I am doing NaBloPoMo this month. 30 blog posts in 30 days. Come join me. #nablopomo2022
I mentioned in my post about German Idioms that Jon and I speak a mix of English and German at home. I also have a few multilingual friends with which that happens and we always called our language “Denglish”, which is a portmanteau of the German words Deutsch (German) and English. But upon investigation, this actually has a negative connotation and describes the increased use of anglicisms and pseudo-anglicisms in the German language. It’s not quite the same as “mixing” two languages together. Did you know that the mixing of two languages while speaking is actually called code-switching?
There, you just learned a new linguistic term. (Or at least I did.)
Code-switching can refer to two (or more) different languages, but also language varieties, vernaculars, and dialects. Sometimes the process is also called language transfer when only certain linguistic features are applied from one language to another that are inconsistent with the syntax and phonology of each language.
There are 3 types of code-switching:
- Alternation: shifting between whole stretches and phrases of a language one after the other
- Insertion: mixing of individual lexemes or words of one language while speaking another language
- Dense code-switching/congruent lexicalization: lexical and grammatical mixing and activation of 2 languages
I think I mostly use alternation and insertion because I feel like most people who code-switch still use one dominant language (like with Jon, it’s mostly English with German alternations/insertions, with my German friends who live here it’s mostly German with English alternations/insertions). Dense code-switching starts to sound really weird because both languages seem to get equal weight in the speech process – if that makes sense.
Language is represented in the brain as a network of neurons. If you speak two (or more) languages, each language forms its own network which may or may not be closely linked to another. Code switching then depends on how ‘internalized’ those languages are. While speaking, these language networks are activated and as the internalization of one language grows and mixes with another, the brain starts extracting words/ideas based on intention and connotation from each network.
I notice that a lot of English words have slipped into my German conversations with my family (which gets my sister upset and she jokingly says that I obviously have to move home because I am losing my German – haha.) I try to explain to her that it’s the ‘tip of the tongue’ phenomenon, that I sometimes just don’t remember a (not frequently used) German word and I code-switch because it is easier than spending cognitive resources to fetch the correct German word that is temporarily blocked from memory.
Also, concrete objects and abstract concepts can have various contexts and representative words in different languages and some of these words have complex connotations and therefore can’t be easily translated.
I mentioned the other day that I am struggling to come up with a good German translation for the word “pet peeve“. The dictionary says “Lieblingsärgernis” (a word I have honestly never heard anybody use in German) and the literal translation is “favorite nuisance”. While it somewhat accurately describes what a pet peeve is, it doesn’t carry the same weight/connotation for me (and I am curious how other German speakers feel about that). So, in conversation, I’d probably insert “pet peeve” into my otherwise German sentence. The same can happen the other way around. A good example is the word “Schadenfreude” (which is considered a German loanword that has been completely adopted into the English language). I wonder if it has the same connotation for me as it has for you.
As you can tell, I went a little bit down the rabbit hole when I looked up code-switching, and I am very intrigued to read more about it. Linguistics is super interesting to me. I dabbled a little bit in it in college. Has anybody read the book “The Language Instinct” by Steven Pinker? Absolutely fascinating.
When I was younger, I’ve always dreamed of one day being able to speak another language fluently and effortlessly. It seemed like a big accomplishment to be able to communicate in a foreign language and I still envy everyone who gets the chance to grow up bilingual. It’s such an advantage, as learning a language later in life takes so much more effort. It also will likely never become as internalized and ‘fluent’ as your first language, no matter how hard you try!
I am far beyond the point where I have to translate everything back and forth between the two languages in my mind (that was hard in the beginning and took a lot of time and cognitive resources). Now, I often honestly can’t tell you if I had a thought in German or English. People have also repeatedly asked if I dream in German or in English and most of the time, I don’t remember. In my mind, both languages function in parallel without much conscious thought. However, I still have days when my brain is just “exhausted” and all I want to do is blurt out every little thing that comes to my mind in German.
Do you have any experience with code-switching of any kind?