Category Archives: Bilingualism

Language Mixing: when the dominant language no longer rules

Mixing languages is extremely common and natural, especially among bilingual children. However, being an adult language learner is not the same as being bilingual. Why do we sometimes mix a “weaker” language with a dominant one?

Language learners often use native language words in foreign language sentences, usually because they haven’t yet learned the word(s) they are looking for in the foreign language. This insertion seems logical to me because the learner still wants to communicate a message but doesn’t have the words for it yet– maybe they are even hoping their conversation partner will supply them with the missing foreign vocabulary. However, when the opposite happens (speaking in your native language and inserting foreign words), it seems counter-intuitive. If one language is obviously dominant, why do we insert words from a less dominant language?

English language mixing

Let’s take a practical example. When we are speaking in our native language (let’s say English), which we are presumably 100% capable in, why do we insert foreign language words (let’s say Dutch) from a language that we are not as competent in?* Isn’t continuously switching back and forth between languages more difficult (in the beginning at least) than staying in one language?

I’m not talking about the trendy words that have practically become English (déjà vu, ahoy), but about the case where you really can’t think of the word you want in your native language, and only the foreign language word comes to mind.

Perhaps, when living in a foreign language culture, our minds pull up the foreign word first when it has been the most recently seen, heard, or used. For example, when you hear the Dutch word gezellig fifty times a week, you forget how you used to describe a fun social gathering in English. In this sense, I think that our mind is lazy–it’s faster and easier to accept a mixed-language sentence than to reach back to the last time you used the equivalent English word. Because we see this inability-to-translate conundrum frequently with gezellig, the majority opinion seems to imply that gezellig can’t be translated.

Dinner last night was so gezellig! Thanks for inviting me!

But if that’s true, how have we been able to survive our entire lives without this foreign concept?

I no longer think that the explanation for foreign-words-in-native-sentences is so simple.

As we get more comfortable speaking in the foreign language (Dutch), and especially if we are surrounded by it, we might change the structure of our English sentences just slightly, which might cause them to no longer sound completely natural. This usually happens when speaking because you start a sentence without knowing exactly how you will finish it.

In a recent English conversation with a Dutch speaker whose second language is English, this sentence came out:

I don’t want a toy on my desk at work because I have to have a professional …**

Demeanor?*** Appearance? Glow?

The word in both our minds was the Dutch word uitstraling, even though we were speaking in English. If you speak Dutch, maybe your mind also automatically filled in the sentence with uitstraling. After ~10 seconds of thought (in which we both ran through all of the above options in our minds) the speaker gave up and just ended the English sentence with uitstraling. We want the feeling of glow or of radiating a particular aura. But no matter which English word we choose, it all sounds awkward, or just not quite right, so we are left with the Dutch word.

You would think, though, that being the native English speaker I am, I would have been able to come up with the right word! In this case, none of the possibilities worked within the structure and context. Using any of the English words that ran through my mind would have sounded awkward and I can’t stand awkwardness in language. Nothing was structurally wrong with the sentence up to that point; it was only at the end, when we finally understood the meaning of the phrase, that we realized that the structure would be awkward if we completed it in English. In this case, our aversion to structural awkwardness was stronger than our aversion to language mixing.

Of course, such mixture is perfectly fine–we both speak Dutch and English, we both know what the other is talking about. I don’t think language mixing is a problem or should be avoided–I am just curious as to why our brains work this way.

By constructing that particular sentence with the verb “have” we backed ourselves into a corner, where there was no way to end the sentence naturally in English and maintain the same level of formality. However, if we back up and insert a different verb, then we find the exact meaning and the natural construction that we were looking for:
“I have to come across as professional.”

So if you are facing a choice between language mixing and awkwardness, and you want to avoid both, I have learned to go back and rephrase. The odds are that the structure you’ve been using won’t sound natural no matter how long you spend with the dictionary.

To summarize:

I have to have a professional uitstraling.→ I have to come across as professional.
It was gezellig! → I had a great time!

*We are not talking about truly bilingual individuals who grew up speaking two languages equally, but about the situation where your native language is obviously dominant.
**Google translates the original Dutch sentence as “I have a professional look”–another reason to not use Google translate for anything important.
***We do say “have a professional demeanor” but it’s too formal for our casual conversation.

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