De Nayr Ibrahim

14 juin 2012 - 10:43

Being bilingual
Being bilingual

Bilinguals are not always aware that they are code-switching – it is a natural, unconscious phenomenon.

Dad’s sixtieth birthday was celebrated at a Portuguese restaurant on his first visit to France. Four languages were used at that dinner table:  English (my sister, my husband, my son and I);  Portuguese (my parents, my sister, my husband, my son and I);  French (my sister, my son, my brother-in-law and I);  Arabic (my brother-in-law and my husband).  So, let’s see this in action:

Dad comments favourably on his roast veal: ‘A vitela assada està muito boa.’
I turn to my husband: ‘My dad likes the vitela.  What do you think?’
‘Umm… It’s really good.’
Then turning to my brother-in-law, he says,  ‘El bitelo helw  (The veal is good).
‘Aiwa,’ (Yes) he agrees and turns to my sister.
‘Tu veux goûter le veau – c’est très bon ici.’’ (Do you want to try the veal – it’s very good here)
‘Posso provar a vitela?’ (Can I try the veal?) my sister asks my mother as she stretches towards the veal platter for a taster.
I turn to my son: ‘Karim, do you also want some vitela?’
‘No, c’est bon, my steak frites’s fine. (No, it’s OK, my steak and chips are fine).
No wonder the waitress, hovering with a puzzled look on her face, finally mustered the courage to ask: ‘Voçes estão a falar quantas linguas?’ (How many languages are you speaking?).

The above dialogue is an example of code-switching for a reason, in this case, inclusion. All the members of the family were included in the conversation in a wave of multilingual comments about the same topic. On the other hand, code-switching can also be used to exclude, but with embarrassing results; for example, Grosjean (1982) describes a situation where two English-Russian bilinguals switch to Russian when a stout woman enters a New Yorkbus: ‘We’d better make room for the fat cow’.  The woman sits down and says, in Russian, ‘The fat cow thanks you’.

Relationships are also important – I have built an ‘English’ relationship with my son, and comfortably accommodate French and Portuguese words, depending on the context: when we discuss school related issues, French predominates; when we discuss our summer holidays, chez nena and vô (at grandma’s and grandpa’s), our conversation is peppered with Portuguese terms. When young children learn multiple languages simultaneously, they switch to the appropriate language with everyone they talk to, and they do not appreciate a person using the ‘wrong language’.

Mostly, code switching occurs as a result of  “the most available word” phenomenon, especially when bilinguals are tired, lazy or angry, or “le mot juste”, that is, they use a particular word or expression from one language because it simply expresses a feeling, idea or concept so perfectly: saudade in Portuguese, déjà vu, already integrated into the English language, schadenfreude in German and serendipity in English.

Photo of Dr Nayr Ibrahim, Head of Young Learners at the British Council in Paris

Nayr Ibrahim

Nayr était jusqu'à récemment la Directrice de l’enseignement des enfants et adolescents et de la section bilingue au British Council. Elle a aussi travaillé au Portugal, en Egypte et à Hong Kong. Son intérêt pour le bilinguisme s’est éveillé grâce à son travail avec les élèves bilingues. Elle a écrit plusieurs articles et blog sur le bilinguisme. Elle est doctorante en bilinguisme à l'Université de Reading.