Friday, August 18, 2006

Book Review: Introduction to Bilingualism (chapter 5): Features of Bilingual Speech

Just joining us here at Baby Bilingual? Check out parts 1 (defining bilingualism) and 2 (language development in children) of my review of Charlotte Hoffmann's Introduction to Bilingualism (by clicking on the purple words).

This section of the book review is where you'll probably find yourself nodding your head in agreement. "Yes," you'll say, "I've seen that. I've done that. Oh, is that what that's called? Okay, this makes sense." Hoffmann enumerates five practices that can occur when bilinguals speak: interference, borrowing, individual creations, mixing, and code-switching. Her descriptions are clear and she illustrates them with real-life examples. How many of them do you recognize?

1. Interference from the speaker's first language (L1) is generally involuntary. It occurs when your L1 influences what you say in the second language (L2). It--like many of the following features--can depend on the context (for example, how formal the situation is or whom you are speaking to). We've all seen this when we recognize, say, "zee Frwench accent een Eengleesh," which would be phonological interference. Interference also can be seen in orthography (spelling). Another type of interference, lexical, happens when the speaker tries to invent a word in the L2 based on the words he knows in the L1 by manipulating the morphology (that is, adding endings onto the L1 word that make it match other L2 words), such as an Anglophone learner of Spanish calling what holds up your pants a "belto." (I'd like to point out, though, that my students do this sort of thing all the time when they don't feel like looking up unknown words in the dictionary; in that case, the interference is no longer an involuntary speech act but deliberate laziness!)

The final type of interference that Hoffmann identifies is grammatical, when you apply the rules for your L1 to the L2. For example, in English we put the adjective before the verb: a purple flower. But in French, the adjective generally comes afterwards: une fleur violette. To Anglophones, "a flower purple" sounds vaguely poetic but mostly "wrong," whereas a French speaker just learning English would be likely to produce that utterance based on his knowledge of his own language. Or take the example of toddler Lily telling her mother that she is "mange-ing a banana," adding the -ing of English to the French word for "eat."

2. Borrowing, or using loan words, is another feature of bilingual speech. This comes about when a speaker chooses a word from the L1 to use in his L2, either because he doesn't know the L2 equivalent or feels that the L1 word expresses the idea more aptly. Hoffmann is careful not to criticize borrowing, pointing out that when borrowing occurs among bilinguals speaking together, it doesn't cause confusion: "on the contrary, they can add interest, humour or intimacy to the conversation and cause delight to both interlocutors [speakers] at their shared linguistic knowledge" (103). In fact, the phenomenon of borrowing even exists in my small household! My husband and I say "Bon appétit" at the beginning of every meal--there's no pithy English equivalent of that expression. French just works better.

3. Individual creations occur when the bilingual speaker invents a new word for the L2 which is neither interference nor borrowing (nor an honest-to-goodness in any language) and may include elements from both languages. Here's another example from my life: My hubby and I call each other "boule de goof," which is our Frenchified but not-really-a-word rendering of "goofball" (with French grammar, two French words, and one word in English). I don't even remember now how we came up with that one, but it resonated with us so much that my monolingual American husband even had it engraved inside his wedding band!

4. Mixing is the switching between two languages at the lexical level (usually one word at a time within a sentence); it is a voluntary phenomenon, unlike that of interference, mentioned above. (However, Hoffmann notes that there is some overlap between mixing and borrowing, with mixing seen as more "habitual" and perhaps undesirable) Research shows that bilingual children raised in the OPOL format ("one parent, one language," that is, each parent speaks only his primary language to the child) tend to mix less. To further reduce the amount of mixing, it is important to expose the bilingual child to monolingual speakers who will not recognize the words that come from a different language, asking the child to clarify or paraphrase to be understood. Mixing is thought to decrease with age.

5. Code-switching is the final feature that Hoffmann lists, and as I read this chapter I realized that I had been imprecisely using the term "code-switching" to refer to all five of these phenomena. According to Hoffmann, true code-switching involves using the L1 in the L2 over the course of more than one sentence (unike mixing, which is just one L1 word in an L2 sentence); it can also include exclamations and "tags" at the end of a sentence (such as a Spanish speaker adding "verdad?" or a Francophone "non?" to a statement in another language). This act is perhaps the most researched of these five features and occurs in both child and adult speech (and especially among bilingual immigrant teens); older bilinguals can control their code-switching more than younger ones, however. Hoffmann suggests myriad reasons for code-switching: it is situational, contextual, topic-related, emphatic, clarifying, and much more.

Hoffmann describes code-switching as a "habitual and often necessary part of social interaction among bilinguals. Whereas monolinguals have only one linguistic code at their disposal, bilinguals can rely on a four-way choice (the two languages and various forms of mixed and switched codes, since they are able to code-switch in both their languages)" (116). In fact, while many monolinguals might hear any of these five practices typical of bilingual speech and be critical of what they hear ("funny accent," "strange words," "confusion between languages"), thinking something unkind and ignorant about the speaker's "inability" to learn the dominant language like a native, it's obvious to me that these phenomena reveal the richness of the bilingual speaker's linguistic systems.

Click here for part 4 of this review.


  1. I just thought of another instance of "individual creation" that I observed: An American teenaged boy with a crush on a girl named Giselle in his French class try to woo her by conjugating her name as if it were a regular -ER verb in French: je giselle, tu giselles, il giselle, nous gisellons, vous gisellez, ils gisellent. This of course is entirely nonsensical--but look how I remember it fifteen years later.

  2. Here's two fun examples of bilingual children creating words (based on their knowledge of another language) that don't actually exist: