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Between us Bilinguals: A fairly unbiased dissertation on monolingual and bilingual views on code-switching by Ewa Niemiec


The difference between monolinguals and bilinguals does not simply lie in the fact that the latter know more than one language. Grosjean put it best in his probably most frequently cited sentence: A bilingual is not two monolinguals in one person. The situation is much more complex, as we should consider all kinds of factors, such as social, psychological and linguistic. First of all, each language has its own specific features that influence the way an individual thinks and speaks. Speakers of a language function in a particular society and culture that has impact on their behavior, not only the linguistic one. To understand the difference between mono- and bilingual individuals we should take a closer look at the psychological portrait of the bilingual and his social situation.

Thinking for speaking

I am certain that you could find many examples of how you struggle to eliminate the influence of your mother tongue on your performance in a foreign language that you study. Have you ever noticed though, how your second language impacts your mother tongue? At some point of becoming bilingual you may have a feeling that you are not able to speak correctly in any language. Why is that?Cook (1992) argues that neither mother tongue nor second language of a bilingual speaker is exactly the same as these languages in monolinguals. There are differences in vocabulary and syntax, arising from the fact that languages stored together (in a single mental representation of multiple languages) must influence each other. Berman and Slobin (1994) conducted the ‘frog story’ experiment, the goal of which was to compare the way monolingual English, Spanish, German, Hebrew, and Turkish individuals tell stories while looking at the same events shown in a picture book.  As you can imagine, the stories they told differed, mostly in the temporal and spatial orientation of the narration. The experiment was based on Slobin’s claim that in the course of acquiring the grammar of a particular language, a person has to adopt a particular “framework for schematizing experience” (Slobin 1991: 7). Slobin’s hypothesis states that, when a speaker presents events or experiences in any language, he has to take a grammaticized point of view in order to fit them to the structure of the language. It means that people speaking different languages must consider various online orientation of information flow and will pay attention to particular details stressed by the grammar of a given language. For instance, a speaker of Turkish trying to describe a past event has to specify whether the event was directly witnessed or not, for such distinction is a part of the Turkish grammar. An English speaker would not even think of making such a distinction when describing the same event.


These language-specific ways of the schematization of experience constitute what Slobin calls thinking for speaking, i.e. some special sort of thinking called into play in the process of speaking in a particular code. The experiment seems to support the hypothesis that the acquisition of a second language affects the learner’s mother tongue. I have experienced it myself the moment I started to analyze what I intended to say in Polish from the point of view of English grammar. For instance, I wondered whether to use Present Perfect or Past Simple when talking about past events, although in Polish no such distinction exists. I would also apply English word order, which was particularly salient when I put prepositional phrases at the end of questions, e.g. Dlaczego nie chciałeś porozmawiaćz nim? (Why didn’t you want to talk to him?) The correct word order in Polish is: Dlaczego nie chciałeś z nimporozmawiać? I would also confuse gender endings of adjectives, forgetting to check them for their agreement with nouns, as there is no need to pay attention to that when speaking English. Therefore, bilinguals may have some unique qualities in their speech in both languages, incompatible with monolingual standards.

Bilingual person in the eyes of a sociolinguist

Differences in language production in monolingual and bilingual individuals can also be explained by various social networks in which they function. Every utterance carries a social meaning, as it reflects the power relations between the speaker and the listeners, who attach certain social value to this utterance. Language is not homogeneous, as it varies along social dimensions, its varieties (accents, dialects, sociolects, and codes) have their own value, according to their distance from the official, legitimate norm. Thus, language behavior is the result of the dynamic interplay between power relations at the societal level and the individual’s perception and evaluation of language varieties, according to his own language experience acquired and used in social networks. Speakers attach different social values to different codes, thus making some codes more appropriate in a given context.

The bilingual situation is even more complex. When more than one language comes into play, the very choice of the code to use becomes problematic. I recall a situation of this kind that I experienced in Italy. I was sitting at a restaurant table with my Italian friend and the waiter, who was Slovakian, brought me a bottle of water. I was facing a decision in which language to thank him. I talked to my Italian friend in English and Polish, as he understood some of both. The waiter spoke Italian perfectly and he knew the very basics of English. I could speak Polish, English, and German but I did not know Italian. When I met the waiter in his time off, I usually spoke to him in Polish and he answered in Slovakian; the both languages being closely related, we could more or less understand each other. However, we felt that mode of conversation too informal for the institutionalized environment of the restaurant. Thus, the choice was limited to Italian ‘grazie’ and English ‘thanks’; Polish ‘dziękuję’ being excluded as inappropriate. As I did not like the waiter much, I chose to keep the distance between us and thank him in English, the language he hardly knew. Using ‘grazie’ would have created an unwelcome feeling of community and mutual understanding. Taking such trivial decision, as it might seem, I had to consider a number of things: what languages we knew and spoke with each other, the location and formality of the situation, the kind of relationship between each of us, and our intentions in this speech act.

When two languages are used in the same society, their values and functions differ. Each bilingual community develops several varieties of language, which are used for particular domains and according to their own norms of correctness. For instance, Clyne (1972) mentions four language varieties among German Australians: English, German Australian in which German patterns are transferred into English, German, and Australian German involving code-switching and borrowing. The degree to which code-switching is used depends on the addressee, such as family, friends, officials, superiors and on the location, such as church, home, and place of work. The patterns of code-switching are an established norm for a particular social group and they cater for the appropriate language use in a group. Haugen (1977) mentions some rules governing the use of mixed varieties in the Norwegian American and Swedish American communities. He notices that function words are seldom borrowed; cognates are rarely borrowed and adapted phonologically, rather their meanings are extended to cover other concepts; lexical borrowing includes no more than 5-10% of the words in an utterance. Any violation of these norms would be considered erroneous, just as monolinguals conceive borrowing and switching to be wrong. Moreover, speaking in one language only, e.g. using English only in a Spanish-English community, may make its bilingual members think that the speaker tries to show off, wants to break the ties with the community and indicate his affiliation to the English majority. Thus, code-switching is not only the result of a language need of a speaker, it may as well play a role in sociolinguistic norms of a bilingual community.

Bilingual person as perceived by psycholinguistics

From the psychological perspective the difference between monolinguals and bilinguals lies also in the popular and sometimes even academic view that bilinguals must have some sort of split mentality, being two individuals in one. Grosjean (1982), for instance, has reported that bilinguals sometimes feel that language choice implicates different personalities. There is evidence that language choice may call upon different aspects of the personality: bilinguals responding to interviews and questionnaires tend to give slightly different pictures of themselves, depending upon the language used. It may be linked with the differences between cultures representing the languages.

Yoshida (1990) conducted a series of experiments investigating the relationship between bilingualism and biculturalism. His Japanese-English bilingual subjects showed varying degree of divergence from the monolinguals of both languages in terms of acculturation, leading to the hypothesis of interculturalism: “When a bilingual Japanese uses either Japanese or English, there is a strong possibility that he/she will be using a different conceptual field than the monolingual speakers of either language” (1990: 23). Also, the language choice may influence the emotional involvement of the bilingual, e.g. responses are typically more emotional through his mother tongue. Bilinguals can also use their second language to serve a distancing function when discussing troubling events. Bond and Lai (1986) looked at how easily embarrassing topics were discussed in a native language (Cantonese) and a second language (English). The subjects conducted interviews with each other in both languages. The topics of the interviews were either neutral or embarrassing. The two embarrassing topics required a description of a recently experienced embarrassing event, as well as a discussion of sexual attitudes prevalent in Chinese and Western culture. Based on the length of time that the subject spoke, this study demonstrated how code-switching into the second language made it easier for the subject to speak about the embarrassing topic for a greater length of time.

I would like to make a point here, saying that bilingualism should be studied not only in the idealistic conditions of a ‘true’ bilingual. Limiting the understanding of bilingualism to those relatively few individuals, as is the wish of the maximalists, hampers the development of bilingual studies. The focus should be shifted to balanced bilinguals, who according to the definition, are proficient to the same degree in the two languages, but may not meet the monolingual standards of linguistic competence. In fact, it seems that this definition, perhaps even unconsciously, recognizes that there exist differences in the idiolects of monolinguals and bilinguals, which is the point made by Cook (1992). These differences are not to be treated in terms of their adherence to linguistic norms, however. One should finally accept the fact that monolingual norms have been established for monolinguals, while bilinguals have their own standards, which are not inferior in any way.

Also, there is a lot to be learnt from foreign language learners, who according to some definitions are considered to be bilingual. A very interesting case constitute advanced students of foreign languages, that is individuals who are able to use their L2 (second language) at the level comparable with their L1 (native tongue), but their linguistic competence is still being trained, tested and evaluated on the rigid scale of school achievements. Thus, they may be proficient and still consider themselves imperfect, ready to function in their L2 on a regular basis and yet unaware of it and full of fears. They may use all kinds of bilingual strategies, e.g. code-switching, and believe it to be the sign of their linguistic failure. For the purposes of this paper, which intends to study such cases of bilingualism, I will adopt Mackey’s (1987: 700) broad definition of bilingualism as “the knowledge and use of two or more languages”.

Monolingual versus bilingual view on code-switching

Weinreich’s ideal bilingual switches from one language to the other according to changing context, but never in an unchanged speech situation, and certainly not within a sentence. Any switches would be marked explicitly by quotation marks in writing and by prosodic features in speech (pause, change in tempo, etc.) The amount of switching depends on the ability of the speaker to control it, and the less the individual is able to stay in one code, the more frequent the switches will be. Two extremes of the distortion of the switching facility may occur: one is the rigid adherence to one language, when it is virtually impossible for the bilingual to translate across languages; the second case is the insufficient adherence to one language in a constant speech situation, which, according to Weinreich (1968), can be attributed to persons who have acquired the languages in fused contexts.

Monolinguals have long had a negative attitude to code-switching as a grammarless mixture, insulting the monolinguals’ rule-governed language. In most cases code-switching is said to result from insufficient knowledge of the mother tongue, as is the case of recessive bilingualism, when immigrants undergo the process of forgetting words and expressions from their L1, and resort to the language of their new country. Also gaps in competence in L2 may lead to code-switching, when the speaker switches to his L1 for necessary words (Lipińska 2003). Selinker (1992) supports this view and argues that switching and mixing of languages in interlingual situations may be due to variability in L2 competence reflected in re-emergence of production of fossilized forms in certain contexts or discourse domains. Thus, for many, people who use code-switching are thought to be poorly educated and of low social status, while educated persons of higher linguistic awareness are believed to avoid it (Szydłowska-Ceglowa 1987). Those who code-switch frequently are often considered not to know either language to such an extent as to use it fluently. They are said to be ‘semilingual’ or even ‘without a language’. Despite the strong negative attitude toward code-switching little evidence has been found that it leads to semilingualism. Haugen (1969: 70) writes:

Reports are sometimes heard of individuals who ‘speak no language whatever’ and confuse the two to such an extent that it is impossible to tell which language they speak. No such cases have occurred in the writer’s experience, in spite of many years of listening to American-Norwegian speech.

In fact, numerous investigations of code-switching have demonstrated that to view code-switching as an indicator of deficient language skills in the bilingual speaker is a misconception. Code-switching has been shown to be a complex, rule-governed phenomenon and, as Poplack (1980: 72) put it: “Code-switching is a verbal skill requiring a large degree of competence in more than one language, rather than a defect arising from insufficient knowledge of one or the other.” Moreover, the supporters of the bilingual view claim that the more proficient a bilingual is, the more he will code-switch intrasententially. Non-fluent bilinguals, then, will favour intersentential and ‘emblematic’ switches: fixed expressions, discourse particles, interjections, tags (Legenhausen 1991).

The monolingual approach is very strict about code-switching but it is willing to admit that in some cases switching does point to language proficiency. Weinreich allows for switching according to changes in a speech situation: “The same bilingual may display varying amounts of interference in his speech according to circumstances in the immediate speech situation.” (1968: 80), but, on the other hand, any switching within an unchanged context is said to show “abnormal proneness to switching” (1968: 74). Lipińska (2003: 90) makes a distinction between fragmentary code-switching, i.e. using both languages at the same time in small portions, and overall code-switching, usually linked to one-person-one-language rule. She states that the latter is less frequent and used exclusively by persons proficient in both languages. Hamers and Blanc (2000) propose a distinction between ‘Code Alterne du Bilingue’, which indicates the existence of the bilingual competence, and ‘Alternance de Code d’Incompétence’, which points to the opposite. Alternating both codes in bilingual families is an example of the former, while language behaviour in immigrant communities, where immigrants possess limited competence in L2 and frequently need to resort to their L1, is characteristic of the latter. It seems that the proponents of the monolingual view on code-switching are willing to accept situational code-switching and even to admit that it involves a large degree of competence to use it. However, although situative code-switching seems to find acceptance among the supporters of the monolingual viewpoint, conversational switching is condemned as inappropriate and leading to interference.

Conversational code-switching in bilingual communities is not only associated by monolinguals with lack of competence, it is also ascribed to ill-will of bilinguals. One of the most popular beliefs among monolinguals is that a speaker who code-switches is less concerned with the correctness and purity of language. Haugen (1977: 94) writes about monolinguals who enter bilingual communities and are shocked to hear how much code-switching there is that: “They hold that such infringements on the rhetorical norm, as they conceive it to be, are due either to laziness, a moral defect, or to ignorance, an intellectual defect, or to snobbery, a social defect.” Warchoł-Schlottmann (1994: 204) confirms this belief, saying that sometimes one gets the impression that code-mixing is a feature of a misunderstood snobbery, and serves to demonstrate one’s bilingualism or even to manifest one’s so deep integration with a given community that it becomes impossible and improper not to code-switch.

The negative attitude to code-switching has been adopted by many bilinguals as well. A French-English bilingual cited by Grosjean (1982: 148) says: “This whole process of code-switching is done mostly out of laziness, for if I searched long enough for the correct word, I would eventually find it … I try to avoid code-switching … one would quickly end up speaking a language of its own.” This attitude has resulted in their avoidance of switching, particularly in situations in which they could be stigmatized for doing so by e.g. their parents or teachers, who may have very strict norms concerning language use. Grosjean (1982: 149) quotes a Greek-English bilingual: “I find myself code-switching with my friends who are all Greek … they know English so well and nobody gets offended with code-switching … I don’t switch with my parents as I do with my friends.” However, code-switching usually takes place unconsciously, so that even speakers who condemn this practice may switch, not being fully aware of this. Bilinguals, just as monolinguals, concentrate on what is being said and not on how it is said. Therefore, making them aware of code-switches resembles making a person conscious of hesitation phenomena. For a while the person tries not to hesitate, but in the course of conversation the person no longer pays any attention to whether he/she hesitates and stops hearing the hesitations.

On the other hand, the supporters of the bilingual viewpoint state that code-switching is not an indicator of deficient language skills in the bilingual speaker, but a complex, rule-governed phenomenon that requires a high degree of linguistic competence in more than one language (Auer 1984, Penalosa 1981, Poplack 1982). Code-switching as a “central part of bilingual discourse” (Appel and Muysken 1987: 117), a commonly observed phenomenon with bilingual speakers, is defined as “the alternate use of two or more languages in the same utterance or conversation” (Grosjean 1982: 145). According to Hoffmann (2001: 10), code-switching must be considered to be an essential speech strategy of bilinguals. She makes an interesting point, saying:

It is curious, however, that when they are asked to judge their own competence, they tend to ignore this ability and instead they focus on linguistic aspects, criticizing their own grammatical or lexical shortcomings in one or two or all of their languages, seemingly applying monolingual standards. In the longer term, this perceived inadequacy may lead them to develop strategies to avoid using their weaker language or reduce their use to a limited range of domains. Similarly, powerful psychological forces, such as rejection of a particular speaker or culture, or problems of finding one’s own identity, may cause a speaker to abandon one or more of his or her languages (Hoffmann 2001:10).

Think about it. What is your attitude to code-switching? How do you feel when you notice that you have just used a switch? Do you even notice that? In what situation do you feel it awkward? In which cases do you feel it justified?

The monolingual attitudes towards code-switching are often negative, which can be seen in the pejorative meaning of terms like Tex-Mex, Franglais, Japlish, etc. Bilinguals, too, tend to see code-switching as ‘embarrassing’, ‘impure’, ‘lazy’, even ‘dangerous’, but the reasons they give for the practice – fitting the word to the topic, finding a word with a nuance unavailable in the other variety, helping out a listener, strengthening intimacy, and so on – make a great deal of sense (Myers-Scotton 1992). If one has two languages to draw upon, why not use it to the most? Certainly, switching may involve the repetition – for emphasis, for intimacy – of the same idea in both languages. Thus, the bilingual’s ‘twin bow-strings’ allow him not only the style-shifting available to monolinguals but also full language-shifting. And as Edwards (1994: 20) observes: “It is hard to imagine that this is anything but a valuable addition.” According to him, code-switching is a socially and grammatically rule-governed alternation between languages across and within contexts. Thus, it should be seen not as an evidence for the fact that the bilingual cannot keep his languages apart, but as the manifestation, in certain circumstances, of a unique multicultural personality.

Two main points of disagreement emerge between the monolingual and bilingual views. They involve the problem of the existence or lack of linguistic competence in bilinguals who code-switch and the issue of labels attached to switching: is it interference or a bilingual speech strategy? Both these issues are addressed and disscussed at lenght in the present paper. You will also find a description of a case study that was inspired by the questions listed above. Proficient Polish-English bilinguals, after having been put in the bilingual language mode, are studied when they talk to bilinguals and monolinguals, and the focus is put on code-switching occurrences. The findings of the study provide interesting answers to the problems raised in the paper, thus allowing me to propose vital implications for the future development of foreign language teaching and bilingual studies.

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2 thoughts on “Read my eBook”

  1. Hi there,

    I’m writing an essay at University about code-switching and I’m citing your book. I downloaded the book from Scribd. Could I have the APA information for citing the book?
    Many thanks and congratulations for your research.


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