Chatterfun News

Children Code Switching with Speakers of Different Languages

By: Dr. E. Anne Shine
Assistant Professor of Writing
Sharjah, United Arab Emirates
Guest Contributor to Chatterfun

One of the remarkable things about young children being brought up bilingual is how quickly they figure out who can speak each language. Even while they are still at the stage where they have a limited vocabulary, it takes but moments for bilingual children to realize that this language is not going to get them anywhere with this person. To me, this is evidence that to some extent they know at a very early stage, probably by the time they stop indiscriminately mixing the languages in one sentence, that they are speaking more than one language.

Frequently, I have the opportunity to spend time with my friend’s children in Italy. One little boy spent about two minutes with me before he figured out that my Italian was so poor that he was better to stick to English. No adult had recommended this course of action to him. He figured it out by the hesitant responses I made and the looks of incomprehension.

When I last saw him about twelve weeks ago, Dante was mixing Italian and English in one sentence. He did not seem to know that some of these words did not really go together. Now, just three months later, from the moment he arrives at Granny’s door he speaks English. Although Granny speaks Italian well, her task is to speak English to him as he only hears Italian at home despite having an English speaking father.
However, although he is in English mode at Granny’s when Italian visitors arrive, he seamlessly slides into Italian. It is quite wonderful to see. The sight of Zio Franco (Uncle Franco) at the gate is enough to trigger a code switch from English to Italian as he rushes to great Zio. As we all sit together he can switch from English to Italian depending on who he is speaking to.

This ability to code switch is not just a linguistic skill; it is also a sociolinguistic skill. Sociolinguistics tells us that there is a certain amount of communicative competence necessary to know what language to speak in different sets of circumstances. In a multilingual setting where two or more languages are represented, selecting the language that includes most people demonstrates sociolinguistic competence just as using a language that excludes some, demonstrates a lack of competence.

This little boy is fortunate to be learning two languages through total immersion. He feels no jolt as he code switches. He is not surprised when someone cannot understand Italian or English. For him it is just part of his daily life. And as his desire is usually to communicate with as many people as possible and draw them into his world of trucks, bikes, sand and other fun outdoor pursuits he has acquired consummate sociolinguistic competence.
In recent years, a new form of code switching through the deliberate mixing of two or more languages in one sentence or conversation has become fashionable the Middle East. This practice has led to a language called Arabizi. But that’s another story.