Code switching, what to do, when should I worry?

This is one of the questions I get asked frequently:

When should I worry when my children do code switching?

First of all, the term code switching is widely used as an umbrella term for using different languages in the same sentence, alternating them to some extent. It is not to be confused with borrowing, where a language is integrated into the other.

Code switching can involve a word, a phrase or a sentence and there is always a base language. 

“Code switching is not a haphazard behavior due to some form of semilingualism but it is a well-goverend process used as a communicative stratagem to convey linguistic and social information”.  (Grosjean 2013)

The reasons for code-switching are many: using the right word or expression, filling a linguistic need, marking group identity, excluding or including someone, raising our status etc. – Please find a more detailed explanation of code-switching and code-mixing here.

Code-mixing, on the other hand, is a stage of bilingual language acquisition. Bilingual children naturally mix their languages. They use both languages in a single sentence.

It is not a sign that the child is not learning the languages properly, on the contrary, it is a sign that the child is acquiring those languages in a quite systematic way!

With mixing the languages, the child proves to naturally find interchangeable elements of the sentence.

I like to compare this code-mixing to playing with lego. Imagine you have a box full of lego in different colors. Each color stays for another language your child is acquiring.

If the child wants to build a house, they can choose to build a very colorful house, or build a house with one color only.

The house in one color stands for a monolingual sentence or conversation and the colorful house indicates a sentence or conversation where the child uses multiple languages. 

Many parents fear that by mixing the languages our children will never really learn to speak one of the languages correctly, but this usually is not true.

If we want to support our children to become more confident in one language in a conversation, we can adopt a discourse strategy.


Elizabeth Lanza (1997, 2004) identifies 5 parental discourse strategies:

  • Minimal Grasp strategy: when the parent indicates the lack of understanding of the child’s mixed utterance and asks what did you say?

This strategy is not about pretending not to understand our children! If we would use it this way, it would not be honest towards our children!

Denying that we understand what our child is saying can stop the communication and affect the relationship. “Pretending not to understand the other language is not an option I would recommend. In fact, it is not a discourse strategy that can serve the purpose of maintaining temporarily a monolingual situation. It rather creates a permanently monolingual setting. If a parent really does not speak the child’s other language, this is obviously the only option.” (Meisel 2019, 121) However, if the parent does understand and use the other language, the child will not understand why the parent insists on one language only.

 
With minimal grasp, Elizabeth Lanza means that during the conversation we hold on a second, say something like “what did you say?” or “what do you mean?”, it can also be by saying a simple “hm?” which can function as a trigger for the child to switch to the expected language. I personally use this strategy with my children and it works very well. 

  • Expressed Guess strategy: the parent reformulates the child’s mixed utterance by way of a guess and adds a question like Is that what you mean? – This is a more effective strategy as it involves active hearing and true commitment to understand what the child is saying.

It also gives the child the opportunity to find other words, paraphrase what he/she wants to say, and keeps the conversation flowing.

  • Repetition: the parent reformulates the child’s mixed utterance in the target language without code-mixing. – With this strategy which is also known as modeling, the parents formulates the sentence in a grammatically correct way. The child hears how it should sound, but is not asked to repeat the sentence or give an opinion about the content. We can do this usually when we are sure about what the child wanted to say. Similar to 3, this strategy shows that the parent is actively listening, engaged in the conversation and interested in mutual understanding.
  • Move on: the parent continues the interaction without “flagging” the child’s mixing in any way. – This kind of reaction should not be our normal reaction, especially not with young children who are still acquiring the languages. The only time I would advise using it is when more people are involved in the conversation and we either don’t want to alienate the child – it can be embarrassing and humiliating if someone interferes with our speech… – or we don’t want to interrupt the flow of the conversation. Strategies 1-3 are all interrupting the flow and if done repeatedly can affect the conversation.
  • Code-Switching: the parent switches to the language the child has introduced by means of code-mixing. – This might sound like an unexpected strategy, because we are supposed to help our children stick to one language, but it actually is the most multilingual reaction.

As multilinguals we always have the whole repertoire of words, nuances to our disposal and especially in multilingual settings, e.g. when we talk with others who share our languages, we feel like we can relax and let language just flow.

Just imagine that you have a set of colored crayons and are asked, or have the opportunity, to draw a flower. You would most probably try to use as many colors as you like.

If now someone would ask you to only use green, you may feel limited in your drawing, you might only draw the stem of a flower and its leaves, but you would miss the opportunity to explore all the colors… 

We can use a mix of all these strategies and see which one works best for us, our child, our family, and the situation we are in.

There are always situations where we feel insecure about what to do and it is ok to seek for help whenever we feel this way. Parents always should trust their gut: we know our children best and when there is anything that feels just “not right”, it is our responsibility to take action for the sake of our child. This applies for their overall wellbeing.

 

At what point should we worry when our child mixes the languages?

There are a few situations when we should observe our child’s code mixing a bit closer.

  • If our child is for example using the syntax structure of language B while speaking in language A consistently, we should start modeling the right grammatical structure and ask if this is what they wanted to say.

I know by experience that this kind of code-mixing can be discouraging, but it could be only a phase. Try to find out what the reasons can be for such a mixing:  

Our children can produce this kind of sentences when they are tired, or when they just switched from talking in the other language (B) and are now transitioning to talk in language A. If this phenomenon is only temporary, we shouldn’t worry too much, but if it pertains and our child seems not to be able to form one grammatically correct sentence anymore, then we should seek for help.

  • If our child struggles with forming a sentence in one language only and this in monolingual settings, for example at school: try to find out if the child only would need a bit more time to find the right words, and help with finding the right word order. For many bilingual children, time, patience, the right modeling and encouragement is all what they need.

I would only worry if I see that the child can’t form a sentence – even an easier form of it – in the two (or more) languages correctly when talking in that language only, in a monolingual setting; even not if given time.

In fact, if this happens, communication can become almost impossible as the meaning is difficult to be understood, even by multilinguals who code-switch between the same languages!

When this happens with a child that used to talk in a comprehensive way before, we should seek for help. A Language Consultant or a Speech Pathologist who is fluent in all languages involved would be ideal.

My first advice is always to assess the situation.

What makes the child struggle to form a grammatically correct sentence?

Is it the situation, the topic, the person that interacts with my child?

How is the person communicating with my child using the language, or languages? 

It obviously also depends on the child’s age and stage of bilingual or multilingual language acquisition, the situation (formal, non formal, at school, with people the child knows or not…), the topic (if it is a familiar topic or not), and if the child is tired or stressed for any reason etc.

Something that always helps in these situations is to give the child some space and time to recollect the thoughts and listen.

Encouraging the child to talk can be done by just being silent. You can also bridge between the languages the child knows. There are several techniques that have proven to be effective. What surely never helps is to make the child feel your anxiety or put any kind of pressure into the difficult conversation: the more anxious the child becomes the more this situation becomes a problem.

What I found helped with toddlers and preschool children in a similar situation was singing, or playing music in the background. With the help of music, different intonations and a topic that is dear to the child, the situation is more relaxed and the child (and the adult!) feels more comfortable.

If you have any question about this topic or if you would like to discuss a personal issue, please don’t hesitate to book a consultation with me.

I also invite you to watch this interview with Prof. Elizabeth Lanza we did at Raising Multilinguals LIVE

Some reads about this topic:

De Houwer, Annick,Language Choice in Bilingual Interaction”, in De Houwer, A. & Ortega, L. (Eds.) The Cambridge Handbook of Bilingualism, 2019, 324-348.

De Houwer, Annick, “Why Do So Many Children Who Hear Two Language Speak Just a Single Language?” in Zeitschrift für Interkulturellen Fremdsprachenunterricht 25 (1): 7-26.

De Houwer, Annick & Nakamura, Janice, Developmental Perspectives on Parents’ Use of Discourse Strategies with Bilingual Children. in: Multilingualism Across the Lifespan, Røyneland U. & Blackwood R. (Eds.), Routledge, 2022, 31-55.

Grosjean, François, Life with Two Languages: An Introduction to Bilingualism, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Grosjean, François and Li, Ping, The Psycholinguistics of Bilingualism, Wiley Blackwell, 2013.

Lanza, Elizabeth, Language Mixing in Infant Bilingualism. A Sociolinguistic Perspective. Oxford, OUP, 1997.

Lanza, Elizabeth, Language Mixing in Infant Bilingualism: A Sociolinguistic Perspective, Oxford, OUP, 2004.

Meisel, Jürgen, Bilingual Children. A Guide for Parents, CUP, 2019.

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