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The Benefits and Downsides of Intermingling Languages Essay

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While bilingualism has always been an object of interest and thorough research for scientists of various fields, mixing languages had been, until the last few decades, cast aside as its defective by-product. However, recent linguistic studies show that intermingling languages should not be considered an ill-conceived overlapping tendency that implies carelessness and a improper use of language, but a linguistic phenomenon with its own intricate rules and purposes. The addition of objectivity towards this subject has enabled linguists to describe in length the downsides and benefits of intermingling languages. None of the pros and cons can be treated with absolute certainty as language mixing itself is often subject to different interpretations. The term ‘intermingling languages’ is sometimes replaced with ‘code switching’ or ‘code mixing’, and the latter two treated as synonyms, although their meaning differs in multiple aspects.

Code switching implies that the alternation between languages takes place after longer periods of time. Since code-switch mostly occurs at a clause or sentence boundary, it is referred to as intersential switching. According to the Sridhar brothers (1980) code mixing comprises of changing languages after shorter utterances within a single sentence, and can therefore be considered intrasential. Unlike code switching, it is not accompanied by a shift in speech situation. Code mixing also differs from borrowing, which is a less comprehensive form of using multiple languages in a short period of time. Code mixing, unlike borrowing, is not necessarily caused by a lexical gap in the host language. Neither are the mixed elements limited to a collection of terms accepted by the speech community. The mixed sequences are longer than single words (as is immanent to borrowing), but they are not always assimilated into the base language according to usual grammatical rules.

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The greatest difference of the two linguistic devices is probably the fact that code mixing is inevitably the result of bilingualism, however, borrowing can also occur in monolingual speech. (Sridhar & Sridhar 1980) Despite the availabilty of aforementioned precise definitions numerous studies use code/language switching, mixing and intermingling synonymously without notable deficiency in the results, since these definitions tend to not hold a high level of importance when it comes to analysing the reasons, benefits and downsides of mixing languages. Contrary to popular belief, code mixing is not necessarily a sign of improperly acquired languages or inability to switch from bilingual to monolingual mode. Instead, the contradicticting mixing occurs when the usage of a single language no longer efficiently conveys meaning that is appropriate to a certain situation. According to Crystal (1987 cited in Rezaei & Gheitanchian 2008) the benefits of code-switch become apparent when solving communication problems in three types of situations.

The most obvious reason for a switch in languages being the difficulty in expressing oneself due to a deficiency in the base language. This shortage of a lexical item may come about because the expressed concept has no equivalent in the culture of the other language, or simply because of a momentary inability to remember said term in the host language. This type of code switching is especially prone to happen when the speaker is upset, tired or distracted in some manner. Work related mixing also falls into the ‘lexical gap’ category. For example, code switching becomes a useful tool when individuals lack the appropriate jargon while speaking about a particular topic. One may mix languages when talking about work because the technical terms associated with work are only known in one language. The second important cause in switching is the wish to ensure social belonging. An individual my want to express solidarity with a particular social group.

In this case rapport is established between the speaker and the listener if the latter responds with a similar switch. Code mixing may also be used to exclude people from a conversation: for example, when travelling companions switch to their native language when mentioning things they do not wish to convey to the surrounding people; or when bilingual parents mix languages to keep their monolingual children from understanding private conversations. Thirdly, the reason for switching may be result of the wishing to convey one’s attitude towards the listener. Whereas monolinguals can express attitudes by means of variation in the level of formality in their speech, bilinguals have an extra device in this situation – code switching. When two bilinguals are accustomed to communicating in a fixed language, switching to the other is thought to create a special effect. This idea suggests that code switching can be used as a socio-linguistic tool, that aids bilinguals to emphasise a particular point in a sentence.

While these benefits have been pointed out only during the last few decades of language studies, the downsides of code switching have always been an emphasised parallel to bilingualism research. The most common allegations have been the inability to fully comprehend either language; delays in thinking, speaking and understanding; language pollution and deterioration. The notion that intermingling languages is a results of insufficient knowledge of either of the languages, their grammatical structures and syntax, can be dismissed with the aid of the Equivalence Constraint by Poplack: “Codeswitches will tend to occur at points in discourse where juxtaposition of L1, and L2 elements does not violate a syntactic rule of either language, i.e., at points around which the surface structures of the two languages map onto each other.” (1979 cited in Sridhar & Sridhar 1980). This means that when the two languages have very different syntactical rules, the mixing is done in a way that switches occur in those parts of the sentence that allow the presence of a foreign word without causing grammatical discrepancies.

However, when this is not possible the following principle of linguistics minimises the incongruity of the situation: “Dual Structure Principle: the internal structure of the guest constituent need not conform to the constituent structure rules of the host language, so long as its placement in the host sentence obeys the rules of the host language. ” (Sridhar & Sridhar 1980) Another problem associated with intermingling is the claimed time delay that occurs in switching. However, Gollan and Ferreira (2009) suggest that bilinguals switch languages only when non-dominant language responses are easily accesible and the switching does not occur with the price of accuracy, or if the switches improve accuracy. Furthermore, if the switches are not forced, bilinguals can actually make up for some of the costs linked with language mixing, including the small costs in time. The uncertainties that bilinguals experience when expressing emotions can also be considered a problematic aspect of language mixing.

The common belief that emotions conveyd in the mother tongue have the most strength and sincereness, implies that code switching somehow lessens the truthfulness of one’s emotions. In contrast, Grosjean (2008) points out that the notion of bilinguals always expressing their emotions in their first language is a myth. The opposite can be true when a childhood in one language lacked affection or had an abundance of distressing events – in that case, the second language may be used more often as it has stronger reaffirming emotional tones. Despite the emergence of the previous pattern, there are instances where a person might benefit more from using an emotionally less-dominating language. For example, code switching is sometimes strategically used in psychological counseling.

This can be accounted to the usefulness of speaking in a second language when trying to distance oneself from emotional events. Language switching becomes a defence mechanism because of usaging a language that is not associated with such a broad range of emotions (often L2). (Altarriba & Santiago Riviera 1994 as cited in Altarriba, Heredia 2001). Language mixing is an important aspect of bilingualism, and a natural occurence the conversations of bilinguals. Some linguists see it as a polluting factor which indicates the lack of language proficiency. This notion is supported by findings alike the apparent delays that switching has shown to occasionally cause in speech formation and comprehension. The claim of language mixing resulting in improper use of syntax has been counteracted with proving the well-formed and grammatically correct unwritten rules of code switching.

Therefore, most of the downsides of code mixing have either not found enough proof or are minimised by counteractive processes. Analysing the reasons for language mixing has enabled us to point out its benefits. Intermingling may be induced by a simple lack of a lexical term, the need to build rapport with a fellow bilingual, a wish to restrict the conversation from surrounding monolinguals or the necessity to convey a different tone or opinion towards what is being expressed. When the problemic conditions that triggered code switching are solved this linguistic devices proves its usefulness. Keeping these notions in mind, it is easy to agree with practitioners, who despite some downsides, see language mixing as an inevitable linguistic occurance that enhances communication rather than decreasing its quality. Intermingling strengthens the content and the essence of the message, thus becoming an important social funtion of communicating.


Altarriba, J. and Santiago-Rivera, A.L. 1994. Current perspectives on using
linguistic and cultural factors in counseling the Hispanic client. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 25, 388–397. Altarriba, Jeanette and Heredia, Roberto R. 2001. Bilingual Language Mixing: Why Do Bilinguals Code-Switch? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 10: 15, 164-168. Crystal, D. 1987. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Gollan, Tamara H. and Ferreira, Victor S. 2008. Should I stay or should I switch? A cost-benefit analysis of voluntary language switshing in young and aging bilinguals. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 35: 3, 640-665. Grosjean, Francois. 2008. Studying Bilinguals. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. Poplack, S. 1979. Sometimes I’ll start a sentence in Spanish y termino en Espanol: Toward a typology of codeswitching. Linguistics, 18: 7-8, 581-618. Rezaei, Seyyed Hassan Seyyed and Gheitanchian, Mehrnaz. 2008. E-proceedings of the International Online Language Conference (IOLC), 61-67. Sridhar, S.N. and Sridhar, Kamal K. 1980. The Syntax and Psycholynguistics of Bilingual Code Mixing. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, 34: 4, 407-416.

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