Code Switching

Mix-ups and muddles – your kid’s not confused (but you might be!)

Code-switching is a common occurrence with bilinguals so you might want to think again if you think your child is confused. There are many reasons for code-switching or language mixing. The following is a guest post written by Karin Waldhauser, mother of Bilingual Twins originally from New Zealand, living in Switzerland.

What is code-switching?

Recently, while speaking with some other German-learning friends, we had a laugh about the way we sometimes insert a word from one language when we’re speaking in the other.

This happens particularly when talking with someone else who knows both languages. Sometimes it’s more a case of ‘borrowing’ because we just don’t know the word, other times it’s a case of one language having a more fitting word than the other, or it’s just a word that’s an integral part of the local lexicon.

A friend who lives in France told me that as French kids all eat lunch at the school cafeteria, the idea of bringing food in a box from home is pretty foreign, so they refer to ‘le lunchbox’.

I also notice it when my Swiss friends are speaking to me in German – you can tell that there is a part of their brain focused on the fact that they’re conversing with a native English speaker, so they pepper their speech with English-isms.

This phenomenon has an official name – code-switching, and is common amongst bilingual children. It happens less in households with clear boundaries between languages, such as when German is the school language and English the home language, but can still crop up when kids realise there’s no really good direct translation for what they want to say.

Recommended: Bilingual Kids Mix Languages and it’s OK

When do bilinguals code-switch?

The key thing to note about code-switching is that it usually happens in conversations between people who understand both languages. So if you’re, say, a Portuguese speaker living in the UK, your kids might code-switch with you a lot because they know you understand. Put them on Skype with a non-English-speaking Portuguese friend and it’ll happen less.

Also, for many bilinguals, there are topics and themes which they know more thoroughly in one language than the other, so in some places their vocabulary in one language might be lacking.

I was talking to a friend whose daughter is a ten-year-old English/Swiss German bilingual. She was laughing because her daughter got the word ‘timetable’ wrong on her English test. She almost never uses the word ‘timetable’ as they always use ‘stundenplan’ at school, and, stuck to the fridge at home is a big family daily-planner labelled ‘stunden plan’. The whole family now says ‘stundenplan’, so although she knows the word ‘timetable’ she never needs to use it and her brain substitutes ‘stundenplan’ as it’s more efficient.

In our house, my husband speaks Swiss-German and I speak English. We both took note of the advice to only speak to the children in one language and to act as if we don’t understand when they speak to us in the other language. But in all honesty, we just don’t find that practical, particularly if the child is stressed or emotional about something. It seems harsh when they are clearly struggling to make them say ‘I can’t find my slippers’ instead of ‘I can’t find my finken’. We’ve always encouraged them to simply speak and not to worry if they mix things up.

Code-Switching is a sophisticated linguistic tool

In the past code-switching was thought to be just a sign of lack of knowledge of a language, but current thought suggests that it’s actually a fairly sophisticated linguistic tool (sounds fancy, doesn’t it?). The brain is figuring out the most efficient way to communicate.

Rather than indicating a lack of ability, or laziness, code-switching in children is usually a sign of them using all the resources in their brains to get their meaning across. So, if someone is telling you that your three-year-old has a problem because she mixes up her languages, you can tell them not to worry. – she’s just using all her brain-power!

It can also be argued that code-switching is not just using a different language, but also mixing in dialects or adapting your way of speaking to suit your audience.

We all do it to some extent – the way we speak to our clients is not the same as how we speak to our close friends; the language teenagers use when speaking to their friends is not the same language they use to speak to their grandparents. Most people know how to do this instinctively; bilinguals just have more tools to use.

Even we English-speakers from different parts of the world probably all standardise our English to some point when speaking with another native speaker from another English-speaking country. I would ask my Canadian friends if they want to get some food, but not if they want to get some kai.

My children like to take German verbs and add –ing to them, purely for fun. My daughter particularly likes the word Putzen (to clean) because she thinks it sounds like it takes effort to do it. We’ve adopted this into our family-lingo and now we all talk about doing the putzing. This is part of what makes language fun.

Yes, it’s important to speak correctly, and of course it’s important for parents to know where the gaps are in their children’s vocabulary, but if you can’t have a bit of fun with your languages then it could be a long, boring road to reach ‘perfect’ bilingualism.

Code-switching can also be referred to as language mixing. See our article on how Bilingual Kids mix languages for more info.

Raising a bilingual child? Check out the Bilingual Kidspot Language Resources on the home page. Subscribe for related articles. Follow Bilingual KidSpot on Facebook and join our online community and support group.

Code Switching - Bilingual Kids