Imagine you're on a train in Belgium. A woman on the train is speaking French on the phone when the ticket conductor comes in. She asks him a question in fluent Flemish. No one bats an eyelid.
Or a guy at a party is chatting to his friends in Spanish, and suddenly an American friend comes in and he enthusiastically greets her in fluent English.
We've all seen it on TV or even in real life, but have you ever wondered how these super-quick switches between languages work?
Alessia, 17 from Verona has! She sent me this question to answer on the Fluent Show this week.
How to switch quickly from a language to another? Is it just a question of practice?
In answer to Alessia's question, I dove into a bunch of studies and came up with my best tips for anyone who wants to step up their switching.
Looking Into Switching Between Languages
Speedy switches like those I described above are a hallmark of bilingual people. Linguistically, doing this is is called “code switching”. It is very common and has been studied for decades.
Bilinguals do it naturally, for example in environments where there is more than one dominant language or native language. It happens all over the world and millions of people are able to speak bilingually.
Here are three ways you may experience code switching:
Switching a word might look like this: “Dw i’n teimlo yn rili rili wedi blino.“ (I am feeling really, really tired.)
Switching a phrase could be something like this: “Oui, ils offrent des part-time jobs dans leur société." (Yes, they offer part-time jobs at their company.)
Switching between languages after a few sentences, or even saying half a sentence in one and another half in the other.
When you switch into another word, phrase, or sentence, the switch is absolute and your brain is able to do this very quickly.
This has attracted the attention of phsychologists and neurologists too, studying and trying to measure what happens in our brain during such a switch.
Studies show: There are “neurocognitive costs”, for example slower response times. Your brain has to activate the second language (L2) and suppress your dominant main language (L1), and that means it has to concentrate and work hard.
The research also shows that these costs are lower when switching into L2 than when switching into L1. The brain patterns change as your expertise in L2 changes. It also changes depending on whether you’re able to predict that the switch is coming, and whether you’re switching individual words or full phrases.
To get started reading about all the fascinating research, check out the links at the bottom of this article.
How Can You Get Better at Language Switching?
As a learner, your goal might be to use your target language just as easily as you use your first language. But being able to switch like a bilingual person is NOT a good goal for your early language learning stages.
Use it as a vision goal, your inspiration and motivation source. But be honest with yourself and clear about the fact that it’s not going to happen in just a few months.
There’s a huge element of practice involved in switching languages quickly. Sorry, no one likes to hear that there isn’t a secret shortcut!
4 Ways To Practice For Switching
Tip 1: Practice phrases not words so that you build good muscle memory and you can ’think faster’ in your target language.
Tip 2: Listen to input in lots of languages and find bilingual materials too so you can process the language more quickly, for example parallel texts or bilingual podcasts.
Tip 3: Stick to one subject area and one type of conversation at first so you can direct your studies towards the goal of code switching
Here are my 3 Steps for Learning Topical Vocabulary
Tip 4: Practice in comfortable environments.
For example you could create an exercise with a trusted tutor that involves switching.
Or set up a language exchange. This involves switching by offering your skills to someone else and it's usually free. Often, exchanges switch languages after about half an hour, but to spice it up you could switch every 5 minutes.
The ‘price’ of Code Switching As a Bilingual
I’m bilingual in German and English, but make no mistake, my language quality suffers unless I practice.
Here are some of the annoying things that happen.
- My vocabulary in German becomes heavily influenced by my thinking in English and English sometimes shows through. I will use words that I know as dictionary translations of what I want to say in English, but they don’t feel casual enough for how I want to speak in German.
- My German isn’t up to date and I might mix in a word I used as a teenager or an expression that feels a bit 90s.
- English words that I say without thinking, like “actually”, find their way into my German sentences and just bubble up.
- My dialect is heavily reduced and I produce the German language as Hochdeutsch, which is not how I would speak in my home environment.
In other words, I speak an odd “international German”. I was recently called out for having an “englischen Akzent” by a former schoolmate who had not seen me for over a decade. That’s fairly embarrassing.
The Language Habit Toolkit — The All-in-One System For Meeting Your Goals in Language Learning
Conclusion: Language Shows Who You Are
It’s impossible not to be a product of your environment when it comes to how you speak.
To stay more active in German, I’m subscribing to a German magazine and watching more YouTube so that I hear German on a regular basis. But without living there, I lose a part of my authenticity in German.
Have you ever practiced switching from one language of another? Do you think there's a price to being bilingual?
Leave a comment below to share your thoughts!