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