The Bliss of Language-Switching

By: Giselle General

One evening, as I was taking the bus on my way home, sitting at one of the seats on the upper back level, I hear the person behind me talking to someone over the phone. This scenario itself is not new, but something caught my attention that made me smile.

He was language-switching. During the first three minutes of the call, he was talking in straight English. Then afterwards, he started speaking a language I don’t understand, but still, he has used certain phrases in English like “oh my gosh” and “yah exactly” and “only a few followers on Instagram”. I cannot remember much else of what he said in English, but one’s intonation indicates whether what the person is saying is a statement, a question, a story, or a comment. The tone of voice indicates also when the person is usually done speaking that particular sentence. Given that understanding, I was able to get a sense that over the next 10 minutes that I was seated in front of him, he eventually was speaking half the time in English, and have the time in the other language.

Given that I can speak more than one language, and that English is my second language, I totally understand the appeal, the convenience, and the comfort of language-switching. I’ve read a number of articles that lists different terminologies that don’t have an English translation. If the person you are speaking to can understand the hybrid statement that accurately gets your point across, it works out so much better.

Person speaking to a can with a string as a pretend telephone.

I’ve seen it myself in many occasions, especially with talking to fellow Filipinos here in Edmonton. The wary and shy look on their faces lifts up as soon as I start talking in Tagalog, which usually happens when I answer their question in the polite way, adding the word ‘po’, since that indicates that I know what that word is used for. When speaking to clients at our office after my cowokers call me in because they have hit a communication barrier they cannot overcome, there’s a sense of relief when I tell them, feel free to speak in English as much as you like, and you can switch to Tagalog anytime and I’ll translate it for you.

Having a communication dynamic that allows language-switching is also an indicator of how special your relationship is with that person. My brother and I do this on a fairly regular basis. Given that my spouse speaks only in English, and my brother’s girlfriend’s first language is actually not Tagalog, but Bisaya, I usually speak in English with them. With my brother though, I describe our language combination as “English with Tagalog with Ilocano expressions”. As in swear words, yes. It’s a more fitting array of language options for us, given where and how we grew up, and what we’ve been through.

My bet is that this is a common dynamic of every immigrant person, so it is not an unusual scenario. Just noticing this a few days ago made me feel nice which is why I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge it. It’s time to feel pride, not shame, at having a slight accent when speaking in English. I encourage people to start imagining “how many languages does this person speak?”. I think so far I know of one gentleman who speaks seven languages which is incredible! Being multilingual is a freaking superpower!

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