Language mixing in youth language use – an exception or a rule?

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?

15 thoughts on “Language mixing in youth language use – an exception or a rule?

  1. Well, this phenomenon is certainly on the rise. I mean, it happens to me each and every day to mix Romanian with English, Dutch or French, be it in speaking or in writing. At times, to spice up the conversation I add up words in Spanish, Italian or Portuguese (though my knowledge in the last two languages is fairly scarce.) Some words are more at hand in one language than in your mother tongue. Still wondering why however … I am a “victim” of this so-called language mixing as well. My interlocutors do get my point, there’s no doubt in that. But before I resort to code switching, I always tend to evaluate the relationship with other participants in the conversation. I believe this is paramount. And usually this happens in our “community” of foreign language learners.

    • Thanks for your comment! It’s interesting to hear about your experience. I like the fact that you actively mix the languages yourself and I also think that some words just work better in one language than other. But, as you say, you always have to consider who you’re talking with, of course, when mixing your languages… ;)

  2. Interesting. I often mix whole sentences of Japanese (my second language) into my English when I’m speaking with other native English speakers who can speak Japanese. Some things are just easier to express in Japanese. Often this isn’t a conscious decision – it just comes out like that. Perhaps it is something to do with having more tools that enable you to express more….doesn’t happen to me in writing though!

    • Thanks for your comment! I also find that I mix languages without thinking about it but not when I write – then it’s more conscious. If I ever happen to do that I would actually say something like “now in Italian because it’s easier to explain”. And, I also normally mix whole sentences, not just words…

      • I think it is very commonplace. In fact I think multilingual families have their own code language for many things. Certainly this is the case in my family. My close friends have taken some terms over from me now, but only because they find them amusing or endearing. It spreads language mixing.

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  4. I’ve been trying to get people to do this for years, and it always fails. My knowledge of German and French is pretty good, but usually I’m too lazy to actually speak it. So I try to get people to speak German or French to me and let me speak English back to them. But it never works, they always end up switching to English, even though this is a second-best solution. Even reading the bit of dialogue above (I’m Dutch) gives me a headache.

    • Thanks for your comment! It’s nice to hear that you want to get people to do this – I think it’s a great way to learn languages… But often people have their favourite language or one that they feel most comfortable with and tend to switch to that instinctively, especially if they’re not used to mixing languages. Keep on trying! It’s good to hear that you’re not afraid of language mixing though as some people are of the opinion that it threatens the purity of languages… Actually, I believe in your case it might not a be a question of each person mixing languages but different people speaking in different languages with each other!

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  6. Once, I had a peculiar conversation with two friends. I am Dutch, and was speaking German. One German friend was speaking English, and an English friend was talking Dutch. A very complicated conversation, since you are familiar to answer in your mothertongue, when someone is talking to you in your language. With some efforts, we managed to have an interesting and fluent conversation :)

  7. Really enjoyed the article, I have seen many people in a group chatting do so. The reasons for using English may be due to lack of knowledge of some words in their mother tongue and also sometimes due to habituation. In my surroundings i noticed this but the reason was people using english in between chatting in their mother tongue was to represent themselves as literates or intellectuals. They also used to feel proud for doing so.Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks for your comment! Yes, I agree that sometimes people may choose words from another language because some words just come easier/are more well known in another language (and often especially English because we’re so used to it). Where are you from? Interesting point you mention about people using English to sound like intellectuals.

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