Some thoughts on language selection and code switching

By | January 8, 2018

Learning a foreign language is a challenge no matter which language you choose, and the difficulty achieving fluency depends on how distant it is from your native tongue(s), and whether you are in an environment where you are forced (or at least motivated) to use it daily. But once you become reasonably fluent in a language, you are eventually faced with situations where you have to choose which language to speak in.

In my years of studying Japanese and speaking it with a variety of people (mostly in the U.S.), I have taken an interest in the process by which a language is selected, both by others as well as by myself. This applies to both the beginning of a conversation as well as switching midway through, the latter being often referred to as code-switching (As a software developer, I find this term confusing, but since it seems widely employed I’ll use it anyway). I imagine that people who know two or more languages natively do this selection mostly subconsciously, but as someone not in that category I personally need to spend extra time thinking about it. At times, it can also be a source of frustration, or even anger.

In this post I’d like to talk about the process of language selection, based on my observation of other bilingual speakers, as well as my own experiences.

Although the language one chooses to begin a conversation can be affected by a large number of factors, I will group these into three categories: speaker factors, listener factors, and environmental factors.

Speaker factors

By “speaker factors”, I mean reasons to choose a language based on the person who is originating the conversation. Note that “conversation” doesn’t necessarily have to be a long exchange, it can be a simple question.

This group of factors are perhaps the easiest to evaluate and understand. An important factor here is the language the speaker considers him or herself the most fluent in. This may also vary by subject matter, for example there are times I need to talk about something technical and realize I lack the vocabulary to express it accurately in Japanese. Another factor can be how tired (or healthy) the speaker is, since it generally takes extra effort to speak in a foreign language.

However, if the speaker is actively trying to speak in a certain language in order to improve their fluency in it, they may prefer that language over their native language. In fact, language practice may be the primary reason for the exchange.

Personally, I will sometimes use specific words or phrases in a different language (in the middle of a sentence) just for effect, assuming the other party knows both languages and I am close with them. But I am not sure how common this is.

Listener factors

These factors relate to the person or people who are being addressed by the speaker. In the case where the listener(s) native language is known by the speaker, it should be a straightforward decision what language to use.

However, in the case where the listener(s) native language is not known, the speaker usually has no choice but to make a best guess and attempt speaking.

If extremely uncertain, the speaker may begin by asking if the listener(s) know a certain language, and once the listener(s) respond it should be obvious what language to continue the conversation in. Of course, if completely in doubt, it is often best to pick the primary language of the country you are in.

As an alternate option, if the speaker feels that the listener(s) do not share a language, he or she can decide to not attempt the conversation.

Environmental factors

Environmental factors are those that are not directly related to the speaker or listener(s). These can be the most abstract and differ greatly from person to person.

One common environmental factor is the primary language of the country where the conversation takes place. I have heard some people tell me they prefer to speak to me in English because that’s the main language in the U.S., and surely there is some logic to that.

One of the trickier factors here is the people in the immediate vicinity who are not directly participating in the conversation. If they are complete strangers, they may not matter to language selection. However I have heard some people say that speaking a foreign language around people who don’t understand it can be considered rude, so it still may affect one’s decision.

If the other people are friends or family, there is an even better reason to choose a language those people understand. This is something I find myself pretty sensitive about, and have tried to shift conversations many times to English so that people around me can listen in.

Another interesting case is when I am saying something to my son which relates to a nearby person (like “Don’t touch other people’s stuff”). Here too, I sometimes switch to a language that those around me will understand.

Of course, in cases where the speaker wants to be secretive, he or she can choose a language that is not understood by those nearby. Conversely, if there are concerns about racism and giving away one’s nationality then a ‘safe’ language may be chosen instead.

Finally, people aren’t robots and I’ve noticed that sometimes it’s hard to figure out why someone chose a certain language. It may just be a force of habit, or there was some subconscious trigger the speaker themselves didn’t realize.

Negotiation

Ultimately, language selection is generally decided by a brief, informal exchange between two or more people. For example, the listener may use a different language than the one he or she was addressed with, and the speaker can take this an indication the listener prefers that language and switch to it.

Alternately, one of the parties can make the determination that the other party is not fluent enough to communicate in a certain language, and switch for their sake. This can cause friction whenever the person with weaker language skills is purposefully trying to use that language to improve their fluency in it. This has happened to me several times and can be a source of frustration, but over time I have gradually learned to get used to it. Nonetheless, when it happens I still tend to doubt whether my grammar or pronunciation was unnatural, or whether the other party simply chose English because we are in the U.S. and it was likely the most efficient language to communicate in.

This process of negotiation doesn’t always go smoothly. Sometimes, I have heard entire conversations where two people were speaking different languages. Though it’s maddening to listen to, as long as the people involved communicated their points then the exchange can be considered a success. I’ve talked to several parents who say they typically speak with their child with one language, but the child responds in another language.

Playing it safe

I’ve noticed that when you speak with someone a second or third time, often the language which was negotiated the first time is used again. So if you desire to speak in a certain language for practice, I recommend doing your best to keep to that language the first time you speak with someone, especially if you expect to talk with them again.

For that reason, you may want to play it safe and avoid saying unfamiliar phrases since it will risk giving away some unnatural pronunciation or grammar. Of course, if you are too quiet, that too can give away a lack of confidence or ability in that language. In Japanese, you can get pretty far just with just aizuchi (phrases like なるほど or そうですか?).

Once you get more familiar with that person, you can gradually come out of your shell and try riskier language. As part of that process, you can emulate things they said to you in order to learn new words and expressions.

If you get stuck, rather than switching to your native language, I suggest asking in the language you are practicing. For example in Japanese, you can say “あの、XXXって日本語で何ていうんですか”? (How do you say XXX (an English word) in Japanese?)

Language selection and children

If you are raising one or more children to be bilingual, I feel that it’s a good idea to make more active decisions about what language you use.

In our family, we try to use Japanese at home as much as possible since there are few chances to speak Japanese  with others outside the house. But it can be difficult for children to understand this, since their goal is generally to communicate in whatever manner they can.

If I a speaking in Japanese and my son answers in English, I will usually ask him (in Japanese) to please speak in Japanese, or simply answer back in Japanese. If I think he was unable to communicate something in Japanese, I’ll try to rephrase it (oh, you meant “…”) so he can learn new words. Sometimes there are situations where we will speak English mostly exclusively (like if English-speaking family members are around). Above all, I think it’s important for a child to understand the importance of learning a foreign language so they understand why they are being asked to speak in that language.

Language acquisition is a very natural thing for humans, especially children, and in my experience it seems that children who are raised bilingually quickly learn to differentiate which language should be used in a certain environment, particularly when there are those involved that don’t understand one of the languages.

Multilingual conversation

In an environment where all participants are (at least) bilingual and there is no concern about the environment (say they are in an enclosed room), I think it is quite natural to switch between different languages, i.e. perform code-switching. I have observed such transitions can seem completely random. But if you assume the speakers and listeners are equally skilled in two languages, why would there be any reason to stick to a single language?

This reminds me of my trip to Hawaii where I was told many people there speak a mix of various languages.

Shortly after I wrote a draft of this article, I attended an event where much of the audience was Japanese/English bilingual. One of the presenters was clearly fluent in both languages, and during one of the activities she switched frequently between languages (even mid-sentence) which nearly drove me crazy. For example, she would say things like, “Alright, everyone 皆で…” which not only involves language switching, but repeating the same word in two different languages.

During the event, I asked another bilingual person about the presenter’s language switching, to which I was told “普通だよ” (It’s normal). So I guess a combination of my incomplete Japanese fluency, plus my detail-oriented (?) personality, makes me more sensitive to code switching of this sort.

Dialects

This discussion on language switching can also be applied to regional dialects. For example, my Indian friend spoke perfect, unaccented English, but when speaking with his parents he suddenly slipped into a British-sounding dialect of English. This was an interesting experience for me since I was sitting in the same room (he was on the phone), and when I talked to him afterward he didn’t seem to be aware of the transition himself. This goes to show that language switching decisions can be completely subconscious.

I think Japanese has more well-defined dialects than English, for example Kansai dialect (関西弁) which has very different pronunciation than standard (sometimes called Tokyo) dialect (標準語). I have heard how people from the Kansai region will speak Tokyo dialect in certain settings (like on the job) and then switch to their local dialect when with their Kansai friends. You could even argue that deciding what level of politeness to use is done in a similar fashion (Japanese has several levels of politeness, ex: する vs. します vs. いたします), though I think there may be less environmental factors there.

Overall, I think one of the reasons to choose a certain language or dialect is not just to communicate effectively, but to fit in the group and be accepted.

Avoiding conflict

Though I generally try to use Japanese as much as possible to improve my conversation and listening skills, if someone indicates they prefer English I’ll generally go with the flow without resisting much. I’ve found that boldly asking (adults) “Why are you using English?” can lead to uncomfortable exchanges. Since I look at language learning as a long-term activity, a few conversations isn’t going to make a big difference to my fluency. In Japanese this long-term view can be described with the expression 長い目で見る, which literally means “to see with a long eye”.

Do you have any interesting stories about language selection or code switching? Let me know!

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