Code switching

Today we have a guest post from Dr. J.K. Palmer in Santiago, Chile.

I’m an English dominant Spanish and English bilingual (well not technically bilingual as I didn’t grow up with Spanish, but I am a C2 on CEFR framework and teach at university level in Spanish). Living in Chile I normally speak Spanish, but I have noticed three cases of when I speak in English here, even to native Spanish speakers:

(1) I have a relationship with someone I work with which I prefer to do in English. He’s a Spanish dominant bilingual, and can be a bit, hmm, tricky, so speaking English means that I am able to manage it better

(2) With two of my best friends I VERY occasionally speak English. One is a fairly balanced bilingual, the other raised in an English speaking school here, but is strongly Spanish dominant. I occasionally say things in English to make sure that I have said it exactly right (i.e. personal stuff, rather than “difficult” stuff). I could communicate the information perfectly in Spanish, but I am still not sure of the connotations that the way I say it might have.

(3) I will VERY rarely use English as a weapon on monolingual Spanish speakers if they are being obstructive and it will save me time. I just moved house and the guard in one of the buildings I had to get some documents from didn’t want me to go in even though the notary was expecting me, so I just ignored everything he said in Spanish and only spoke to him in English. I got the documents much faster that way. I feel mildly guilty about this use, but he was very rude to me, so I don’t feel that guilty as of course I couldn’t say anything back to him.

Any other experiences of this sort of “political” use of multiple languages?

12 thoughts on “Code switching

  1. Thought this post was particularly interesting as it’s an issue I’ve been thinking, and indeed blogging about, lately – as an English native speaker currently working mostly in Spanish.

    I’m not as bilingual as you are, so some things I need to do in English – e.g. I find I can’t cope with detailed finance discussions in Spanish – too much information to process! I deliberately speak English with some people in the office because one of their objectives is to improve their English and this is a useful way I can help them. And then there are issues of power and friendliness – do you choose to situate yourself on your home ground or their home ground? As well as just personal enjoyment of using other languages which sometimes wins the day when other things are equal…

    For me, using my native language to communicate on sensitive issues is very tempting, but of couse has the flip side that you can never be sure that your listeners will pick up those nuances! My mentor made a very helpful suggestion which was to try and ask people to paraphrase back what I have said to them, to check for understanding and to some extent nuances.

  2. Very interesting and funny post. I can think of a few examples where I might use language choice as a tool.
    i) If I am calling my wife from work and my colleagues are around I speak Polish so that they don’t have to hear about my personal life.
    ii) If I am around other Irish people we sometimes speak Irish very quickly when we want to say something about the situation or people around without them understanding. This is rude but I find that many nationalities do this to save having to, say, leave the room to talk about something.
    iii) Sometimes Irish people speak Irish to assert their nationality, especially if people are implying that they are British. This is something I have experienced a few times in a pub situation.
    iv) With Dutch colleagues I speak Dutch even when non-Dutch speakers are around if we are talking about something very particular to The Netherlands and translating everything to English is a massive effort.

  3. The point about making sure your listener understands English well enough to pick up the finer points you´re making is a good one. I sometimes wonder with one of the friends if it´s the best policy.. his passive English is very good, but he only lived in an English speaking country for 3 months, and that´s not really enough. However, it does have the advantage of reminding them that you are not part of their culture and that they need to take that into account. They both know that when I speak English they have to be nice as it means I´m about to explode.

    On the “aggressive” use of an unknown language (!) it´s hard to change gear once you´ve started in the language they know. What you can do is let your accent get stronger and stronger and then claim not to understand what they are saying (which in Chile, to be honest, you probably don´t: much of understanding here is guessing what the other person might be saying and involves a lot of good will on the part of the non Chilean listener. I was talking with a Bolivian student about this and he has as much trouble as I do and we also speak the same dialect of Spanish: Latin American highland spanish).

  4. James… not Dr Palmer… I started when I was 28 with 10 weeks immersion in Spain in 2004. Not much after that for nearly 2 years (I lived in Florida and listened to the radio and had a Mexican friend who left after 6 months. I got very used to Mexican spanish). I have been living in Chile for nearly 20 months (arrived Sept 2006), so that´s less that 2 years. And yes, I learnt fast and studied a lot. I´m not a bilingual in the technical sense, but my teacher in Guatemala this year (Feb 2008) said that I often think more like a native speaker (I don´t agree with him.. maybe more of that in another post if Simon will put it up!)

  5. Well [James, hehe], the fact that you reached more or less a C2 level in 4 years is a gigantic motivation boost for a lot of Spanish learners I think. So thank you!

    It’s weird that even in my college classes people tend to say it’s impossible to be perfect in a language other than your native tongue. I believe it’s possible, as long as you dovote enough time and love to studying and practicing it.

  6. Fascinating post and comments. Thanks, all.

    My only answer regarding “political” use of language is that I try to speak Spanish as much as possible in the U.S. to send a signal of inclusion. When I travel, I try very hard to speak the local language as much as I can to counter the impression of Americans as persons who expect others always to accommodate us in English.

    More interesting than my experiences, though, are those of a former boss: Prior to his work in my office, he worked in the YMCA in Jerusalem. According to him various staff members spoke as their native languages Hebrew, Arabic, English, and German, and most spoke all of these languages. So every staff meeting would begin with a discussion (in many languages) as to which language would be used for the business part of the meeting, with consideration of factors such as (1) who was present, but didn’t know one of the languages, (2) who needed to make a presentation (which would be best in her/his native language), (3) which languages had gotten short shrift lately, etc.

    An even more interesting aside that he shared about these years of service is that the doorkeeper in their building had a cognition disorder which caused him to shift languages mid-sentence as he spoke. (Apparently this individual had been quite a polyglot prior to the development of the problem.) In most places the impediment would have made work nearly impossible, but he did fairly well in this particular multi-lingual environment.

    — Joe / Atlanta / USA

  7. We use Gaelic whenever we’re out in public as a way of having a private conversation in a public place. It’s great in crowded restaurants, cafes etc!

    We also use Gaelic when we are abroad, for a couple of reasons. First, when we speak English everyone assumes we are English, which we are not. So using Gaelic prevents that. Secondly, Brits tend to have a negative image abroad (loud lager louts, culturally insensitive, monolingual etc), so again, speaking Gaelic (which they never recognise) means they treat you more positively.

    We’ve also found Gaelic tremendously useful while travelling in Africa – when you’re bartering, or generally trying to suss out a situation, it is so useful to have another language you can switch into when you know nobody else will understand a word.

  8. Actually it´s less that four years. Prior to Sept 2004 I couldn´t say anything in Spanish. I got to level B2 in 10 weeks on the back of my french and Latin. Then 6 months of occasional use with my Mexican friend in Florida. No spanish at all from June 2005-Sept 2006. I didn´t listen to the radio or read in it. All my learning has been in spanish speaking countries, I have often gone long periods of time speaking no or almost no English (staff meeting once a week and calls to my Mother are pretty much the most I get), and normally get 6+ hours of input a day, every day (hours of radio, reading novels, and interaction with people at work, friends etc). In Feb I spent 2 weeks in Guatemala without saying a single word in English for 2 weeks, with 8 hours a day of 1-2-1 classes, lving in a Guatemalan family. Same sort of Spanish as my mexican friend.

    My grandfather didn´t learn any English until he was about 30 (he´s polish and was Polish/German bilingual before that)

  9. English is the first language of my family but they speak Japanese too some more than others. So we sometimes speak to each other in Japanese in public if we want to communicate our private thoughts.

    Also when I want to get away from a sales person on the phone, I used to speak Japanese but lately I try speaking Welsh. But I get nervous and manage to say a word or two. I should try longer sentences. If the person spoke Welsh, I’d get so happy that I might end up buying whatever he/she is selling!

  10. I have to admit, I have never liked it when I get the sense that people are using another language in order to talk about somebody in their presence. Another particularly rude thing to do is, if you have more than two parties in a conversation, is to speak in a language you know the third person does not understand rather than opting for whatever the group’s common language is. All that accomplishes is (whether you mean to or not) creating the appearance of factions.

  11. In the eighyies I worked in two hospitals in Yemen with a number of nationalities. The arab physicians reported in arab and most of them spoke english. The Russians only wrote their diagnosis in their language. But the Chinese nurses and doctors were able to write their reports in english though they did not speak it at all….

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