Understanding Language Choice

When multilingual speakers come together, how do they decide which language to use? Do they use the dominant language of their environment? Do they try to guess what language the other speaker is most comfortable using? Does it depend on the topic of discussion? Given the immediacy of conversation, their choices probably occur at a subconscious level and very quickly. Just the other day, I found myself in an encounter with a stranger where I made a choice to switch from English to French. It went something like this:

Pedestrian: (approaches me on San Antonio Road with a map in hand) Excuse me. Can you help me? I’m trying to find Enterprise Rental Car.
Me: I’m not sure where that is.
Pedestrian: It’s on San Antonio.
Me: (I pull out my phone) Do you have the address?
Pedestrian: (looks at a sheet of paper) Huit cent quatorze, San Antonio Road
Me: Ah, vous parlez français?
Pedestrian: Oui.
Me: Ce n’est pas loin. C’est sur cette rue, dans ce sens là. (I point north)
Pedestrian: C’est combien des kilomètres à peu près?
Me: Um, ce n’est pas loin, mais vous ne pouvez pas marcher d’ici.
Pedestrian: J’ai une voiture.
Me: Okay, si vous continuez sur cette route, vous arriverez dans 3 ou 4 minutes. Ce n’est pas loin.
Pedestrian: Merci. Est-ce que vous êtes haitienne?
Me: Non, je suis américaine.
Pedestrian: Oh, il y a beaucoup des haitiens près d’ici.

Let me make a few observations about this exchange:

Numbers triggered a switch in language.
It was only when the pedestrian wanted to use numbers that French slipped into the conversation. He did not attempt to say the numbers in English or express them in a mix of English and French. He switched directly to French without hesitation. I sympathize with this motivation for code-switching, or alternating between two or more ‘codes’ (i.e., languages, dialects) within the same conversation. Whenever I need to count or calculate numbers, I think them through in English and then translate the result into the language of the conversation. If I hear a number in another language, I have to translate it to English to understand. It is nearly impossible for me to process numbers in another language.

Aneta Pavlenko talks about this on the blog Life as a Bilingual. In summarizing research on this topic she writes: “the language bilinguals count in may depend on the language of early schooling but the language of other numerical tasks depends on their subsequent experiences with language and math, so that some tasks may be handled faster and more efficiently in languages learned later in life.”

Seeking cultural affiliation?
At the end of our conversation, the pedestrian asked if I was Haitian. After I said no, he moved on to tell me there are a lot of Haitians living in the area (which was news to me). This was not the first time that, after having a brief discussion in French, someone asked if I was from another country or another culture. In-group affiliation is another factor influencing language choice, to show that the speakers are part of the same group. So, maybe (a) he was Haitian and (b) he assumed we were both Haitian since we both spoke French.

This might also relate to what scholars call racial translation, that is positioning yourself or being positioned by others as a member of a particular cultural group. Language can play a role in racial translation. H. Samy Alim describes his personal experiences of being positioned as a member of eight different cultural groups over the span of five days as he traveled from Mountain View, CA (where my encounter occurred) to Germany. Here’s an excerpt from one of his encounters on the plane that resonates with my story:

When I told her that I spoke English, Arabic, and Spanish, with reading knowledge in Swahili, she gasped again, “Oh!” and tapped her friend Maria, the “Latina,” on the arm to bring her into the conversation. “He speaks Spanish!” Maria turned and asked me quickly, almost hopefully, “Are you Mexican?” Then, explaining her directness, she added, “I mean, how do you speak Spanish fluently?”

(Alim, 2016, pg. 39)

My mind stored the conversation in English.
When I recall this conversation, I actually remember it in English. I can hear the pedestrian saying huit and vous êtes haitienne. I know half the conversation was in French. But, when I replay the episode in my mind or describe it to others, I only hear it in English. Strange, no?

This relates to two language phenomena: encoding and retrieval. Encoding relates to how we store information and experiences in our mind; retrieval relates to how we access those memories later. James Bartolotti and Viorica Marian reviewed academic research on bilingual memory and discuss how episodic memory (i.e., memories about events) may be encoded in specific languages and more easily retrieved if cued in the same language as the encoding. So, what happened with me? After the encounter with the pedestrian, I switched back to an English mindset. I started thinking of how I was going to tell my friends about the encounter, and played this in my head in English. Maybe my short-term memory processed this encounter in French, but my long-term memory saved everything in English.

When was the last time you found yourself in a code-switching or racial translation encounter?

Want to learn more:

  • NPR has a podcast that looks at cultural code-switching, or how people navigate their multiple worlds.
  • Alim, Rickford and Ball (2016) edited a book entitled Raciolinguistics, a volume of articles looking at the relationship between race and language.

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