Saturday 25 June 2016

Switching languages, mixing languages – or using languages?

Many years ago, I went, as usual, to fetch my children from Swedish Supply School, which met once a week after regular (English-medium) school in Singapore, where our family lived. On that particular occasion, one of the children was especially eager to start telling me all about her day. She spoke Portuguese, this being the language that the children and I have always shared, and she speckled it with so much English and Swedish that I felt compelled to interrupt her. “Querida!”, I giggled, “Que língua é que estás a falar?!” (‘Sweetheart! Which language are you speaking?!’). She stared at me briefly as if I were a clueless alien and then snapped, in squeaky clean Portuguese: “Uma qualquer, para dizer o que eu quero!” (‘Whichever, to say what I want to say!’).

What was I doing, here? I was giving evidence that being multilingual, as I am, hadn’t immunised me against the persuasion that languages are objects of reverence: they are there to be respected. Which meant that I was paying attention to my girl’s languages, not to her.

What was she doing? She was giving evidence that being multilingual, as she is, had made it clear to her that languages are tools: they are there to serve our needs. She had last used Portuguese in the early morning, a long time before the end of her working day, which had taken place first in English and then in Swedish. So why not use, in “whichever” language, the bits and pieces of the other language(s) in which those bits and pieces first became meaningful to her? All of my children did this, as I discuss in Chapter 10 of my book Three is a Crowd?. I found it particularly revealing that later, when they and I talked about these episodes, it was their turn to giggle when reporting their unawareness that they had been ‘mixing languages’, as this behaviour is usually called. Besides, as my girl then added about this episode, she knew that I knew all three languages in question, so “there was no problem there, right?”

Again, she left me without arguments. It may be true that only multilinguals in my children’s three languages might understand what they were saying when they used their languages in this way, but any multilingual in any languages would understand what they were doing: they were being typical multilinguals. The question then arises of why we came to talk about a feature of typical multilingualism as ‘mixing’, a word with rather negative undertones. Conversely, we might also ask what it means to not mix, or switch, languages or codes. Multilingual mixes usually raise judgemental or worried eyebrows as providing evidence of bad or impaired use of language, respectively. But “bad/impaired use of language” in fact means ‘bad/impaired use of a language’, and there is a world of difference between language and a language. So why don’t monolingual mixes cause generalised unease, and where do we draw the line?

The issue is precisely one of lines. Like country boundaries, language boundaries are figments of our collective imagination. Not even linguists have any idea what or where they might be. So why do we go on interpreting multilingual mixes as offending language boundaries? Ofelia García, in an interview conducted by François Grosjean on his blog Life as a Bilingual and titled What is Translanguaging?, answers this question pithily:
Linguists often refer to the behavior of bilinguals when they go across these named language categories as code-switching. It is an external view of language. But translanguaging takes the internal perspective of speakers whose own mental grammar has been developed in social interaction with others. […] Translanguaging is more than going across languages; it is going beyond named languages and taking the internal view of the speaker’s language use.

The book that Ofelia García edited with Li Wei, Translanguaging: Language, Bilingualism and Education, has more on how translanguaging characterises everyday multilingual practices.

Languages are there to be used as the tools that they are, not replicated as straitjacketed instruction manuals. Different languages make sense to us precisely because they allow us to engage with what matters to us in different ways, and to give the right flavour to what we wish to say. To use one of my favourite analogies, how we deal with our languages is no different from how we deal with our food. There are (standard) recipes, that we haven’t been called upon to put together because they were devised and tried by other people; there are ingredients, and tips about method and seasonings. But then we do it our way, because we are the ones doing the cooking. Favouring observation of each of the languages of multilinguals over what the multilinguals themselves do with them is like analysing recipes to find out how they taste. Multilinguals only transgress those rules that never took multilinguals themselves into account.

The next post, a guest post, keeps to the topic of creativity, this time about how and why we find ways of preserving our languages in printed form.

© MCF 2016

Next post: =Guest post= Being multiscriptal: why our alphabets matter, by Tim Brookes. Saturday 9th July 2016.


  1. Dear Magdalena

    Being multilingual permits the savoir-faire linguistic which opens the doors to our perception of the various nuances inter and intra language. Ultimately, it helps us to convey the meaning we seek or, better yet, to impart are thoughts.
    My daughters do la même chose avec Portuguese, English and French. Codeswitching is the norm chez nous.

    Congratulations on this great initiative. Your words resonate big in the hearts of linguists.

    Um forte abraço

    Sergio from Brazil

  2. Grand merci, Sergio. Foi um prazer ler o seu comentário! Come back any time?


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