Bilingual conversations

We have several foreign-born individuals among our engineers. In fact, in my cubicle one of the guys is Puerto Rican and the other is Spanish. I’ve overheard both of them on the phone slipping in and out of Spanish. I can understand this when they’re discussing something technical, but generally, these are personal calls. It’s just odd hearing them go from one language to another without missing a beat.

How common is this? Those of you who are multi-lingual - do you do this? Consciously or unconsciously?

[sub]And, for the record, I don’t sit here and eavesdrop on these guys, and my profiency in Spanish is limited and rusty. Just so you don’t think I’m a Senora Snoopy-nose here. :smiley: But I do feel kinda pleased when I pick out a word or two.[/sub]

At my last job I had two coworkers from Colombia who did that a lot. It always intrigued me, and made me jealous - while I am proficient in Spanish, I’ve never made the leap to fluency and can’t switch languages that easily.

Je ne sais pas.

I grew up speaking Spanish and Portuguese around the house and we did this a lot. I still do it when I talk to my parents. I think the reason it gets done is that in some cases I might have learned something in English, like say how to program a VCR, or the various cuts of beef which I know in Portuguese.

Another thing is that occasionally there is a perfect expression or way of summing up something that only exists in one of the languages so even if you are speaking in another language you will use it.

Code-switching is a rather fascinating phenomenon, and from my past few readings and nosy eavesdropping ears, really rather common among bilinguals.

About the eavesdropping part, I can understand Spanish okay (nowhere near fluent, but I could listen to a lecture or conversation in Spanish and understand it) and I actually find it much easier to understand a conversation that is solely in Spanish than one where the parties speak in Spanish and English.

When talking with my parents I constantly switch between Hebrew and Russian. It depends on the complexity of the sentences… If they’re simple, i’ll use Russian because this is what we always talked at home, but if things get complicated I start making long pauses to formulate sentences and eventually switch to Hebrew.

One of the most interesting things about code-switching is that it is regulated in that each participant must have proficiency in both languages and each participant must know that the other participants have proficiency in each language.

In any case, it takes incredible mental dexterity. I always find it fascinating that when I go to the taqueria the woman behind the counter can switch from English to Spanish and back to English, never makes a mistake, and is always accurate in which language she uses with which person (although sometimes I get rice and beans in my burrito which I always ask for without). I sometimes think that with a little practice she could be working for the U.N.

This week, there was an international conference and I found myself one night at a restaurant table where everyone spoke at least three languages.

There were people speaking (in order of proficiency):
[li] French, English, and Japanese[/li][li] Russian, English, French, and Italian[/li][li] Japanese, Italian, and English[/li][li] French, English, and German[/li][li] Japanese, German, and English[/li][li] German, English, and French[/li][/ul]
Notice that everyone spoke English, but there were no native English speakers, and so very little English was used. The resulting conversations were as close as Babel as I’ve ever experienced. People were happily switching back and forth between Japanese, French, German, English and Italian.

Switching languages is certainly not a problem, even between three different ones as was the case this week. However, I have a very hard time speaking to someone in a language that isn’t their native tongue (provided of course I know it). This means that I will almost stick to one language if I’m speaking with only one person.

I recently discovered I was bilingual, although the conversations usually are a bit one-sided.

I grew up in Puerto Rico with an Argentinean mother and American father. All of us being bilingual. If was very common for our conversations to wander back and forth between Spanish and English.

I will never forget when I brought my future bride to meet the folks the confused look on her face. It seems that we didn’t really realize that we were doing this; it was just a part of our dynamic. Took real work to remember to just use English.

As an interesting aside, I now do Tech Support. Part of that involves my typing logs, and (naturally) I also talk on the phone. Sometimes I will take a call in Spanish and (as is my custom) be typing up my call log while on the phone (log is in English). This almost always causes a language center meltdown in which I can’t write or talk until I re center. Interesting, Huh?

My parents both grew up in bilingual households - Polish and English. When they didn’t want us kids to know what they were discussing, they’d speak Polish, but every once in a while, an English phrase would pop in. Often that was enough for us to get the gist of the conversation!

The oddest situation I found myself in, back when I was a high school senior, was meeting with a group of Italian students who didn’t speak English, but they knew French. I also knew French - at least enough for minimal conversation. So that’s how we communicated. I thought it was great. Sadly, 30 years later, I’ve forgotten too much of what I learned in French, and Spanish, and German, so the best I can manage is occasionally tossing a foreign word into an English sentence.

I’ve done this. Southern Oregon was a farming/orchard economic region worked by mostly Mexican migrant workers. Having studied Spanish for some years, decided to teach English in some of these work camps, and it was not uncommon to be in mid-Spanish sentence and then switch to English with a colleague or more proficient speaker of English. I loved doing it with my folks as well… Be talking with them and constantly switch from English to Spanish.

Once when coming out from under a general anesthesia I was quite ill from the morphine and was trying to tell the nurses I was about to throw up. They just looked at me oddly until I rolled over (after just having my appendix out) and decorated their shoes. Later I was told the reason they didn’t understand me was that I was telling them in Spanish… d’oh!! :rolleyes:

I work in a mixed Russian-English-German office, and the language used varieds according to whichever has the best mutual proficiency among the speakers (generally Russian). In the translation department (where I work) the conversations are usually 90% Russian/10% English, often in the same sentence - the English coming when there’s a concept that’s better/more easily said in English.
Timchik jr is 3 years old and has 60/40 proficiency - he speaks Russian with his mum (more often, since I work and she stays home) and English with me, switching back and forth without missing a beat. He’ll even translate for us sometimes - even though he knows that we both speak both languages. It’s truly impressive. I grew up unilingual English and am really envious of (and pleased at) how easy it’ll be for him to move between cultures.

Back when I was working in Japanese tourism in Hawaii, my conversations with my coworkers and other people in the business were frequently a mixture of Japanese and English, with both languages being used in the same sentence. The strange thing is, it felt perfectly natural.

I also remember a trip to New York with a couple of other people in the German club. We had dinner at Benihana and, since the chef spoke Japanese, and my friends and I were studying German, I wound up speaking English, Japanese and German during dinner.

Switching languages has always come naturally to me, even though I didn’t start formally studying foreign languages until I was 12. I don’t think it has anything to do with switching between my parents’ British English and my friends’ American English; if that were the case, my brothers would find it just as easy as I do, and one of them quite definitely doesn’t! I just figured it had something to do with the way my brain is wired.

Sore demo, sore wa watakushi no iken dake desu no de, betsu ni kamaimasen.


Three of my first cousins are Mexico/US dual citizens. They were born and raised in Mexico, but their mom is an American, and their Mexican dad speaks totally fluent English (his parents immigrated from Poland to the US, and then Mexico, so they knew English and raised him bilingually). So my cousins speak both, and when they converse with each other, they go back and forth a lot. They tend to yell more in Spanish, I have noticed - a conversation might begin in English, but if they get annoyed at each other, they’ll switch to Spanish to argue.

I have a friend who speaks Spanish and English. She and her mom (who doesn’t speak much English) speak to each other mostly in Spanish, but it’s sprinkled with English bits: "OK"s and "yeah"s and things like that. The effect is very strange.

When I was in Nice, we stayed at a hostel marketed towards English-speakers owned by a German man who had two of his sons helping him.

I once witnessed a conversation. They started off politely, talking in English. Once it got more animated, they switched to French. Once they started yelling, they switched to German.

Here in Quebec, it is not at all unusual to hear people switching back and forth between English and French all time time. The interesting part is that people end up sometimes speaking a strange amalgamation of the two, as they’ll switch back and forth several times in the same sentence.

My family and I do it all the time. It used to drive my dad crazy, he would yell at us “Pick a language”, and we would choose one, then keep switching back and forth between English and Spanish again.

It’s called Spanglish in South Florida and it seems like everybody does it. I don’t even notice it half the time and sometimes catch myself using Spanish with English speakers.

My friends and I did this when I was studying in Israel. We spoke English with each other and pepper it liberally with Hebrew. A lot of the time, it was because the words didn’t have really accurate translations in English and seemed specific to stuff in Israel (like shuk for outdoor market), but sometimes it was just because that was the first words that came to mind. I once cracked up an Israeli friend when he asked me how I was and I answered “Pretty tov.” (As you might know from the phrase “mazel tov”, tov means “good.”)

Forgot to mention earlier that our household is multi-lingual. Anyone coming in on our conversations had better hang on… You’ll hear: British-English, American-English, Spanish, Anglo-Romani, a fairly strong Nottingham dialect (just cos it drives me crazy - it’s horrible!!), and a smattering of Sioux, Cherokee, and Japanese.

Keeps the braincells active but drives the hubby nuts when I call him summat in Spanish or Japanese :smiley: