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Friday, 14 September 2012

Mixing languages: what does it mean?

If you have studied multilingualism for a while, you know that you can expect your children to mix the many languages they speak. You know that this is not a mistake, but a very creative way to communicate. But what does it mean, exactly, if your child mixes languages? Here are my own experiences.

Each language is a system. And while mixing words is the most common and visible way that children code-switch, this phenomenon goes well beyond that, and into the heart of any language. Language is more than just words. So, when children mix languages, they mix more than words.

Let me give you some examples. I noticed that Klara. She would start a word in one language, and then finish it with another. For example, in Polish there is an ending for diminutives (just like the Dutch –je, the German –lein or –chen, or the Spanish –ito/ita.), and it’s –ek/ka.  So Klara would say: “Pferd, Esel, Schafek”- (“horse, donkey, “Schaf” is the German word for sheep and the Polish ending indicated that this was a little cute sheep).

Another way Klara sometimes mixes languages is by mixing the grammar. For example, to indicate something that happened in the past, Klara obviously used German grammar in a Polish sentence. How did I know? The tense she used does not exist in Polish! She would also use the Polish word order (or rather the lack of it) when speaking German- where the word order in a sentence is clearly specified.

And then, there is a third way: mixing accents. This is the most visible in the case of the “R”. You see, Klara pronounces the German “R” quite well- it’s a little bit like the French “R” if you don’t know German and want to know how it sounds. The Polish R, however, might be harder to learn, and I read that even monolingual Polish children don’t pronounce it well until they are around 5 years old. Till then, they might substitute “r” for “l”, pronounce R just like the Germans do, or leave it out.

The same thing happens with songs: at playgroup, we sing “Frere Jacque” in many languages, including Polish. So Klara would sometimes sing: “Panie Janie, Panie Janie, schl√§fst du noch”? Later, she might start using Polish sayings and metaphors in German or Dutch, or the other way round. Also, she might learn that some words can’t be translated- “gezellig”, anyone? Or some words just sound better when said in a particular language. And she will learn that some people just mix languages and others don’t.

It’s a fascinating process, and it’s also hilarious to watch. I can’t help but laugh at Klara’s very inventive linguistic creations. What about your children?

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  1. Personally I really like when my children mix the languages. I don't see it as a "problem" or a lack of consistency in their language acquisition progress, but simply as a very natural way to make connections in between the language systems they acquire. It can be at several levels: lexical, morphological, phonetic or syntaxic. I have plenty of examples, here is just one: While in a store with my kids, we looked for some items and my girls wanted to check in another part of the shop than me and my son, so one of my girls just said: "Wir mieten dann bei der Kasse". "Mieten" (to rent) has the same phonetical sound as to "meet" with the german ending of a infinitive -en. She just did mix the two words who are semantically different, phonetically identic and added just an ending that did fit in the german context.

    1. Your example is very funny and really illustrates well what code-switching is all about. And I know that this is a normal thing, but funnily enough, I don't seem to do this as much as other bilinguals- my parents were really consistent with separating Polish and German, so I get really confused when someone does it in my presence. I usually try to provide the word in the correct language- and I get really annoyed if I can't find that word. On the other side, I have no problems whatsoever switching between Polish/German/English, in fact, I have been known for talking to a group of people, and then using the appropriate languages with them, depending on who spoke what. But I know this is rather unusual.
      Coming back to code-switching, I wrote this post because most people assume that it's just using different languages in one sentence, but it's so much more complex and goes much deeper than that.

  2. Well, all bilinguals and multilinguals do that. My mother was also very consistent with separating German and Italian. When you happen to talk with other multilinguals (who talk the same languages as you) and you're tired or have to say something very quickly, then code-switching just happens. Often you don't have the time to think abou the word you need in that moment and it is not perceived like a "lack of competence". However, if you do code-switching this doesn't mean that you can't have a consistent talk in each language you speak. I used to work in an international environment and just switched to the appropriate languages, depending on who I was speaking with. This is not unusual at all! Bilinguals and multilinguals who use their languages on a regular basis do this every day.

    1. Yes, except I noticed I was doing a lot less code switching than others, although of course, I do it. I really get very confused when somebody code-switches in my presence- it's like my brain is not prepared for this person using another languages. But sometimes I do it, and I think now I do it much more often than I used to.

  3. I think it's also depending on the context. If you are in a professional context, you simply don't do code-switching. I do code-switching exclusively with friends or a relaxed situation. I also never did it at school when I was a kid, but only with my friends.

  4. Absolutely creative and original... love it and my 3 yo does it with the languages she hears mostly. We are talking English at home, mother language Romanian, father's Iranian and Swedish.. Been living in Spain and Sweden most of her life, and.. we are moving to Amsterdam.
    I personally found myself pretty often that i start a sentence in a language and finish in other language.. it is spontaneous and it is the most accurate expression to what i want to transmit.. Sounds weird to you?!

    1. Hello Ioana, thank you for your comment. Yes, I hear that this is a common practice among multilinguals. However, before I came to live in the Netherlands and met other multilingual people, I never had to mix languages because all the people I talked to were monolinguals- that's why I am not used to mixing. I find myself doing it more and more often. Also, in my case, while I speak German, my husband doesn't speak Polish- which makes mixing languages unnecessary.However, I am fascinated by how my children learn to speak all the different languages and I don't think it's weird anymore- but I used to.


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