My vocabulary is large, it contains multitudes
September 5, 2006 7:56 AM   Subscribe

LanguageArts: to the bilingual (or more) people in the hive...

Did you grow up in a two-language culture? I grew up in Montreal, Canada, where French is the main language and English runs a very close second. Even in my adult years, I speak two languages with my friends - shifting from French to English and then back to French during the course of a conversation. I'm not unique in doing this, I hear this often in Montreal, my friends do this too no matter their proficiency in English (or French). There appears to be no rhyme or reason for the 'switch' to happen, or no designated switcher in the conversation, who changes one language to the other (it could be me, or it could be the other person).

And this has little to do with the degree of closeness in the relationship - I've seen this done in retail stores between salespeople and clients, as well as within families or between friends.

So - my question: are we Canadians unique in this regard (I've seen this in Ottawa as well), or are there other countries where this happens as well? I'm thinking of countries with more than one official language - Spain (Spanish and Catalan), Switzerland (German, Romanche, French, Italian), anywhere else? Does this happen in Asian countries? In Latin America?

I'm not talking about moms switching languages with their toddlers in order to teach them another language - although this may have something to do with it, why us adults are doing this in our later years.

Fluently bilingual (or more) people, tell me more about how you talk with your friends - do you stick to one language only or do you drift from one language to the other to express thoughts and emotions? And if so, which languages do you use?
posted by seawallrunner to Writing & Language (24 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
What you're describing happens to me a lot when I am speaking with bilingual Japanese friends. We shift between English/Japanese with little or no reason for it.
posted by dead_ at 8:00 AM on September 5, 2006

Speaking as a canadian that lived with americans in France, Switzerland, and Luxembourg, (all of us fluent in french and some in spanish, but none before moving to europe) we'ld often switch languages when we ran into things that either couldn't be expressed well in one language, or were easier to say in another language. So I don't think it's unusual. You should be aware though, that Quebecois french seems to use a lot more english than "French" french, so it facilitates transitions between the two languages.
posted by blue_beetle at 8:04 AM on September 5, 2006

blue_beetle, I don't think you're right about Quebecois French - I actually think that except in the Ottawa area it uses a great deal less English than in France. In the Ottawa area there are a LOT of portemanteau expressions and transliterations from English to French that make little sense, but that's a regional thing.

Anyhow my wife and I do this quite a bit and my step-father's family has always done this, and I don't think it's unusual at all.

Speaking for my personal usage, there are some things that I don't really express as well in English as in French any more. It's not at all predictable, and covers feelings or judgements about things or situations not subjects of conversation. Also, swearing.
posted by mikel at 8:14 AM on September 5, 2006

academics refer to this (and related phenomena) as code switching.

It's an incredibly common phenomenon in multi-lingual communities (in terms of multiple languages) but the same occurs within one language, such as when a person changes the way they speak depending on audience (friends vs. business, etc)
posted by markovitch at 8:19 AM on September 5, 2006

This is called code switching, and it's very common in conversations between people who share two or more languages, even in places where there only one language is widely spoken (for example, between siblings who share both the culture-dominant and another language).
posted by redfoxtail at 8:20 AM on September 5, 2006

I'm English, work in Geneva and speak fluent French and some Italian. I don't work with any other native English speakers, but everyone speaks English. As a general rule, I speak French with the native French speakers, and English with everyone else. But there's no hard and fast rule and I'll often speak French to a German, although I may switch to English at some point for some or all of the conversation regardless of who I'm talking to.

Although I must point out that the Swiss seem to me to be fairly independent linguistically and by no means do all Swiss French speakers speak Swiss German (although a lot do). Often English will be the only common language they might have.
posted by jontyjago at 8:20 AM on September 5, 2006

posted by redfoxtail at 8:20 AM on September 5, 2006

I'm in South Africa at the moment and people often swap between English and Afrikaans midsentence. One local said to me that it's as if they have at least two words for everything. In fact, they seem to have to stop and think if they have to stick to one langauge.
posted by outlier at 8:21 AM on September 5, 2006

To clarify my "independent linguistically" comment, before moving here I had expected Swiss cities to be bi-(or tri-)lingual - ie signs in 2 languages, shop assistants addressing you in both German and French etc. But they are not. Geneva is like being in France, Lugano is like being in Italy and Zurich is Germany. You may see English on a menu in Geneva, but rarely German.
posted by jontyjago at 8:24 AM on September 5, 2006

In Miami, almost everyone (or at least, almost everyone I know) can switch between Spanish and English with similar ease. However, we tend to speak in Spanglish much more often than either English or Spanish.

Spanglish being a hodgepodge language of Spanish and English. Sometimes Spanglish is nothing more than using a Spanish word while speaking English (perhaps because you don't know the English word, or there is no appropriate English word). Sometimes it's using Spanish words with English grammar. Of course, embeded English in Spanish is common too, as is using English words with Spanish grammar.

That is, we don't so much switch between distinct languages as we meld the languages together; speaking both, and neither, at the same time.

(Spellcheck seems to be down, and I'm in a hurry; pardon any mistakes in the above.)
posted by oddman at 8:34 AM on September 5, 2006

I don't know if it's relevant but here is what I can say from experience. I'm French but I study in London. Last year, I had a French flatmate and other French friends with who I used to speak French. But as weeks went by, we started to feel more and more confident in English. We were all more or less binlingual, so we would use English words or expressions in our French conversations.

I think there were different reasons for that. First, some words or expressions are shorter in English, so it's easier to use them. As an example, I remember that we used to always say "apply" (to universities) instead of "faire une demande d'inscription" in a French sentence.

But most importantly, I think we (and people in general) go from one language to another because each language has its own specifities, and even though there are translations for each word, they don't necessarily mean the exact same thing in English and in French. I don't have an example right now, but languages are subtle, words are cultural, so you can find slightly different meanings in equivalent words (I'm sorry if I'm not saying it right). Speaking a language is having a certain vision of the world. Speaking two languages is having two visions of the world. So you don't always mean the exact same thing when you're using the "same" words in two languages. The great thing about being bilingual is that if you don't have the words in one of your languages to say something specific, you can pick those words in your other language. And I think that's why people go from one language to another during a conversation. It may not make sense for other people but it usually makes sense for the person who's speaking.

I think this applies to everybody, whether you live in a bilingual country or you're able to speak two or more languages. And I am pretty sure it is the same thing everywhere.
posted by celine at 8:35 AM on September 5, 2006

I think it's worth noting that code-switching can be a strictly enforced social convention, such as avoidance speech aka 'Mother-in-law languages, in which married men speak a specific dialect (or even a seperate language) when speaking to, or in the presence of their mother-in-law. RMW Dixon brought up this analysis when working with the australian language Dyirbal. Our own languagehat has written extensively on the subject
posted by markovitch at 8:48 AM on September 5, 2006

Swearing in english is fun, but swearing in french, now there's an art form! On a side note for bilingual Canadians: if you haven't seen Bon Cop Bad Cop yet, do yourself a favour and go see it, it's just awesome.
posted by Vindaloo at 9:22 AM on September 5, 2006

I noticed that when I spent time in Puerto Rico, where nearly everyone is fluently Spanish/english speaking, that code-switching was rampant. It was nothing at all to hear conversations that moved from one to the other.

The only pattern I was able to pick out was that the punchlines of jokes were funnier in English...the entire joke could be told in spanish, but the punchline would switch over. Weirdly regular no matter where we were in the country.
posted by griffey at 9:42 AM on September 5, 2006

As an Ontarian, I went to French Immersion school, so most things were taught in French, and we had to converse in french, we talked to the teacher in French from grade 4(?) on, and there was always a smattering of English instruction and conversation, but I don't recall any real pattern to it. Announcements were in English though, and the national anthem was the bilingual version.
posted by glip at 10:12 AM on September 5, 2006

I don't consider myself fluently bilingual, but when chatting with other Japanese speakers, we invariably wind up inserting at least a little Japanese into our speech, since there are some things that can be expressed more efficiently in Japanese. My wife, who speaks no Japanese, has even picked up a few isolated bits of this from me.

I don't know any South Asian languages, but it's always a hoot listening to conversations in Hindi or Urdu (or whatever), since the speakers invariably pepper their conversations with English. Just yesterday I heard someone talking on the phone in Hindi (I think) and dropping in phrases like "I know, that's what I'm saying."
posted by adamrice at 10:15 AM on September 5, 2006

I will try to contain my envy of you people long enough to point to a study reported in The New Scientist which claims that the actual physical part of the brain which makes the switch in multi-lingual people is the left caudate region.

The report also mentions the case of a trilingual woman with a damaged left caudate region who experiences involuntary switching among her languages.
posted by jamjam at 10:22 AM on September 5, 2006

i tend to drift in and out of two languages with foreign, fluent english speakers. as celine says, each language has its own specifics: some things are more aptly concisely or eloquently put in one language rather than another; indeed, when you speak two languages fluently, you get a sense of how language, up to a point, seems to shape thought: different languages engender different ideas, perhaps, putting it crudely.
posted by londongeezer at 10:58 AM on September 5, 2006

Ghanaians do this a lot. Our lingua franca is English (former English colony) and there are over 50 local languages spoken in addition to that, as well as pidgin English. So when speaking to someone from the same local linguistic family, we tend to move between English, whatever local language it is, and pidgin English (which is distinct enough that a pure English speaker will have a hard time understanding it) without much thought or effort!

Oh, and something i pondering earlier, as a multi-lingual person, i find myself thinking in various languages...for no apparent reason! I'll be thinking about something in English and in mid-thought switch to another language! Interesting eh?
posted by ramix at 11:25 AM on September 5, 2006

It's very common. I used to be fluent in German (born in the US, moved to Germany for a year when I was a kid), and I did this with my parents (native English speakers with good German skills) and their bilingual friends. I dropped the habit (and unfortunately, the language) when we moved back to the States and I realized that no one understood me when I did that. Except for those things that I had first encountered in Germany and didn't know the English for. My parents got a real kick out of translating for me when we went to our local Greek restaurant ...
posted by spaceman_spiff at 2:19 PM on September 5, 2006

jamjam: that article is awesome! Thanks!
posted by markovitch at 3:40 PM on September 5, 2006

I know a few native English speakers from Canada who went to French immersion school growing up. Although they're functionally bilingual, they still prefer to use English for most subjects. But there are a few subjects they only ever discussed in school — higher math, say, or chemistry — and when it comes to those subjects they'll switch to French.

(I've noticed the same thing in myself, albeit on a very small scale since I'm not at all bilingual. But when it comes to the few facts I learned in Spanish class — capitals of South American countries, say — I have better recall if I switch to Spanish.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:20 PM on September 5, 2006

Codeswitching is extremely commonplace. I've even taken a course about it in linguistics! If you're interested in it from a theory perspective, two big names in the field are Carol Myers-Scotton and Pieter Muysken.
posted by kmel at 5:04 PM on September 5, 2006

In Spain, Catalan was prohibited during the Franco regime -- you could be arrested for speaking it in the street. So people only spoke it at home, with family and close friends. Today, people will often switch from Spanish to Catalan when they're talking about something personal.
posted by fuzz at 4:03 AM on September 6, 2006

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