More on code switching

When I lived in Taiwan I was in a multilingual environment. The main languages I encountered there were Mandarin, Taiwanese and English. Sometimes I came across speakers of Japanese, Korean, Hakka or Spanish as well.

As a student I had friends from many countries and we tended to communicate amongst ourselves in Mandarin. In some cases this was the only language we had in common. With other students from English-speaking countries I generally spoke English, unless we were with people who spoke little or no English.

At work I spoke a mixture of Mandarin and English, with occasional bits of Taiwanese thrown for good measure. With colleagues who spoke both Mandarin and English fluently, I spoke a mixture of the two languages switching between them frequently, though some conversations were mainly in Mandarin, and others mostly in English.

Quite often when we were all be talking in Mandarin, I found myself talking Mandarin to the other Western colleagues, which felt a bit strange. When our boss was with us we all spoke English because his knowledge of Mandarin and Taiwanese was minimal, but I think some of my Taiwanese colleagues with limited English found this awkward.

I’ve heard that some people in Taiwan who speak Mandarin sometimes play the dumb foreigner and pretend they don’t. Apparently it can be quite an effective way of dealing with problems as locals don’t expect you to understand how things work and may be more helpful. Have you tried this?

5 thoughts on “More on code switching

  1. While traveling through India, I occasionally pretended not to speak English, as I found that to be a great strategy for ridding oneself of touts and beggars. However, don’t let them catch you reading your travel guide later!


  2. I pretend not to understand English sometimes when I go out with my friends to the bars downtown and vagrants start begging for change. I’ll just ramble something in French and shrug my shoulders.

    I know this is evil and bad karma… but beggars can be such a buzzkill sometimes…

  3. When I lived in France, I also reverted to English when the panhandlers approached. Between bus stops on my way home, there was one old bum who had approached me for a couple weeks before giving up. Then, one day, I was with a colleague going through the neighborhood. We were chatting in French, and I didn’t give it a thought, but the next day I got an earful when, without realizing, I offered my usual “pas parler francis” (errors deliberate).

    I also went to English quickly when purchasing train tickets or if I needed directions from a gendarme.

    On the other hand, I hand a friend from Scotland with whom I only chatted in French because neither of us could understand the other’s English.

  4. I tend to think that we as foreigners have so many linguistic resources taken away from us, especially in the area of register, that it´s not too evil to make the most of what we do have: the ability to speak badly or not at all. I have perfected the “rabbit caught in headlights” look, and probably use it too much, though after 18 months here I still find many people totally incomprehensible, as do many other foreigners (including Mexicans, Bolivians, Peruvians and Spaniards.. and that´s just people I´ve talked to about it here). I very rarely “forget” to speak Spanish… it´s an effort for me to speak English to a Spanish speaker.

    I´m used to speaking Spanish with my anglo collegues in mixed contexts. I find them hard to understand though (it´s the australian approximation of how Chileans speak which kinda pushes me over the edge 😉 They have to put up with my approximation of Highland Spanish though, and I know that two of them really struggle with it (though pleasingly the Chileans don´t have any problems and a Bolivian student told me that I had traces of La Paz in my Spanish)

  5. Greetings, Simon

    I’m a long-time lurker and first-time poster.

    I am Taiwanese. Because they’re both When speaking with (older) relatives, I speak Mandarin with Taiwanese expressions thrown in, sometimes changing mid-sentence (for example 彼個囝仔真的讓我生氣啦!). I have heard that the older generation twenty years ago who had experienced contact with the Japanese were able to code-switch between Taiwanese and Japanese quite easily.

    I often pretend not to speak English here in Taipei to confuse tourists, however this is another story in itself. And as others have noted, pretending not to understand English is effective for warding off panhandlers.

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