“My bilingual daughter keeps mixing her languages – I think she’s confused!” – A brief introduction to codeswitching

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Codeswitching / Codemixing can be defined as -

the alternate use of two or more languages or varieties of language, especially within the same discourse.

Interestingly, one of the ‘problems’ I often hear attributed to bilingual children is their mixing of languages. Whilst bilingual parents panic that it demonstrates their children’s inability to properly master any one language, non-bilinguals, (monolinguals) claim this mixing is evidence that bilingual children are confused, that they can’t distinguish between the two languages and that they will ultimately not be able to keep up with their monolingual peers.

Rubbish!!

Please don’t be overly concerned if your child mixes languages. Codeswitching is a normal part of language development and is not restricted even to children – bilingual adults codeswitch all the time!
Below I have detailed a couple of researched reasons for bilingual children codeswitching, so have a read and relax – things are rarely as bad as they seem!
1. Lack of linguistic resource/repertoire
This is just a fancy way of saying that someone “doesn’t know the word in language X or Y”. In the case of bilingual children, not knowing the word for something in a given language does not instantly indicate they are lacking competency in that language.  Monolingual children will also encounter times when they do not have the vocabulary to express themselves – bilingual children have the option of codeswitching to another language and communicating what they want to say.
2. Linguistic convergence/language accommodation
This is when someone changes their natural style of speaking, rhythm or speech or even the terminology they use in order to accommodate the speaking preferences of the person with whom they are communicating.
Monolinguals do this all the time.  For example, if you were listening to an American and an English person speaking, during that conversation you may notice the English person using words like ‘elevator’, ‘pants’ or ‘pantyhose’ (interesting conversation – aren’t you glad you’re eavesdropping!).  Equally the American may begin talking about ‘vests’, ‘trainers’ (for your feet, not the personal kind) or Opal Fruits (ok, perhaps not the last one but you get the point).  This is done by speakers often subconsciously, to accommodate the linguistic preferences of the person they are talking to and consequently helps to promote more effective communication.
Language accommodation is also a reason for bilingual children codeswitching.  They will mirror the style of the person they are talking to in order to meet their linguistic expectations.
3. Language identification
You may not have considered this, but every conversation you have says something about you.  Not merely through the meaning of words you use, but also they way you say something, your intonation and the language (or language variety) you choose to say it in.
Codeswitching among bilingual children allows them to construct and de-construct identities for themselves within any given communicative act.  In other words, it allows them to show allegiance with or distance from their interlocutor without explicitly making a statement to that effect.  No language exists solely as a cluster of words with which to communicate.  All languages support ideas, ideologies, cultures and identities which in turn are portrayed through the use of that language.
4. Social awareness
There are times when it is appropriate to speak and other times when it is best to remain silent.  This also goes for the language you choose to speak – it is not always a good idea to speak a certain language in a certain setting.  The good news is that bilingual children innately understand ‘language appropriacy’.  They understand to whom they should speak what language and when it is most appropriate to do so.  They may switch into a second in order to say something they don’t want others to know or conversely they may do this to accommodate monolingual speakers joining their group.
They will not speak what they deem to be the ‘wrong’ language, to the wrong person, and should they lack the vocabulary to adequately communicate an idea they may even choose to remain silent rather than confuse the listener.
These are just some of the many reasons for bilingual children codeswitching.  I find it a fascinating topic and one I will speak more on in the future.  Please feel free to comment, or contact me if their is a particular topic on bilingualism you would like me to cover.
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2 thoughts on ““My bilingual daughter keeps mixing her languages – I think she’s confused!” – A brief introduction to codeswitching

  1. “Codeswitching is a normal part of language development and is not restricted even to children – bilingual adults codeswitch all the time!” – Very true. My children are older now and they still mix languages. It is a process of learning languages. Thank you for sharing the research with us and ensuring the parents who are raising children with more than one language.

    • Hi Amanda,

      Thank you for taking the time to comment. I am astounded by the number of parents that complain about children ‘mixing’ languages and then will readily do the same thing!

      Codeswitching as a linguistic tool can greatly aid children in their overall communicative competence as it offers them an alternative means of delivering their message.

      The whole ‘confusion’ hysteria is a mystery to me, since bilingual children are extremely discerning – my youngest daughter (who is just 3 years old) refuses to respond to my mother in French as she knows that my mother doesn’t speak French; however, we were in a restaurant just before Christmas and realizing the waitress was French she immediately ordered in French!

      Thank you for your continued support.

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