Why mixing languages isn’t so bad after all

Kaisa Pietikäinen is a PhD student at the University of Helsinki, where she carries out research in the field of English as a lingua franca (ELF)

Kaisa Pietikäinen is a PhD student at the University of Helsinki, where she carries out research in the field of English as a lingua franca (ELF)

by Kaisa Pietikäinen

You know those moments when you’re speaking English (as a lingua franca, or ELF), and all of a sudden your mind goes blank? You know the word you’re looking for, but you just can’t get it into your head. You might remember it in another language, but your brain just isn’t connecting to the English equivalent. Fear not – it’s more common than you think. And if your interlocutor isn’t a complete monolingual, you can try code-switching into a different language to resolve the situation.

I’ve been studying code-switching among ELF couples – couples who come from different cultures and language backgrounds, who have found each other and established a relationship despite the fact that neither partner uses his or her first language as the language of the relationship. (Actually, this might even make their relationship more equal.) These couples are very interesting as subjects of ELF research because they are much more established in their use of ELF than the traditional subjects in ELF studies – students, academics, and business people. ELF couples also make great subjects for the study of long term ELF: They use ELF every day with the same person, year after year. They open us a view to the future of ELF, on what established ELF could be like. Also, their use of ELF can give us important insight into what strategies work in the long run – and seems like code-switching is one of them!

In fact, code-switching is a very flexible device. In an earlier study (Pietikäinen 2012, available here), I discovered it can be used not only for covering for linguistic gaps, but also for

  • demonstrating use of a language
  • replacing nontranslatables, terms that do not quite catch their original meaning in English
  • specifying addressees by switching into another language, and
  • message emphasis.

In addition, sometimes code-switching seemed to emerge completely automatically, without any preparing cues or flagging, and interestingly, these instances of automatic code-switching seemed to pass without specific attention from either partner, which would suggest that code-switching is considered pretty normal an activity among ELF couples.

I was intrigued by this unintentional language-mixing, so I went through my data again. I used conversation analysis to identify and scrutinise occasions of automatic code-switching in nine hours and nine minutes of conversational interview data. The data was collected from six intercultural ELF couples originating in ten different countries around the world. The interviews were recorded in the couples’ homes in Norway, Finland and the UK.

The results of this study were recently published in the latest issue of the Journal of English as a Lingua Franca (Pietikäinen 2014, available here). Automatic code-switching was identified in three contexts:

  1. city names
  2. response tags (affirmatives/negatives) and
  3. content words.

Oftentimes the words that were automatically switched, were words that the speaker was used to using in another language. For example, if you’ve always referred to the Belgian city as ‘Bruxelles’, it would be strange to call it ‘Brussels’ – and to change it would certainly demand a little thinking break – just a pause of a split second or a revealing “err” – the exact thing that is missing when automatic code-switching is taking place. Or, if your Finnish native-speaking wife has been nagging you to fix the “laituri” (jetty), you will likely refer to “laituri” next time you discuss the issue with her, even if you know a better word for it in English. Why? Because, first of all, she may not be familiar with the word; secondly, it might result in a reference confusion, so you would end up having to further explain what you’re referring to; or thirdly, you would have to flag the word in your speech, or clarify it in another way, e.g., “so what should I do to the jetty by the lake?”

Link to Pietikäinen, Kaisa S. 2014. ELF couples and automatic code-switching. Journal of English as a Lingua Franca 3(1). 1–26. DOI: 10.1515/jelf-2014-0001.

Link to Pietikäinen, Kaisa S. 2014. ELF couples and automatic code-switching. Journal of English as a Lingua Franca 3(1). 1–26. DOI: 10.1515/jelf-2014-0001.

Automatic code-switching can be identified from the lack of any sort of flagging or marking of the switch. Also, the listening partner seems to pay no attention to the switch. Actually, when I later on had a chat with a couple who had the habit of automatically code-switching response tokens (yes/no), they were very surprised to hear it from me, because they hadn’t paid any attention to it before. This also speaks for a certain degree of ‘linguistic relaxedness’ ELF couples seem to portray in their conversations: Unlike couples where one partner’s native language is English (see e.g., Piller 2002: 143–148), ELF couples don’t seem to be too fussy about producing “correct” English, nor does it bother them if other-language resources are drawn into the conversation whenever such a need might emerge.

All in all, code-switching saves a lot of trouble and enhances understanding when shared vocabulary is used. (Even similar vocabularies sometimes suffice, see e.g. Hülmbauer 2011 on cognates.) Yes, you have to have an idea of what linguistic resources your interlocutor holds to be able to utilise code-switching efficiently, but usually among ELF couples this is not an issue. In fact, in my study, those couples who shared the most languages seemed to deploy code-switching the most, and their talk also featured the discovered occurrences of automatic code-switching.

So, as it seems that in these private “micro-communities” of ELF code-switching is considered a useful, ordinary tool, that sometimes emerges automatically, should we also introduce it more prominently into other contexts of ELF? And could we? Personally, I would see no harm in teaching people to allow and identify code-switching in ELF, but as it seems that losing face is something people may fear when “having to” resort to code-switching while discussing with strangers, we may be quite far from developing it into a widely accepted strategy in ELF. What do you think?

The author is a PhD student at the University of Helsinki, living in Bergen, Norway. She uses three languages on a daily basis, and code-switches frequently.



Hülmbauer, Cornelia. 2011. Old friends? Cognates in ELF communication. In Alasdair Archibald, Alessia Cogo & Jennifer Jenkins (eds), Latest trends in ELF research, 139–162. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars.

Pietikäinen, Kaisa S. 2012. English as a lingua franca couples in interview: Code-switching stimuli. Newcastle upon Tyne: Newcastle University MA thesis.

Pietikäinen, Kaisa S. 2014. ELF couples and automatic code-switching. Journal of English as a Lingua Franca 3 (1), 1-26. DOI: 10.1515/jelf-2014-0001.

Piller, Ingrid. 2002. Bilingual couples talk: The discursive construction of hybridity. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

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