Language Matters December 2007: Code-Switching and Mixed Language

Dear Language Friend,

Christmas Wishes!


Another year is nearly over. How did it go for you? Have you learned a new language? Or did you get mixed up with languages? In this issue of our Newsletter, we will tackle the differences between mixed languages and code-switching and address a few issues regarding bilingual speakers.

But most importantly, we would like to wish you a great holiday season! Whatever your plans are, enjoy it to the utmost and don’t forget that Santa speaks many languages!

Best wishes from LingoStar,

Lenka de Graafova and the LingoStar Team. Thanks for reading.

Do You Mix Languages?

I love walking around Vancouver, Burnaby and other cities of the Lower Mainland and sneakily listening to the languages people speak on the street. Picture a day, biting cold but sunny, an old couple walking along the beach chatting. Was that Polish, Serbian or Bulgarian? Is it my imagination or do all retired Russian citizens in Vancouver gather around Beach Avenue? Do I hear Mandarin frequently spoken around the Edmonds area? Is Japanese the leading language on Robson Street and its surrounding neighbourhood where all the ESL students seem to gather?

I find it fascinating to guess the languages spoken on the street. I often get it right; but I’m usually puzzled when trying to distinguish between Arabic and Persian.

There’s another thing I find intriguing; it’s slightly annoying yet quite understandable at the same time. It regards mixing languages. I am referring to balanced adult bilinguals who speak (nearly) perfect English with a (nearly) perfect Canadian accent and at the same time consider another language as their mother tongue.

According to information I have read about bilinguals, these people represent a great example of those who have acquired a second language, English in this case, as their main means of communication. Even though they’ve been brought up with another language, English-language acquisition has meant widened horizons, job opportunities and effective communication in a new country. But what has happened to their native language?

It’s being anglicized!

This is, of course, not the rule with everybody, but many bilinguals whose dominant language has become English, mix their native language with English words. In a way this is natural since we all learn languages in certain contexts.

For example, a German girl arrives in Canada to study English. Soon she starts an office job where she needs to make appointments, schedule meetings and take care of all-round admin work. She will most likely know the perfect wording for phrases ‘please hold on’, ‘I will transfer you’ and ‘I’m sorry but she’s out of the office’. But will she be able to switch to German fluently and without hesitating?

This may require some effort. People learn languages in relation to certain social and professional contexts so it’s perfectly natural that she will have a strong and opulent vocabulary for the language used in the office, but she may lack that fluency in her native language, since she only uses German for socializing. This is, of course, a very simplified example of vocabulary shortage among bilinguals.

I actually experienced a similar situation myself when I discovered that I had forgotten the correct vocabulary in Czech when talking about pregnancy. I had read all about pregnancy and childbirth in English, in preparation for my son’s birth last April in Vancouver, and found that my vocabulary relating to this specific topic was quite poor in Czech, my native tongue.

Moreover, I notice language mixing happening in our translation office. English is the main language of communication, but since my colleagues speak Czech, we tend to switch between English and Czech whenever convenient. And then slowly, but unconsciously, English terms sneak into our Czech conversations and Czech terms into the English ones.

An example of such a conversation would be: Ten klient potřebuje quote na voiceover v angličtině. Dáme mu dobrou cenu a turnaround time.

It translates as: That client needs a quote for voiceover work in English. We’ll provide him with a good price and turnaround time.

As you can see, the first example is a total mixture of Czech and English. This sort of language mixing seems to happen very often with people who move to an English-speaking country and then continue to communicate with their peers in their native language. As much as this mixing should be avoided, it prevails because it has a communicative function and is easy to use. Both parties will understand the mixed language as they both know the two languages involved. I looked into this question scientifically and discovered that this type of linguistic behaviour is actually called code-switching, and is described in more detail in this Newsletter.

Mixing languages versus Code-switching

Bilingual adults in some communities mix their languages extensively. Research has shown that proficient bilinguals mix the most and in the most sophisticated ways without violating the rules of either language. However, the mixing of languages among full bilinguals is more often referred to as code-switching. A mixed language is one that arises when speakers of different languages are in contact and possibly form a new cultural and ethnic group, whereas code-switching refers to alternating between one or more languages or dialects.

Code-switching may occur naturally in communities across Canada with both Francophone and Anglophone populations. Speakers of certain mixed languages, such as Michif, do not necessarily speak both the languages involved.


Code-switching is a linguistic term describing the use of more than one language in conversation. It occurs in spoken interaction between bilingual or multilingual speakers and is used between sentences or within a single sentence. Involved persons alternate between the two (or more) languages and their skills in the particular languages may be developed at different levels. Therefore, each person would code-switch between (or among) languages in order to express certain emotion or a notion based on his or her experience in that particular tongue. This type of alteration can involve different forms – it may function as a helping tool in a search for words that don’t exist in the non-dominant language or the speaker may choose to alternate full sentences or phrases from both languages succeeding each other.

Some people may have difficulty separating the two language systems to which they have been exposed. This is mostly the case with very young children who are being brought up bilingually.
Adults seem to use mixed utterances depending on the social or professional situations in which they find themselves. Most mixed utterances are simply words inserted in a structure belonging to the other language.
Often the word in question has just been heard in the other language or the person is talking about an experience he has lived through that other language. At that moment he simply cannot produce the equivalent in his second language quickly enough.

An example: Two Slovak people talk about their visit to the European Festival in Burnaby and while conversing in Slovak, they reference the name of the Festival, the beer garden, the stage and the particular shows in English. This is because they have experienced the festival through English, rather than through their mother tongue and they are physically present in an English-speaking environment.

Mixed Languages

A mixed language is one that arises when speakers of different tongues are in contact and show a high degree of bilingualism. Occasionally, more than two languages may be involved. (

Mixed language is usually formed with the foundation of a new ethnic or cultural group. The mixture of French and Cree, called Michif, is a good example of a mixed language existent in Canada. In Michif the adjectives tend to be French and the verbs, Cree.

Cappadocian Greek is another example of a mixed language, where the roots are mostly Greek and endings are Turkish.

The Malaysian government fears the irrevocable formation of Rojak, the combination of Malay and English. Rojak may not yet be recognized as a fully-fledged mixed language, yet loanwords do enter the Malay language and society regards it as modern and advanced to use Rojak.

Michif as a Mixed Language

A mixed language usually emerges when there is a need to form a new ethnic or cultural group. Michif, a mixture of French and Cree, is a good example of a genuine mixed language.

Michif is spoken by the Métis, the descendants of European fur traders (often French-Canadians) and Cree-speaking Amerindian women. It is spoken in Métis communities in the provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba in Canada and in North Dakota and Montana in the United States. The number of speakers is estimated at fewer than 1,000. Michif is a rather peculiar language. It draws its nouns from French and its verbs from Cree.

The impetus for its emergence was the fact that the bilingual Métis were no longer accepted as Indians or as French, and they formed their own ethnic identity and their own unique language was considered part of their ethnicity.


Spanglish as Code-switching

Spanglish is an interesting example of code-switching between languages. Linguists do not actually consider Spanglish a mixed language. A person using Spanglish might be bilingual but he may also just as well be code-switching, code mixing or using loanwords from one of the languages involved. Spanglish usually occurs in the USAamong Latin-American populations and in those American states bordering Mexico where there is frequent exposure to both English and Spanish.

Examples of Spanglish are often a funny denotation of a certain situation: “Oh, here comes El Tubbo” (an overweight person), “I want some snackolas!!”, “Let’s party-ola!” or “Here’s the pizza-mundo” (expressing action or excitement).

If you like movies, I suggest you watch Spanglish starring Adam Sandler to get a taste of an English / Latin-American mixture.