Topic for today’s discussion…

This is quite a common picture of my work day: I log on into the system and the calls start arriving. First, an engineer from Aberdeen requests a new flight booking to Luanda. Then, an Italian travel arranger from Florence calls to modify an existing trip for one of her passengers. She speaks English to me and Italian to her colleague at the other desk. I am checking the availability of the new itinerary and listening to their conversation at the same time. When I am done, I inform the travel arranger of the cost of the new flights and she discusses with me the remaining details. After a few minutes we both realize that we switched to Italian, quite unconsciously. We are a little embarrassed and amused at the same time and this will be the anecdote of the day for both of us.

So what happened? Let’s revise it.

Code-switching and base language

Me: Thank you for calling. This is Ewa. How may I help you?

Travel arranger: Good morning. I need to change the booking for Mr Biondi. He needs to fly on December 12 now.

Me: Let me check the conditions of his ticket.

Travel arranger to her colleague: Rosa, dove sei stata ultimi giorni? Non ti ho visto da tempo.

Her colleague: Mia figlia ha preso raffredore, ma già sta meglio…..

Me: Michela? Allora, ho controllato tutto e possiamo cambiare il biglietto con una penale di 50 euro.

Michela: Va bene, mi potresti confermare l’orario nuovo?

Me: Certo! Quindi, come detto: il 12 dicembre, alle dieci e mezza….

In the situation above Michela’s base language is Italian, which she is using with her colleague, and English language is activated to a high degree to enable her to communicate with me. My base language is English right from the beginning, and Italian becomes active later, after listening to the conversation in Italian. The switch to Italian is triggered automatically, in no way it is a conscious decision on our part.

Language mode – monolingual or bilingual?

It is normal among bilinguals to switch languages, but usually they do it consciously. What does an acclaimed linguist and bilingualism researcher Francois Grosjean think of such occurrences? Grosjean calls the state of activation of the bilingual’s languages and language processing mechanisms at a given point in time the language mode. He states that activation is a continuous variable ranging from no activation to total activation. In all positions it is language A (the base language) that is the most active and it is language B that is activated to lesser degrees. In a monolingual language mode language B is only very slightly active. In an intermediate mode language B is a bit more active and in a bilingual language mode language B is highly active (but not as active as the base language).

Factors that influence language mode range from the type of situation to individual preferences of the speaker. The former involves physical location, presence or absence of monolinguals, level of formality and intimacy. The latter include the speaker’s language proficiency, language mixing habits and attitudes, and usual mode of interaction. An individual may also prefer a particular mode for discussing certain topics, or for expressing his intentions, e.g. to communicate information, to request something, to create a social distance between the speakers.

Thus, bilingual speakers will usually be in a monolingual mode when interacting with monolinguals, they will deactivate their other language (most often unconsciously) so that it does not lead to miscommunication. Speakers will be in an intermediate position, i.e. the speaker’s other language will only be partly activated when, for example, the interlocutor knows the other language but either is not very proficient in it or does not like to mix languages. And speakers will be in a bilingual mode when they interact with other bilinguals who share their two languages and with whom they feel comfortable mixing languages.

That said, do you think me and Michela should feel ashamed that we could not control our output language? How would you and your bilingual friends react if you were in my shoes? How would a monolingual person comment on this story? Have you ever experienced a similar situation? How did it make you feel?

The subject is officially open for discussion.

Follow-up reading:


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