Myth #3: Code-switching means you’re not a true bilingual

¡Hola, amig@s! ¿Qué tal el fin de semana? Pues, por aquí hemos cambiado los relojes, perdiendo una hora de sol por las tardes (qué triste).

We’re back for another edition of “Myth Mondays!” Today’s post is inspired by a fantastic book by bilingual researcher François Grosjean, Bilingual: Life and Reality. Let’s unpack another common misconception that many people have about bilinguals:

MYTH: If a bilingual speaker mixes her language (“code-switching”), then it’s a sign that she’s lazy or that she’s not a true bilingual.

While on the surface this might appear to be a valid judgment, it is actually far, far from the truth.

A bit skeptical? Well, read on to find out what really goes on when bilinguals switch between two languages.

Code-switching is the linguistic term for the alternate use of two languages.

Let me give you an example.

Below is a recent dinner conversation with my husband, D., also a Spanish-English bilingual and with whom I speak exclusively in Spanish. Notice how we both alternate between the two languages.


As you read, consider why we might use the italicized words in English instead of in Spanish (ooh, a little detective work!).

Me – ¿Qué tal la entrevista? ¿Te dieron mucho feedback? (How was your interview? Did they give you a lot of feedback?)

D. – Muy bien. Sí, el director del research group me dijo que “You’re off to a tremendous start.” (It went well. Yeah, the director of the research lab told me “you’re off to a tremendous start.”)

Me – Okay. Venga, vamos a cenar. Hoy cenamos un pork tenderloin que hice en el crockpot. (Okay, come on, let’s eat dinner. We’re having pork tenderloin that I made in the crockpot.)

D. – Eeww. No me gusta la comida del crockpot. No teníamos casserole del otro día en un tupperware (pronounced “tuu-per-wa-rey”)? (Eeww. I can’t stand food from the crockpot. Didn’t we have some casserole from the other day in a tupperware?)


Although we are unaware of what we’re doing in the moment, D.’s and my brains are actually following a set of rules for code-switching as we speak:

1. Better Understood – 

Sometimes the concept a bilingual wants to convey is better understood in the other language (“feedback” is actually used in academic and scientific circles around the world).

2. Fill a Linguistic Need – 

Often a bilingual code-switches to “fill a linguistic need” (Grosjean). In our case in the above conversation, we use the English word “crockpot” because no one owns or uses one in Spain and the word “casserole” because it’s not part of Spanish cuisine. So, D. and I fill a linguistic need in our conversation.


3. Social Strategy – 

“Code-switching is also used as a communicative or social strategy, to show speaker involvement, mark group identity, exclude someone, raise someone’s status, show expertise, and so on” (Grosjean).

Funny (and true) example of how D. and I used code-switching to “exclude someone:” At our first pediatrician visit with E., just days after she was born, drunk with sleep deprivation, I turn to D. – in front of the doctor – and say in Spanish, “¿Le comentamos que estamos durmiendo con E. en la cama?” (Should I tell her that we’re co-sleeping with E.?) I was embarrassed that we had resorted to co-sleeping because I thought it was dangerous, so I didn’t want to appear a bad mom. Well, turns out the pediatrician understood Spanish and responded without missing a beat, “You do what you have to do to survive!”

(Lessons learned: co-sleeping can save your life and be careful who you code-switch in front of!)


4. Report Direct Speech – 

Bilinguals will also code-switch when reporting what another person said to them in the other language (take for example when D. told me that his boss told him that “he was off to a tremendous start.”). It would sound unnatural if D. translated back into Spanish what his boss told him given that I understand English.

5. New Life, New Vocabulary – 

Part of alternating between two languages is what linguists call “borrowing.” Bilinguals will sometimes borrow a word from the other language because the vocabulary from their first languages doesn’t always match their new life. Take for example the word “tupperware” in the above conversation. And, what’s cool is that, in order to maintain flow, a bilingual will keep the pronunciation and intonation of the language of the conversation. Hence, D.’s Spanish-influenced pronunciation: “tuu-per-war-ey.”


So, there you have it. Code-switching is NOT an indication of a lazy or fake bilingual!

Many people unfortunately believe this because of the assumption that a bilingual is the same as two monolinguals living in one body, which just isn’t the case.

I think it’s important to keep in mind that bilinguals constantly find themselves on an ever-changing language continuum. When speaking with monolinguals, bilinguals will turn off the other language and refrain from code-switching (I don’t code-switch with my family in Spain). When speaking with another bilingual who speaks the same languages, bilinguals will often code-switch.

(This stuff is SO fascinating!)

Interested in learning more about code-switching? Great! Check out the resources page on the blog.

Stay tuned for next Monday when we’ll unpack another myth about bilingualism. ¡Hasta pronto!


11 thoughts on “Myth #3: Code-switching means you’re not a true bilingual

  1. This was so interesting! My favorite part was the co-sleeping comment, though.;-) I’d love to hear about why you guys resorted to co-sleeping. We use a cradle right by our bed, so Miles sort of thinks he is in bed with us and his sleep (though it used to be TERRIBLE) is decent these days, but one night he and I were away from home and I put him in bed with me because he didn’t like his pack-n-play. He LOVED it and it made me wonder how much better he’d be sleeping if I let him sleep with us every night!;-)


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