A couple of weeks ago I overheard an interesting conversation while sitting in the park. Afterwards, I started to wonder if what I heard was just a one off example of special kind of language use or nothing special these days, and that’s when I decided to discuss the matter here in the hope of getting some comments from our readers!
This is what happened: There were three girls speaking in English (well, that’s what I first thought). They didn’t have a strong accent and they could’ve well been foreign (i.e. not Belgian) as that park is often frequented by foreigners. After a while I realised that they were speaking in Dutch after all, with a Flemish accent. I listened further and thought I heard English again. Then I thought one of them must be English-speaking while the rest are Dutch-speaking. They kept talking and then I got it: They spoke mostly in Dutch but sometimes, out of the blue, they said something in English. When one said a sentence in English, the others usually answered in English, too, and at some point they switched back to Dutch. An extract of the conversation was something like this:
“Toen ik thuis zat, weet je wat ik plots zag?”
”No, tell me.”
”A huge spider, it was like this big!”
”Oh my god, what did you do?”
”I just looked at it and screamed!”
”Ik zou het niet aankunnen – zo groot!”
”Het was vreselijk, hoor.”
”I can totally believe it.”
I was so surprised to hear the girls speak like this that I wanted to investigate the subject a bit further. I know I mix languages myself, too but I thought it was just because we’re a multilingual family and are used to speaking in many languages. I came across an interesting research entitled National survey on the English language in Finland: Uses, meanings and attitudes, 2011, which found that this language mixing (or, code switching), and in particular, using English alongside with your mother tongue is quite a common feature also in Finland – especially among youth. What startled me is that according to the survey, most people (76.4%) don’t even realise they’re mixing languages! What’s more, this mixing also occurs in writing, which puzzles me even more, in the sense that when you write, you normally take more time to consider what you say whereas speech is more instantaneous and somehow that makes it more fitting for language mixing. Then again, come to think of it, I might stick in a sentence in English myself when writing an email in another language.
According to the article ”[mixing] takes place especially in everyday informal speech situations and in occupational language use” and “Mixing English and the mother tongue was more common in cities than elsewhere”. Both of these findings seem logical.
There’s also the question of mixing words or entire sentences; yet another thing is to use words that have derived from English but have become part of the national language, be it officially or unofficially, such as in this case (see point 36 “English alongside the mother tongue” please). In my experience, this seems to be quite a common kind of usage of English words in another language. I hear it often and use words like this myself; in fact, I don’t consider words like ‘organisoida’ or ‘kompromissi’ as English words anymore.
Still, I’m left to wonder: If this kind of mixing is common language use these days, how common is the kind of use I overheard in the park, in which entire English sentences where used in otherwise Dutch conversation? And, if people use another language in their speech/writing to this extent, can they still be regarded as monolinguals? Where do we draw the line – or, do we even have to draw a line?