Which language do you think in? All of them.

Sarika SabnisAssistant Editor of  Social Sciences

Enter any public setting here in South-Central Texas and one may witness a unique phenomenon of language interaction: a speaker starts a sentence in English and finishes in Spanish. “Es que, I sometimes talk así.”

Photo: Sarika Sabnis

Most multilinguals can relate to this act of speaking two or more languages in the middle of the same conversation. Speakers have a number of portmanteaus for this ‘blended’ language: Spanglish (Spanish and English), Dinglish (Dutch and English), Hinglish (Hindi and English), Frataliano (French and Italian), Portuñol (Portuguese and Spanish/Español). Researchers of bilingualism also use a general name, code switching, the term for any alternation between two languages within a single discourse which can occur both between and within sentences. The science behind this phenomenon has baffled linguists for many years. Much of the research conducted in the last thirty years on code switching involves understanding how the brain stores these languages, as well as determining the contexts or situations where code switching occurs.

Determining how linguistic information is stored in the brain was a matter of great debate among psycholinguists in the 20th century. Prior to 1960, it was thought that bilinguals store a set of information for each language they know. For example, Hindi-English bilinguals would have to store two vocabulary sets, one in Hindi, the other in English. Therefore, speakers would switch between “modes” of language, i.e. a “Hindi mode” and an “English mode.” Many anti-bilingualism educators used this idea to suggest that teaching multiple languages would ultimately confuse children because of the extra information their brains had to store.

However, seminal studies by Peal & Lambert (1962) found that bilingual children were just as good, or even advantaged, at certain cognitive and non-linguistic tasks than monolingual children. Subsequent studies have also shown that bilinguals likely do not have separate storage areas for their languages, but rather one mental lexicon – an individual’s mental model for concepts and ideas of words –  from which they draw and map translations. This model, known as language non-selectivity, has become the more widely accepted theory.

The language non-selectivity model explains how code switching works, which is especially common among bilingual children and adolescents in conversation with their family. Children who are bilingual must read their environment, always adjusting their language according to their surroundings. Their minds may take a mental temperature of the room and decide if it is better to speak in English or the other language. For example, they might use their native language among elderly members of their community, and instead converse in English while in school or even code switch with other like-minded bilinguals. And, as many bilinguals have stated, some things are just easier to say in another language, particularly idioms or onomatopoeias.

The fact that bilinguals have only one mental lexicon means that both of their languages are always active, which is why it is so easy for bilinguals to switch between their languages. Researchers have noted that children are very adept at code switching because of their heightened ability to monitor their environment compared to monolinguals, an idea that is often cited in discussions about the benefits of bilingualism and bilingual education. So the next time someone asks which language you ‘think’ in, you can say it’s all of them!

Featured Photo: Google Images/Creative Commons

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