I used to be pretty harsh on myself if I couldn’t finish a sentence without going back and forth between English and Spanish when speaking with other bilinguals, an action commonly known as code-switching among linguists. Like many bilinguals and monolinguals alike, I simply believed this was wrong. I thought it meant I wasn’t really proficient in either language—even when I knew this not to be the case—or that I was simply forgetting my Spanish. I was wrong!
In the last couple of years, I have read countless of definitions of code-switching (alternating between two languages), but none had really explained it as clearly as the one I recently read in the book, Bilingual: Life and Reality. Written by Professor Emeritus François Grosjean, a bilingualism expert of international stature and a bilingual (English/French) himself, the book has been a real treat to read. For the first time, I’ve gotten explanations to some particular behavior associated with bilingualism about which I’ve always wondered.
Reading the chapter dedicated to code-switching was an eye-opener. I found particularly interesting what Prof. Grosjean had to say in terms of debunking the beliefs that bilinguals who code-switch do so out of laziness or because they don’t know either language well enough to just stick to one language. According to the author, code-switching is actually not easy to do. He goes on to quote linguist Shana Poplack who’s done extensive research on code-switching and presents an entirely new (to me) definition of this behavior:
“Code-switching is a verbal skill requiring a large degree of linguistic competence in more than one language, rather than a defect arising from insufficient knowledge of one or the other… [R]ather than presenting deviant behavior, [it] is actually a suggestive indicator of degree of bilingual competence.”
I had never really thought about this as an option, but the more you think about it, the more it makes complete sense. It’s crazy the bad rap that code-switching has been given—and I am the first one to admit I propagated the myth—when in reality is an intrinsic part of being bilingual. I would like to point out; however, that code-switching is not the same as another type of behavior common among many bilinguals: borrowing. According to Prof. Grosjean, this has more to do with using a word of short phrase from the minority language and adapting it in form and sound into the majority language. Something similar to what I described my daughter doing in this post.
Another excellent part of Prof. Grosjean’s chapter on code-switching is his exploration of why bilingual do it.
Reasons Why We Code-Switch
1) Sometimes the other language has a better word or phrase to express a particular idea.
I talk about this reason in particular in the post I mentioned above. I do this a lot with adjectives, for example, and it really has nothing to do with not knowing the equivalent in either language. It’s rather a matter of using the better word to describe what I am trying to say.
2) Sometimes the words we code-switch are the only ones we have or they are more readily available in the other language.
This is not to say that we don’t necessarily know the correct word in the language we’re using. This has more to do with something extremely interesting Prof. Grosjean calls the “complementary principle” which basically has to do with the notion that for bilinguals different aspects of life, such as work, family, school, sports, hobbies, etc., require different languages. For example, I spent a large part of my career as a television producer and although I worked for Univision for many years surrounded with bilinguals (with different levels of proficiency), we would always switch to English whenever we were talking about technical terminology related to, say, editing video. It just made more sense to do so since in the case of editing video, for instance, the software was in English.
3) Sometimes we code-switch as a communicative tool, including to exclude someone or to show expertise.
If you’re bilingual, you’ve surely done this: switched to the minority language so that those around you can’t understand. Sometimes it might be to say something specifically about those you’re excluding; sometimes you just don’t want others to listen to what you’re saying. If you’re bilingual, you’ve surely been embarrassed when you found out the person you were trying to exclude actually spoke the minority language, too!
While I was extremely happy to find another way of looking at code-switching, it’s important to remember that in terms of raising bilingual children, the experts agree that while they’re learning both languages it’s better if they’re exposed to each of them in a monolingual setting. In other words, children learn by example, so the less mixing you do, the less mixing they’ll do—at least until they become proficient in both languages.
Prof. Grosjean’s book, Bilingual: Life and Reality, has tons of extremely interesting information regarding what it is like to be bilingual. I plan on sharing a series of posts regarding some of these aspects later on, not to mention an interview with the Professor in the near future.
Update:If you’d like to find out more about Prof. Grosjean, including his answers to specific questions about bilingualism, I invite you to check out MultilingualLiving, an awesome new website I’ve been meaning to share with all of you. MultilingualLiving is the new site by the founder of the Bilingual/Bicultural Family Network and publisher of Multilingual Living Magazine, an amazing digital publication which unfortunately ceased to exist last year.
In the meantime, what is your definition of code-switching? Does (or did) it also have a negative connotation in your view? Why?
Tell us, what are your reasons for teaching your child Spanish?