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How Many Languages Do You Speak…At the Same Time?

December 30th, 2013

Keeping two languages in your head is a difficult task. Each language has its own way of expression, and as translators and interpreters well know, some things that come so easily in one language simply can’t really be translated into another language…it just isn’t the same!

For this reason, in environments where several speakers are fluent in more than one language, a linguistic phenomenon called code switching occurs. Check this out:

“Oye mijo, he was sitting down en la cama, mirándonos peleando, y really, I don’t remember si él nos separó or whatever, you know?”

Ever hear something like this before? If you have been around people living in very bilingual environments—common among first- or second-generation immigrant families—it’s likely you have. To most people, slipping between languages is commonly seen as a lack of language abilities. Many people think that code switchers choose to alternate between languages because they haven’t mastered the grammatical concepts of one or both of the languages they claim to speak. Research has shown, however, that the opposite is true: that people who code switch do so because they have a solid understanding of the grammar of both languages. Linguists have long studied code switching patterns and found that it isn’t at all a random mixing of languages. There are rules to code switching that the brain will naturally follow when done correctly, and that following these rules requires some serious grammar knowledge.

For instance, relating to the earlier example, if the speaker had said, “He was sentado down”, it would show a lack of grammatical knowledge, since in Spanish, the participle “sentado” already implies a downward condition, and saying “down” after it would be redundant. The speaker knows that in English the word “sitting” is commonly followed by the adverb “down”. Subconsciously, the brain knows exactly when and where to make the appropriate switch so that the correct meaning is conveyed without adding redundant words or leaving important words out.

To be sure, there’s a list of rules and theories of rules regarding how code switching works in everyday life. What’s important to remember here is that if you hear someone code switching between any languages, it’s not necessarily because he or she is an incompetent speaker; it’s because he or she knows both languages quite well, and their brain is deciding which language to use to express something that isn’t quite the same in their other language. That’s pretty interesting, ¿verdad?

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