew, that was a lot of talk. Thanks for bringing up the topic and happy birthday!

Cora40 03 2003 2:40PM

Codeswitching is not always bilingual. You can switch between more than one language. This is a theme studied by sociolinguists, so, if you want to know more about it just rush into the closest library.

speedwell43 03 2003 4:43PM

I'm monolingual "but."

But I live in Houston and I work in the oil industry... so when I was traveling in an elevator with two rig workers, one speaking Spanish and one speaking French, we all managed to understand each other despite the fact that we were all speaking our native languages and NOT codeswitching.

Same thing happened when my father, a native Hungarian and bilingual, had a Hungarian relative stay with our family for a while. He and she spoke Hungarian, and I was clueless for almost six weeks, then I started jumping into the conversation, in English, and with pertinent comments. But I don't speak and can't understand anyone else's spoken Hungarian.


maki27 03 2003 6:27PM

I'm originally from Japan, now an American citizen, but living in Switzerland with my partner who is Swiss. So we talk to each other in what is for both of us our second language, English. (in his case maybe his third - Swiss-German is 1, High German is 2) Since he doesn't speak Japanese and I don't speak Swiss-German we mainly stick to English except for the occasional German, but we don't really say "ok we are now talking in this language" - it just comes out naturally. It's the same when I am talking to my mother or sisters - we switch quite naturally between English and Japanese, sometimes just for a word here or there, or sometimes we'll suddenly switch to one language for a while, then back again.

A couple of years ago we were having dinner with an American friend of ours who is a German-English translator, in Koeln (Cologne). We got a bit drunk, and suddenly for the life of me I could not get any German or proper English out of my mouth. The only language coming out was a sort of convoluted French.

I think that language-switching is something that is totally unconscious once one reaches a certain level of familiarity with a language. I dont even realize what language I am thinking or dreaming in anymore unless I contemplate it consciously later. I had a dream recently where for some reason Kelly Clarkson was talking to me in fluent Japanese. Go figure.

karen47 04 2003 6:47PM

I don't know if you already have too many posts on the subject matter but I thought I'd add my two cents in case you find it interesting or relevant.

a bit of background: I speak seven languages, some more fluently than others. My parents, each, speak seven as well. My sister speaks at least four. We grew up bilingual and started learning our third language around ten or so. the most recent language i learned was japanese at the age of 26. In my family, codeswitching is the norm. There is never a case where we have a conversation that involves only one language. We will at times say a complete sentence in one language and at times use several languages in one sentence.

- Does the subject matter, um, matter? Are sports more "English" and politics more "Spanish"?
::Not for us. The only time we purposefully switch is if we're in a location where we are trying to say something private. It's more of a mood and having the right word for the context issue than the subject matter.

- How much of language switching is about brevity? Maybe people base word/phrase choice on how quickly they can speak a particular phrase in a particular language.

- Or is it expressiveness? The "perfect phrase" for what a speaker is trying to convey to their partner might exist in only one of the two languages.
:: in my case. it's not purposeful, but i find that if one language has a word that puts what i'm trying to say more succinctly, i will automatically choose it over the more general one. i will also get lazy at times and choose the shorter word (for example the word for disappointed in turkish is three words so i often just say disappointed even if the rest of the sentence is in Turkish). i definitely think that there are words in different languages that express my feelings or thoughts on a matter, more clearly than others. there are many words in Turkish that are completely impossible to translate to english.

- How do the grammars mix...if at all? Would a French speaker use English syntax when speaking French (or vice versa)?
::we just mix them up. there are times when i use a Japanese word and conjugate it as if it were English. if the other person is as proficient as i am in both languages, it doesn't pose a problem. it's an automatic reaction, i don't think to mix them up that way. i generally do what comes naturally and easily.

- Does code switching happen in writing as well, or is it strictly verbal?
::for me, it happens in writing as well, depending on the person i write to, but not nearly as much. i mostly codeswitch between english and turkish in my writing, which are the two i am most comfortable with and so they require no thought whatsoever.

- How fluent does a speaker have to be in both languages in order to codeswitch fluidly?
::at this point, i codeswitch even when i'm not fluent in a language. my japanese is barely at the end of a beginner's level but i mix it up in my sentences all the time. always unintentionally but always with the corrent choice of word for the sentence. i think it's less a matter of being fluent with the language but more being comfotable in that language for the specific context of conversation. for example, if we're talking about the weather and i know most of the weather-related words in japanese. i am more likely to mix it in than if we're talking about politics.

- How much does a speaker's primary language determine language choice? Does their ability to codeswitch improve if they were bilingual from birth?
::my situation is a bit odd. both my parents are turkish but they spoke french at home my whole life. so i grew up bilingual but not by hearing the foregin language from a native speaker. as far as language choice, that depends more on the other party. when i speak with my mom who's more comfortable with italian, i codeswitch between turkish, french and italian whereas with my dad it's french and english.

- Will a strong codeswitcher speak to his partner's stronger language?
::i do, but again not because i actively think about it. it's default behavior. as i mentioned above.

- If one person finishes a remark in English, will her partner start her remark in English? What would prompt them to go back to the other language?
::if the person already codeswitched, like we wete speaking in turkish and they replied in english, that might prompt me to swtich to english too but if the other person replies in turkish, i might switch to english just cause it's more convenient at that moment. it's not necessarily related to their response.

- Are some combinations of languages not amenable to codeswitching? Is Italian/Japanese codeswitching possible?
::i think it's funny that you chose those two languages because when i came back from living in Japan, i went home to turkey and my mom had friends from italy visiting. each time i meant to speak italian, i used japanese words unintentionally. japanese uses a lot of vowels and so does italian so there are many words in japanese that sound like they could be italian. for me, codeswitching doesn't have anything to do with the relationship between the languages amongst which i switch. it's related to context and word choice. however, i have also noticed that languages that may appear unrelated have many commonalities. for example, turkish and japanese share many similar grammatical rules. making these connections mentally connects the languages in my head and may possibly make switching more accessible. i am not exactly sure about that part.

that's it. i hope this gave you some food for tohught. i find languages very fascinating and one of my favorite things about living in new york city was sitting in random cafes and listening to a conversation in french at the table behind me and another one in italian in front of me. i liked being able to understand what everyone around me said and each time i ran into a language i couldn't understand, i got curious and wished i spoke it. makes life more colorful.

Simon Lee23 07 2003 7:23AM

Just goes to show you.... the staggering number of countries who have responded to this posting. So many languages!

Natalie Marrar50 19 2003 4:50PM

HAHA! This is amazing! I am bilingual as well, speaking English and Arabic. I find it difficult to find the words to say in English and in Arabis sometimes. Do any of you dream in another language? And can you start counting in English and finish off in what other language? I always wondered that about others. I took four years of French, I am taking Spanish in College and I kind of taught myself a few words in Italian. Mainly Italian for retards. I guess that is all! But this is so Awesome keep it coming!

sergio garcia10 20 2003 8:10AM

Educated people in latin america (or at least in Colombia) find extremly vulgar and uneducated to mix english and spanish, in the way a lot of miami people do.

Sergio Garcia14 20 2003 8:14AM

Having this said, and living in France, I find myself often using certain french words that I only use here in France (trains being almost unexistant in Colombia, we almost never mention a estacion de tren, and so, I almost always say "Gare" instead, even when Im speaking spanish). A french friend married to a woman from Venezuela told me they speak mostly in spanish when they talk about parts of their lives they lived in Venezuela, and in french when they talk about their stuff in France.

kristenstj44 20 200311:44PM

I'm a college student working toward licensure in Elementary Education. We've been asked to interview someone who came to the U.S. speaking limited or no English and wouldn't mind answering 8 questions about their experiences within the U.S. school system(s).

Is this a place I can find such a person?

If so, I can be contacted @

Thank you.

Meg Umans43 03 2003 1:43PM

I grew up in New York City. My first language is English, and I'm competent in French, Spanish and German. I learned French first, lived in Mexico first, lived in Germany longest. I think and dream in the language of my environment. I agree with several comments that using other languages involves adopting their cultures. My experience, and the experiences of people I've known who learn languages easily but aren't multilingual, is that the toggle switch says English/everything else. When I'm in an English/French conversation, for example, the vocabulary and grammar of Spanish or German are almost as likely to pop up. I'm as likely to switch in writing as in speech. No, more likely, because both parties have time and interest to use the best expression.

Kalmár Nagy András56 09 2003 1:56AM

I'm a hungarian who speaks English quite fluently, having spent 2 years in england. In England I found myself using English phrases in everyday conversation with my (also hungarian) parents. this is because we simply didn't have an accurate representation of some English words in hungarian. And you are right, this is called code switching.

hardy08 13 2003 8:08AM

it is great if you have the chance of an bilingual education

Cary30 14 2003 4:30PM

Interesting that many if not all of you never mentioned codeswitching from English to ASL (American Sign Language) why?
ASL is a true language and I for one am a native English speaker learning ASL. I find that I often use signs when I get upset and am trying to find the right word for something and cannot. ASL contains many concept signs that often mean many htings utilizing only one sign. If upset it seems easier for me to use a sign than try to say all I want to say in English. It really upsets my other half but I can not help it sometimes. I have been learning ASL for about 6 years now. ANyone want to comment on this subject??

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.

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