Code switching

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:

This entry was posted in Language.

8 Responses to Code switching

  1. TJ says:

    That reminds me of a familiar phenomena here … we call it “Badliyyah” in our dialect and in fact we just sit laughing when we say some word by mistake either could it be wrong by sound or meaning, or not in its place. We laugh about it all the time but in fact ofr some time I just sit and think of it from time to time .. is it because I learn or had a look at many languages? Or is it because of the stress in ourlives? Believe it or not, some of my friends were joking with me one day and said to me “you have to register in some Arabic class” .. In fact for some time I find it true, I do need to register!
    I don’t know still what’s the cause of this. In my case the cause might be because I had a look in my languages plus I speak English most of the time at my work place and then change to Arabic to talk to that guy or this guy and so. My mother on the other side, is of medicore education (one of the old generations), and yet she says lot of such mistaken words. She’s sitting at home doing the usual house work so I wonder if she had stress as well like we do in our daily lives and our work places!
    But mainly, those mistaken words are not a combination of our dialect and some other language, but it is a combination of 2 or more words from the same dialect, for this reason I would tend to say that the main cause for this is the stress and the pace of life we’re living everyday. Maybe I didn’t use the code switching a lot but I explain in English sometimes even when I’m talking to an Arab person, mainly because I had a long scientific education in English rather than Arabic and I have some terms that I can’t translate into Arabic.

  2. Polly says:

    I wonder: has anyone who “speaks” sign language ever started gesturing at someone who CAN hear?
    I think that words that are connected to experiences and emotions will tend to pop up under similar circumstances. Even while studying a language, things will happen in your daily life. Later, similar frustrations or joys can remind you of what you were studying. Unlike learning to program a PC or auto mechanics, the study of language can pop up anytime because one always speaks. No one just spontaneously knits.

  3. Mike says:

    Something along those lines happened to me the other day. I was in my Japanese class, and I knew the girl next to me had taken some French when she was in high school. SO I said something to her in French, she responded in English, I switched to Spanish, she used French, then I switched to German and she bgean to sign. Unfortunately I only took one semester of ASL in high school, so I couldn’t understand her (but she didn’t understand my Spanish and German, so I guess that’s fair :))

  4. Polly says:

    Mike – Yes, by my count, you two are tied! Anyway, usually best to let HER win. ;-D

  5. Areej says:

    If you have samples of codeswitching in chating in any language specially Arabic,English/ Chinese, English/ African,English/Greek,English or any other languages; because I am doing a research and this is what my topic is about.

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