If you speak two or more languages fluently it’s quite natural to switch between them occasionally or frequently when chatting with other people who speak the the same languages. This type of behaviour is known as code switching.
For example, as I mentioned in a previous post, we used to switch between English and Mandarin all the time in the office where I worked in Taipei, and also with bilingual friends.
It seems that if you spend a lot of time in a bilingual or multilingual environment, you get used to switching from one language to another smoothly. However, if you only use your languages occasionally, it can be more difficult to move between them.
I find switching between languages that I don’t speak fluently and/or don’t use regularly quite difficult. When I tried to speak languages other than English or Mandarin while in Taiwan, and for quite a while after I returned to the UK, my sentences tended to come out using Mandarin word order and with some Mandarin words in them. At that time, the dominant foreign language in my brain was Mandarin and this affected my other languages. At the moment there are several languages competing for dominance in my head – Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Russian and Spanish. My Mandarin seems to be firmly established, but the position of my other languages is less secure.
When studying Irish in Ireland last year, I tried to talk to some of my fellow students in Welsh, French or German. At the time my brain was in Irish mode and I found myself trying to construct sentences in those languages using Irish word order, Which sounded very strange. Similarly, while on holiday in Mexico last year, my efforts to speak French to a guy from Belgium were less than successful. I ended up speaking to him in a mixture of French, Spanish and English, all of which he spoke.
Although I can slip into Mandarin without difficult, it usually takes me a while to warm up my other languages. Once they’re up and running though, they tend to flow freely.
There’s an interesting article about code switching at: