Multilinguish: Code-Switching Decoded

In this episode of Multilinguish, we talk about code-switching: why do bilinguals so often switch between their languages?
group of young women chatting and code-switching in front of field of flowers

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Switching between two languages or dialects within one conversation is often referred to as code-switching. It’s a common and natural practice among people who speak more than one language (or have access to more than one register within the same language, like a dialect or sociolect). Bilinguals can switch back and forth between languages or insert bits and pieces of one language — single words, expressions or sentences — into the framework of another, like putting books in a bookshelf.

In this episode of Multilinguish, we’ll investigate why code-switching happens, learn how the bilingual brain works, and share personal stories of switching, belonging and living between languages.

Multilinguish: Code-Switching Decoded

In the first part of the episode, Elin Asklöv, Ruben Vilas and Diana Tur talk about their personal relationship to code-switching and how they’re juggling two or more languages every day. We also hear from Babbel’s language experts Michela, Jenny and Todd about how a bilingual — or trilingual — brain processes and produces language.

Later in the episode, the panel discusses the relationship between code-switching and language proficiency; discovers what triggers a sudden change of language; and talks about the many social advantages of conscious switching.

Show Notes

This episode was produced by Elin Asklöv and edited by Ruben Vilas. Jen Jordan is our executive producer. Our logo was designed by Ally Zhao. Special thanks to the Babbel team in Berlin: Jennifer Dorman, Todd Ehresmann and Michela Mosca.

Code-Switching: The Weird And Wonderful Side Of Bilingual Communication | Babbel Magazine
How Many People Speak Spanglish, And Where Is It Spoken? | Babbel Magazine


Elin Asklöv: From the language of Babbel, this is Multilinguish. I’m Elin Asklöv. When I worked in the Babbel headquarters in Berlin, I used to speak three languages on a daily basis. English, German, and Swedish. This made me aware of a phenomenon that still fascinates me, and it’s called code-switching. I became interested in why I would feel the need to switch so much between languages, while others would manage to stick to one. Code-switching is defined as alternating between two languages or dialects within one conversation. It can be single words or phrases that you insert into the other language. Or it can be several sentences in one language, suddenly followed by switching to another, and then back again.

Elin Asklöv: This is all very natural to bilinguals. And with 20 percent of all U.S. residents speaking another language at home, we can assume that code-switching is an incredibly common activity. But it’s somethings that’s often puzzling to monolinguals. On today’s episode of Multilinguish, we’ll explore why and how people switch between languages. But before we get started, make sure to rate and review Multilinguish wherever you listen. And don’t forget to subscribe so you get new episodes as soon as they’re released. Today I’m first speaking with two bilingual colleagues about how they handle language switching on a daily basis. And we’ll hear some insights from experts about how the bilingual brain works. Then we will discuss what switching says about a speaker. Why do you do it, and is it good or bad. To talk about code-switching today I have members of Babbel’s content team here with me, Ruben Vilas and Diana Tur. Hello.

Diana Tur: Hello.

Ruben Vilas: Hi.

Elin Asklöv: Hi, how are you doing?

Diana Tur: Good.

Ruben Vilas: Good, thanks for having us.

Elin Asklöv: You both speak two languages right, or even more?

Ruben Vilas: Yeah a bit more, I speak two languages really well and then a few more not that well.

Diana Tur: Yeah, same for me.

Elin Asklöv: How many would you say that you speak daily?

Ruben Vilas: Two, yeah I speak two every day.

Diana Tur: Spanish and English.

Ruben Vilas: For me it’s Portuguese and English.

Elin Asklöv: So what is your experience of switching between languages?

Ruben Vilas: I mean mine is, every weekend I just speak Portuguese normally. I do speak English when I go to the supermarket or something. But I will just speak Portuguese to my wife, and then on Monday when I come to work I normally won’t know how to speak English for the first like 40 minutes, but then I’ll get into it.

Diana Tur: For me it’s like very frustrating because I only speak Spanish when I see a friend, or when I call someone that speaks Spanish, my family and friends stuff like that. But at home I speak English and work I also speak English to it’s basically my life is English all the time.

Elin Asklöv: Do You often feel the need to switch when you’re speaking the one language, that you feel oh, I wish I could say this or you that you even speak to someone who, for instance at home would it be that you would switch to English sometimes, or is it pure Portuguese?

Ruben Vilas: No, actually I do forget a lot, like Portuguese words. When I’m talking to my wife, and this happens to her as well, we just remember how you say that in English. Normally, it’s everyday words that it just goes away for some reason, and I think we do speak lots of English at home too, but not actual sentences it just this word and that word. They just come easier to us because we speak English most of the time anyways.

Elin Asklöv: You would feel like that word is what pops up in your brain.

Ruben Vilas: Yeah exactly, and sometimes we’ll just be there for a minute, both of us trying to think how do you say this word in Portuguese. And then none of us can remember and it just comes to us 20 minutes later or something.

Elin Asklöv: It’s funny when you forget your native language.

Diana Tur: The same thing happens to me, actually when I speak Spanish to my friends it’s more like Spanglish than Spanish. Cause there is so many words that actually don’t exist in Cuba. So we have to use the English word to describe what ever we’re talking about. It is mainly Spanish, but a lot of English words. And the other thing is that right now I don’t speak a lot of Spanglish, but when I was living in Miami for three years, it was a lot of Spanglish all the time. Basically people talk switching from one language to the other all the time, and it’s really crazy. And I think that happens because they are not very good at Spanish, but they want to speak it and they want to prove that they are part of the culture and that stuff, so they really want to put some words out there. Especially I feel that from the children of immigrants that were born here and then they had to, adapt to the new culture that is not the same culture than their parents, so they want to keep the two things.

Elin Asklöv: I’ve learned that’s a very common reason why you code-switch, that you want to show belonging to a group and you want to show solidarity with a certain group. But it’s also just that some words or phrases or expressions might feel more right to you at the moment, for one reason or the other. My ideal situation is always to be, or when I feel like I’m the most myself is when I am with people who have my exact language combination, basically English, German, and Swedish, because then I can say whatever first pops into my head. And I became very curious about all this and I was wondering if it was a common experience. So I went to Berlin and talked to some of Babbel’s language experts about bilingualism and code-switching. We can listen to what they said about how the bilingual brain works.

Jennifer Dorman: Hi I’m Jennifer, I’m an instructional designer here at Babbel and I have a background In Empirical and theoretical linguistics.

Michela Mosca: Hi, I’m Michela. I’m a project manager here at Babbel and I have a background in psycholinguistics.

Todd Ehresmann: Hi, and I’m Todd Ehresmann I’m originally from Minnesota, and my background is in germanic linguistics and Sociolinguistics. And I work here at Babbel as a lead in the didactics department.

Michela Mosca: I did my PhD exactly on this topic. It was about language switching, although it was more kind of forced language switching and that we can be forced so to say, now in which I have to speak in English, maybe I would prefer to say all things in Italian but I can’t. And a more voluntary language switching in which people, as you were saying in your situation, you know those people understand your languages, English, German, and Swedish in your case, so you feel free just to choose the words or the language that you prefer. And from science we know that it is costly. It’s and effort to change the language, and even if you’re forced, this kind of comes like a logic consequence.

Michela Mosca: You know if I’m forced to change something it going to cost me something, but surprisingly it seems that also when we are free to choose, still there is a kind of cost, it’s not that easy. The reason is that we know we have all those languages in our mind, and somehow it’s not that we have a magic mental device and we can decide, okay now I’m switching these words off, or this language off and I’m turning this on. It’s much more complex because all those words and all those languages are kind of interconnected. And you have to find a way to, not to get all the things mixed up. And this takes a lot of effort.

Elin Asklöv: I feel sometimes I feel I really have to push something down, and then search actively for another thing. Is that sort of what happens in the brain?

Michela Mosca: Yeah, exactly. So now, what we know from science the current model is that we do as bilingual or multilingual speaker, we do inhibit the language or the words we don’t want to use, and we activate a bit more the one that we want to use. And all the inhibition is a cost, it doesn’t come for free. And as you were saying, okay I need to push this back because now I don’t want to say this. And other the other side, for example, when you know I can speak in whatever language because those people are going to understand me. So I’m just speaking out the words that in that moment is more active in my mind, that is easier for me to find. I’m not really, inhibiting and searching a new thing, it’s like the new thing is coming to me because it’s so active, for example I’ve just heard the word and it’s so active in my mind that I’m using this again. So there the cost is going to be smaller, because it’s already there, the word that I want to use.

Jennifer Dorman: There’s been some really interesting neurolinguistics imaging studies that give some feedback, or at least give us some idea of how robust those connections are when you do have multiple languages in the brain. And it depends a little bit on how balanced a bilingual speaker is. Because if someone has learned a second language earlier in life, you’ll see that those connections are much stronger. And we also see physically in the brain different areas in the brain activate when you’re speaking one language or the other. One of the things that we can sort of try out if you are bilingual, you get this idea of a cost in terms of suppression of a language, and then the cost of activating a new language. Just take a bus ride or a train ride and try to not pay attention to the conversations that are going on around you.

Jennifer Dorman: It’s much more challenging and costly to not pay attention to your stronger language. So usually your mother, whatever your mother tongue is, it’s much more difficult to suppress that than it is to sort of turn off the other languages. When I’ve been in Poland I can absolutely ignore everyone around me who’s speaking polish, but if someone, just one person is speaking English, it’s almost impossible for me to ignore that conversation. Because it’s more costly for me to suppress my first language than it is my second or third languages.

Elin Asklöv: What are your thoughts about this?

Diana Tur: The other day I was on the subway, and there were these two ladies talking in Spanish about how they clean their bosses tops. And they were saying “No I don’t clean the top every week, I just clean it once a month”. Or something like that. And they were speaking in Spanish next to me and I was looking at them like what, really. And it was so hard to avoid to look at them and be a part of the conversation, at some point they said something like “Why is this gringa looking at us like that?” And I had to tell them, no the problem is that I speak Spanish, so it’s impossible for me not to listen to your conversation and pay full attention to what you’re saying. That’s was very funny.

Ruben Vilas: I see all the time, on the train, if I hear someone speaking Portuguese, even if it’s Brazilian Portuguese my antenna will just pop up and okay now I’m listening, I know what’s happening. And if someone’s speaking Spanish next to me I will understand it but, I will kind of ignore it, same for English. But Portuguese even if it’s very far, I’m like oh, there’s someone there I can hear it for sure.

Diana Tur: And it even happens to me with the accents, cause in New York there is so many people that speak Spanish, but when I hear a Cuban accent of someone on the street or something like that, I automatically turn, who are you, do I know you?

Elin Asklöv: And it’s really interesting because the reason why we do this is because is doesn’t cost us anything brain power wise, to listen to a conversation in a native language whereas it cost us so much more to listen to another language, and it also cost us much more to speak in another language.

Ruben Vilas: Yeah, definitely.

Elin Asklöv: I also asked the people in Berlin if there’s any difference when you add a third language in the mix. What we can see then, in the brain. Because Michela speaks Italian, English, and German. Todd speaks English, German, and is learning Dutch. And Jennifer has Polish as her third language. So we can hear what they said about that.

Michela Mosca: I’ve learned that there is a difference between bilinguals and people that speak more than two languages, because of course if you just have two languages in your mind, of course the source of interference is going to come from your native language, or from your first language. There is no other source. But if you speak more than two languages then it becomes a bit more complex and what is observed is that very often, the foreign languages we learn later in life tend to mix up more than your native language. They are qualitatively different. One is your native language, is well established, you have learned it from early on from your birth.

Michela Mosca: It has kind of different stages in your mind, in your brain and it’s easier to put this aside. While for the newly learned languages they kind of less stable, they are still forming and they can get mixed up. And the more similar those two languages are, the foreign languages, the more difficult it seems to keep them apart. For example in your case told it was Dutch and German, which are very similar languages, typologically similar languages. And in my case it was English and German, so it can happen with all languages but the more similar, more the problem.

Elin Asklöv: Yeah that makes a lot of sense.

Jennifer Dorman: And we talked a little earlier about how the languages actually are located a little bit differently in the brain. We can actually see this on neuro imagings. And one of the things that’s interesting is that your native language, when you learn grammar, the basic grammar but also function words, ands, the, but, a, etc. Those tend to be stored in an area where we have our procedural memory. So the things that we can do and access unconsciously, we don’t have to think about that. And in the vocabulary is stored somewhere else, where we have some semantic memory. When we start to add on other languages, both the words and the grammar of the other languages are also stored in our semantic memory.

Jennifer Dorman: Which means that when we are trying to search for how to convey some concept we have in our mind, how we can convey that In the next, our non-native language. We are in a sense sorting through not just this huge mental dictionary of all the words, but also the grammar constructions which includes things like the morphosyntactic frames for the words. So In other words how you make it plural, how you change it if it’s a different case, or that sort of thing. And so it makes it a lot more difficult sometimes and when you do have some competing forms, when languages are very similar, it’s just a more crowded space in terms of accessing some of that. But it’s interesting because I have had some experiences, when we talk about code-switching we’re talking about producing language. But I’ve noticed some differences, along these lines when I’m processing language.

Jennifer Dorman: In the sense that I’ve been in France, and I do speak a little bit of French. It’s sort of heritage French from growing up. I don’t speak it very well, but spending time in France over a week and a half I was able to really start to reactivate some of that French that I literally never used in my daily life. And on the very last day of our trip I was sitting in the train station, I heard an announcement that our train was going to be delayed and on a different track, and I was so proud of myself that I understood the entire announcement in French. Bragged about it to my husband, I was a hundred percent sure it was in French, and then my husband told me it was all in German. But it was just because I think somehow my brain recognized not English. And because I was in France, I assumed it was French, and I would’ve put my hand on a bible and had to swear, I would’ve told you a hundred percent that I understood something in French, but it was just German.

Elin Asklöv: What are you thinking about this? This is pretty funny. Has this happened to you at all?

Ruben Vilas: I don’t remember a specific instance of listening to something and thinking it’s a language and thinking it’s another one, unless it’s something like languages I have no idea what they are. I can think it’s Swedish and maybe it’s Dutch because I’m not a hundred percent sure about the differences. But I do have this where sometimes the word will not come to me neither in English or in Portuguese, but it’ll come to me in German which is very weird because I’m not really that good at German, but it’s there somehow. And like my wife she’s good at German, and she’ll look at me like how do you even know, how does this come to you. And lots of times also Spanish will come to me and French because these are all the languages that I’ve kind of learned. So there’s some stuff that will.

Elin Asklöv: And that’s what’s so interesting about what they said about this, that they are stored in a different part of the brain than your first language. At least your first language syntactic basic structure is stored somewhere, and then all the words, nouns and verbs from your native language. Plus everything you ever learned in all of the other languages are just in a giant closet where you have to try and find the right piece of clothing, and it’s getting stressful.

Diana Tur: For me it’s more like the second thing she said really works for me because I never confuse English with Spanish, but I could very easily use an Italian word when speaking Spanish, or use a Spanish word when I’m speaking Italian, or… I have a friend that’s Brazilian and he’s been with a Cuban for 20 years, so he speaks really good Cuban accent. He has a very strong Cuban accent with all the slang words and everything. He’s a really good friend of mine, so he uses Portuguese words and sometimes I compare those Portuguese words to my Spanish too, so it can mix up very easily if it comes from the same root. But at the same time I don’t confuse Spanish words with English that much.

Ruben Vilas: I do confuse some Spanish with French, but not because I’m hearing it. In my mind I want to try and think how does this sound in Spanish. And sometimes some French words will come to me, and is this Spanish or is the French I’m not sure. I’m not a 100 percent sure.

Diana Tur: Sometimes also, my Italian is good but it’s not great, great. Sometimes if I need a word I will just put the Spanish word there and think that, yeah that’s totally Italian but it’s not. It’s very funny In that way.

Elin Asklöv: And I guess from a code-switching perspective, you can feel so free with someone who understands both languages, that you can switch back and forth and you don’t have to concentrate that much. And I think that’s partly why it happens, but it’s also a stylistic choice to show that you belong somewhere, or to use a word that is more precise to you and something like that.

Diana Tur: When I’m speaking English, some word that comes from the Spanish language come up, I try to pronounce as much as I can in the Spanish accent. For example, I don’t say burrito, I say burrito.

Ruben Vilas: That would be weird though right? If you said it like that.

Diana Tur: Exactly. But sometime people expect you to use exactly the words the same way they use them, but for me it wouldn’t make any sense in my mind to use words like that in English.

Ruben Vilas: There’s also a phenomenon that only happens to me here, because in Portugal I feel we have Portuguese words for most words. So we don’t have lots of, I don’t know how you call them but, words that come from English basically that we adopted. We don’t have many of those. So in Portugal we just speak Portuguese, almost 100 percent without those. And I feel when I’m here, and I have a friend who’s a flight attendant so he comes to New York lots of times and I hang out with him. And I feel I use so many English expressions now, and sometimes even makes a bit fun of my. But it’s kind of a mixture. It’s like Spanglish basically but for Portuguese I think. It’s just this I’m talking Portuguese and then I just say something in English and it’s completely natural for me, and for him it’s, oh you mean this. And I’m like yeah, but in English.

Elin Asklöv: No, exactly. This is really the essence of code-switching. And I see that a lot, or I hear that a lot when I listen to Swedish radio and podcast, that they will throw in a lot of English words. Not even English loan words, they would switch just the general, sort of how we understand code-switching as opposed to loan words cause it’s slightly different, even though their entire audience speaks Swedish. And that’s also an interesting thought, why do they do that, but that’s probably because they want to convey some sort of feeling of them being international. And it can just be that some words are better in English.

Diana Tur: I definitely feel that some words work a lot better in English, cause they have these specific meanings. For example, the word cute, we have words for that in Spanish, but we don’t have an exact one. We have for example lindo, or bonito, but we don’t have any specific word for cute. So I feel that’s a word, that when everyone’s speaking Spanish and I’m referring to that I use the English word.

Elin Asklöv: No that happens to me a lot also. I don’t think we have a good Swedish word or German for embrace. It’s like “embracea“. It sort of integrates itself into the language. Thank you for sharing, we will be back after a short break. And then we will, talk about what code-switching says about the language proficiency of a speaker, but first we’ll have a little break.

Steph Koyfman: Multilinguish is brought to you by Babbel, the language app. Babbel is the app that gets you speaking quickly and with confidence. Choose from 14 languages including Spanish, French, and Italian. So Dylan are you taking any big trips this year?

Dylan Lyons: Funny you ask Steph, I’m actually going to Paris this year. I’m very excited about it but I know zero French. So I’ve been

Steph: Zero?

Dylan: Well I know bonjour. So I’ve been using the Babbel app, I just started to try to get some basic French down before I go. Obviously I’m hitting all the food words because that will be the most important part of my trip. But I’m very excited to use some new French skills when I’m there.

Steph: That’s super exciting, and what’s also exciting is we’re offering Multilinguish listeners 50 percent off a three month subscription. New customers can get this offer by visiting, that’s B A B B E Now back to the show.

Elin Asklöv: And we’re back. Speaking with me today about code-switching are Ruben and Diana.

Diana Tur: Hello again.

Ruben Vilas: Hi.

Elin Asklöv: I was wondering, if we imagine a person who switch a lot back and forth, or even who just inserts a lot of say, Spanish words in their English or vice versa. What do you think that says about the language proficiency of the speaker?

Ruben Vilas: I think it says this person has a good language proficiency. Cause this person is able to switch really quickly. I can do that with English and Portuguese extremely easily, but I don’t think I can do that with other languages. I think I can actually mix Spanish with Portuguese, but this an old custom that Portuguese people have, cause Spain is our neighboring country. Sometimes we just don’t know the Spanish words, so we do the Portuguese words.

Diana Tur: Portenol.

Ruben Vilas: Yeah portenol, exactly. Portuguese words with a Spanish accent, and hope for the best. I can switch easily with English, but with German it’s impossible. With Spanish, it’s not the same, it’s not switching it’s just mixing. But it’s different, to switch, I think for me it just means that you know these languages. Both of these are your mother tongues in a way. English is also my mother tongue because I’ve spoken English since I was five years old. And German not really, German is just there. In Spanish the saying, they’re parked in my brain and sometimes stuff will pop out.

Diana Tur: No, I totally agree with what you’re saying. But at some point I’ve met people that they really have to switch because they don’t know the words. Or they just don’t come to them. So sometimes the example I was saying in the beginning that I feel that some people, they were born in the states but they want to speak Spanish, or their parents speak Spanish. They don’t always have the specific word that they’re looking for and then they have to use the English word. It’s not that they want to, they have to cause they don’t have anything else to express that thing that they want to say. It could vary from one thing to the other.

Elin Asklöv: I asked the same question to Todd, and Jenny, and Michela. Basically is switching a sign of lacking proficiency in one language. Let’s hear.

Todd Ehresmann: I think there’s kind of stages of code-switching in that regard. When you’re a beginner you use code-switching as a method of getting around your deficiencies in that second language. But as your proficiency increases to a certain point, you start to get into what we were discussing earlier this sort of, using it as an expression of freedom with a cohort of people that have the same languages as you do. I can remember of course one of the strategies when you’re learning a language like German, and you’re missing a piece of vocabulary is just throwing the English word, most Germans will probably get it and you keep going. And as you improve your proficiency you kind of remove those crutches if you want to call them that, as you get better. And then you almost come out the other end when you reach a certain level of proficiency and are able to code-switch consciously in a way that is a stylistic choice as opposed to a way of covering up your lack of vocab.

Michela Mosca: I’ve kind of just noticed the same, that in the beginning where people are still beginners or so, that the switching are unintentional, that just come. And sometimes you have some kind of blending, so you are putting words coming from two different languages together, and you create new words that did not exist. Like this kind of creation. And then with time this happens less and less and less, and then as Todd was saying that you just manage to have control and you know when it is appropriate to use that language or not. I just want to say just briefly that, on the brain level, at least what it goes about inhibition and all the things we have talked in the beginning. We don’t really see much of a difference between early beginners and advanced, only the intensity is different. But the mental process actually do not change.

Jennifer Dorman: I know when I was learning German, because I didn’t actually start learning German until I was 35 years old. So I’m definitely a late bilingual, in that case, but I would often intentionally code-switch to cover up for my vocabulary deficiencies. So like a lot of code-switching there’s generally a, whatever is the dominant language in that environment, usually you keep sort of the grammatical structure, the morphosyntactic structure that sort of thing and you’re switching out vocabulary. I tried to be tricky by just pronouncing English words the way I think a German would pronounce it., and luckily generally it’s pretty close. That didn’t work so well when I learned Polish. But that’s something that you see as a maker maybe of someone who has emerging bilingual proficiency. And then it becomes potentially then a bit more deliberate and more as Todd said, a stylistic choice, as your proficiency level advances.

Elin Asklöv: And I think it’s very interesting also in all the things I read about code-switching, that it is in most cases and conscious choice, when you come to a certain level of your second language. And it’s a very natural thing, and it makes you wonder a little bit what the reasons are, to do it. I’ve learned there are a few factors to why you would code-switch, and one is that a certain language is more tied to a certain area of your life. And that makes it, a lot easier to talk about that area of your life in that language. So the case for us and for a lot of other migrants in the United States, is that they have one home language and one work language. And then it becomes sort of difficult to talk about work life in your home language. And it can become difficult to talk about your home life in English. There are so many household appliances I have no idea what they’re called in English. What’s a colander? I don’t know.

Ruben Vilas: I don’t know too. What is it?

Elin Asklöv: I still don’t know, I think it’s a drainer. Drain your pasta.

Diana Tur: Colador.

Elin Asklöv: So that’s easy for you.

Ruben Vilas: I don’t even know what that is.

Diana Tur: For me what happened is that I actually learned all my professional words that I use, in English. Cause I went from school in English, so a lot of the time I went around trying work with people that only speak Spanish. I have a really hard time because I don’t know how to use those words in Spanish.

Elin Asklöv: No, that happens and I have a few Swedish friends here also who work entirely in English, and whenever they start to talk about their work they immediately switch to English. And that makes me switch as well because something in my brain say, oh now we’re speaking English. But then 10 minutes later we look at each other, “why are we speaking English we’re both Swedish”.

Ruben Vilas: That makes sense, I feel like I have a hard time describing stuff I do at work in Portuguese to my friends. But at the same time when I tell this stuff to my wife, it comes out somehow.

Elin Asklöv: It can also be situational a lot of the time.

Ruben Vilas: But it’s true because with my with wife, it’s typical you have a partner, you come home and you talk about your day and what you do. Not always but most days. And with my friends I feel like it’s different. They are not aware of what’s happening at my job, what’s my day to day. So it feels harder to describe in Portuguese, what I do, not what I do but what I’ve been doing for the past week or so.

Elin Asklöv: Yeah, your wife knows.

Ruben Vilas: Yeah, my wife knows I tell her, we talk during the day and I tell her I’m doing this, I’m doing that so she’s kind of aware so just comes out somehow.

Elin Asklöv: Another reasons why you switch languages is because people just have the feeling that it’s easier to talk about emotions in your native language. And I think you Diana were talking about in another episode about going to the therapy in English, how that’s a very foreign thought.

Diana Tur: No, I would never do that, there’s no way.

Ruben Vilas: I did it, and I felt it was okay. I felt it was hard to, sometimes gather the words, the necessary words to explain it, and sometimes I felt I was exaggerating not on purpose. Because I would say oh this happened to me, and it would sound way worse than it was. And then I would have to wait, but not really like this. Let me explain it a little more. So I think it can be a tricky situation, but I also think it’s fine. It should be that first barrier because you want to talk about personal stuff, about your feelings. And that’s the first thing you want to do is in Portuguese, but it should be very hard. For me it should be very hard to find a Portuguese therapist in New York, I probably didn’t want one. I probably just want someone that’s qualified, and it will work out in the end. It’s like work, even if you don’t speak English that well, it’s going to work out. It’s going to be okay.

Elin Asklöv: I believe that too, but a lot of people also report that it adds a certain layer of distance to talk about things in another language than you native language.

Diana Tur: That’s the way I feel actually. It’s not that I wouldn’t be able to translate my feelings exactly cause probably I could, but I feel there is a level of comfortness that I have in my own language, and I can be very specific with everything I want to say. And in English sometimes it’s not even that I don’t find the words, sometimes it’s just that the words don’t exist.

Ruben Vilas: It feels like you’re reporting something instead of just talking about it.

Diana Tur: Because Spanish is so rich, we have so many words for everything, and sometimes you have one word for something in English and then 10 words for the same thing in Spanish. And not only 10 words that mean exactly the same, it’s 10 words that have specific meaning inside that one other meaning that there’s just one word in English. I don’t know if I explained myself.

Ruben Vilas: No, that happens in Portuguese as well. So many words, and then their English counterparts are a lot of times the same words.

Elin Asklöv: But I can also sometimes feel when I’m speaking Swedish that I want to say a German word, because that is super specific to me and has a really on point, and has the exact perfect connotations for what I want to tell someone about. And then they don’t speak German so I can’t say that word. So it can be frustrating.

Ruben Vilas: I think that was my issue with learning German. I was never very keen on learning German just because it’s a language that somehow does not agree with me. In my mind I don’t feel that comfortable speaking German, but I also feel that specificity that the Germans have also seemed a hurdle to me when I was learning it. Because Portuguese I know Portuguese, Spanish it’s very close, also easy. And English vocabulary is not that extensive compared to Portuguese, so also seemed easy. And German seemed like all of those together, and then some. So many specific words for all situations, even when you’re learning German, they will teach you longest German words. And they’re the most specific thing, I never thought anyone would need.

Elin Asklöv: I also asked the language experts in Berlin what some other triggers for code-switching are.

Michela Mosca: Well from science, we know for example that we tend to, I don’t want to say copy other people but what happens is that for example lets say you are talking to me, and you’re suddenly using a word in German, then you are kind of priming me. You are activating this because I listen to you and then for me it’s going to be easier to repeat this word than searching for the other word in the other language. So this is called priming in science. I guess why this can explain sometimes why when a person starts with this also called code-switching, just putting some words from other languages, it might happen that the other person was talking to you, but repeat the words in the same language. Just because you heard this before. Maybe he wouldn’t do this if he would speak with another person that does not code-switch.

Jennifer Dorman: If you think about it from the more pragmatic perspective, the whole reason to have a conversation is to make yourself understood and to understand someone else. And we very often do things unconsciously to build rapport with the people we’re speaking with, and so we may change our cadence, we may change our intonation, we may change the type of the level of the register with which we a speaking. And code-switching is one way of doing that. So we might not even realize necessarily that we are switching in this way. So not just switching in terms of languages, but also switching in terms of the register that we’re choosing to speak in. It’s just a way of forging connections, building solidarity with the people that we’re speaking with, and ultimately trying to have a good conversation.

Elin Asklöv: I think it’s really interesting also what you say about showing solidarity within a group, cause code-switching also just doesn’t happen from one language to another right, it also happens within one language, different dialects and sociolects. What do we know about that?

Michela Mosca: Well again from science, what we know is that for example the mental mechanisms that take place when we switch between what we call two languages like English and German, are actually the same, that take place when we switch between a dialect and a certain language. So another topic how we define a language, how we define a dialect, in any case at the cognitive level we don’t really see much difference between switching between to register or a dialect and language and two languages.

Todd Ehresmann: I was going to say I think it’s interesting here to think about maybe the historical view, how people have viewed code-switching over time. And historically speaking people have viewed it as more of a negative thing. It’s as you said a mental and a cognitive cost to doing so. At the same time it affords all kind of advantages. So if we think about dialect and sociolect switching, it simply allows you to navigate more situations and to belong in more situations.

Elin Asklöv: I feel like this is a very important part of code-switching that we haven’t touched that much upon, but it’s also of course as they say, happens within dialects or from a dialect to more formal type of language. One of the most prominent examples here in the U.S. is of course African American vernacular English and a sort of more formal English, however people would perceive formal English but more of a standardized English. And there are the social advantages of code-switching become very evident that you can show, you can belong to more situations more groups. You can sort of travel between—

Diana Tur: One thing and the other.

Elin Asklöv: And also of course other dialects, all languages have dialects that are not part of the formal standardized language and their ability to switch between them is something that just opens up a lot of doors for people.

Diana Tur: I feel for example, I don’t speak with my Cuban friends the same Spanish that I speak with my other friends that speak Spanish from other countries. Whenever I’m not speaking with a Cuban I totally have to change the way I speak cause I cannot use any of the slang words that I would use with my friends. So I have to use a more general Spanish, neutral so everyone can understand me. And I have for example a very good Chilean friend, and I had to learn a lot of Chilean slang so I could communicate with her in a way that she would feel more comfortable and more open. I don’t know if that happens to you with Portuguese.

Ruben Vilas: I don’t think so, I think it’s different. For Portuguese there’s not a lot, there’s European Portuguese, there’s Brazilian Portuguese, there are some places in Africa where they also speak Portuguese. But for me I feel like my Portuguese is normally all the same. It’s not the same, because I do not talk to my mom the way I talk to my friends. Though it’s not that far, but I do feel like my English is different. They way I talk at work, it’s probably different the way I talk when I’m in Brooklyn in my neighborhoods. And I’m talking to people in the stores and whatever. It’s not that different but I feel it’s more relaxed. Even when I’m at work when it’s lunch, I feel my English is way more relaxed.

Ruben Vilas: I can crack jokes, and it’s not I don’t crack jokes in a work situation, it’s just that my main goal is to be understood, make sure people know what I’m saying. Because it’s not my first language, so I don’t want to sound I don’t know what I’m talking about. So my first goal is to be forward and be very specific, and just show them, not that this is my goal that I want to show people that language is not a barrier, but at the same time it’s in the back of my mind.

Elin Asklöv: I think that’s inevitable, for sure.

Ruben Vilas: But then in the same time space I will go to lunch in the common area and it’s like my guard is down. Not as strong as that but I just relax. And it’s the same when I leave the office, when I’m outside. The workday is over so I don’t need to be extremely focused on the way I say things, so people will understand me at first. If someone doesn’t understand me in the street it’s fine, ill just repeat it not a big deal.

Elin Asklöv: And I think what Jenny said also, speaking is first and foremost a very social thing, and we just unconsciously take into account who were talking to and which type of register we can use with that person and so on. You don’t talk to the five year old the same way you talk to your boss, even if it’s the same language or dialect. So I think in a sense we’re all code-switching.

Ruben Vilas: Now that I think of it, when I go to New Jersey, I will normally go to Newark because there’s a big Portuguese community there, and I will go there once in a while to buy some stuff in the Portuguese supermarket and to basically eat, because there will be Portuguese food, lots of it. And I do feel the way I talk to the people there, and they’re all Portuguese it’s a big Portuguese community there, I feel that’s different. They way I talk with them I try to be a bit more polite, a bit more correct. And when I’m with my friends, I just curse a lot mostly. I feel like there’s this code-switching when I am at that area because it is Portuguese people, but I don’t know them, so I’m trying to show them I’m one of them, but at the same time be respectful. Just talk in a different way.

Elin Asklöv: So I think that we’ve established that code-switching is a very natural thing that is used to show solidarity, it’s used to show who you are, because your heart sort of speaks your first language that can also be a reason to switch, or situational switching. And I think that Todd said it quite nicely when he talked about belonging and different identities that you had. Which was an anecdote from visiting the capital of linguistic diversity which is the very city we’re sitting in right now.

Todd Ehresmann: One of the more fun code-switching situations that I experienced (was) when I went to New York City, and I’m kind of obsessed with bagels and I’m baker and so I created this tour of all of the most famous bagel places in New York City. And the first one that I walked into was this hole in the wall, I can’t even remember the name of it but amazing bagels. And the first thing that I heard when I walked in was this amazing fifty fifty mix of language, and it was one of the owners of the bagel shop doing some kind of business deal. I knew what is was about because there was some English mixed in there, and it was English, Yiddish and Hebrew, being code-switching three ways. And it was such an incredible blend of language that I couldn’t even pay attention to getting in line for the bagel, or buying things so I literally just sat next to him as he was on the phone. Tried not to interrupt his phone call but listened and I think I just find code-switching such a fascinating way to express the various identities that you belong to. And New York City is one of these classic places where people’s identities are so often split blended, one slightly stronger than the other. And I just remember being super fascinated by that story.

Diana Tur: For me, speaking Spanglish is actually a lot of fun, because I feel like you are proving your brain that you can switch from one thing to the other and be more specific about things when you just want to explain yourself in a really great, great way. You don’t only have the tools of one language, you have the tools of two languages so you can have as much fun as you want saying anything you want.

Elin Asklöv: Exactly, I think that’s also the main takeaway from code-switching that it’s a way to be, just like you said to express yourself in the most accurate and coolest and best way. Thank you very much for being on this episode Ruben and Diana.

Ruben Vilas: Of Course.

Diana Tur: Thank you for having us.

Ruben Vilas: Yeah thank you.

Diana Tur: It was a lot of fun

Elin Asklöv: And thank you for listening, this was our last episode of the season, but stay tuned for bonus material. Thank you all, bye!

Diana Tur: Bye.

Ruben Vilas: Bye.

Jen Jordan: Multilinguish is produced by the content team at Babbel. We are Thomas Moore Devlin, David Doochin, Steph Koyfman, Dylan Lyons, and I’m Jen Jordan. Ruben Vilas makes us sound good. Our logo was designed by Ally Zhao. You can read more about today’s episode topic and more on Babbel Magazine. Just visit B A B B E Say “hi” on social media by finding us at BabbelUSA, all one word. Finally please rate and review this podcast, we really appreciate it.

Elin Asklöv: Colander, Noun. A perforated utensil for washing or draining food. Source Merriam Webster. See you in season three.

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