Multilingualism: personal and national

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I just returned from an excellent conference on multilingualism in China that was held at Göttingen, Germany:

Language Diversity in the Sinophone World: Policies, effects, and tradition

International Symposium
Göttingen University
11 – 13 June 2015

So the idea of there being more than one language in a country, or of a single person freely speaking more than one language, is fresh in my mind.

By coincidence, a loyal Language Log reader sent in the following observation this morning:

While in high school in England, I had a Swedish girlfriend who used to switch back & forth between Swedish, English, and French when talking with her sister.  I asked her “Why do you do that???” and she said, “it’s just easier to say something in one language than another.”  Notably, she got the best grade in our English class.

I would simply like to say that often my thoughts will be in different languages, depending what it is that I'm thinking about.  Or I'll be talking in English and want to say something in Mandarin or in Japanese.  Or I'll be speaking Mandarin and it will seem more suitable to say something in another language, such as Cantonese or Taiwanese.  As to why I do that, my best guess is that it feels better to say something in one language than in another.  With effort, I can probably say just about anything I want to get across in any of the languages I know, but it is easier and more efficient to say certain things in one language than in another.

I wonder what the experience of other multilingual speakers among Language Log readers is with regard to the suitability of one language over another for communicating particular ideas and emotions.


  1. Yang said,

    June 22, 2015 @ 2:22 pm

    I, for example, am completely incapable of talking about linguistic matters in Mandarin, my native language, because there are far too many terms for which I only know their English names. I suspect this will more or less be the case for a sizeable subset of LangLog readers who receive their linguistic training from English-speaking countries.

    Isn't there also this moderated effect of communicating strong emotions in non-native languages? I will feel much less guilty using expletives in English, and "I love you" just does not carry the level of emotional expressiveness as "Wo ai ni" when I say them.

  2. chips mackinolty said,

    June 22, 2015 @ 2:39 pm

    I perversely have a completely different problem, and no doubt there is a word for it. If I am groping for a word in language (a), I can only come up with the word in language (b). It's bloody irritating.

  3. chromé said,

    June 22, 2015 @ 3:05 pm

    I speak Dutch, French and English at native level. Dutch and English I use every day, and French more rarely.

    When I write fiction I usually translate my text between French and English a few times. French feels more suited to the kind of lyrical, mysterious prose I like to write. It's stimulating to be forced to think in different modes, to find equivalencies and good translations, and failing.

    With friends I speak Dutch, interlaced with English when concepts arise that aren't easy to express in Dutch (a word like 'obvious' doesn't have a good equivalent). Most people I know code-switch, though some more than others. I theorize we build up thoughts in Dutch and English more or less simultaneously, and translating those thoughts in just Dutch can be tricky.

    Academic work happens entirely in English. I've written papers in Dutch, and it's a pain in the ass.

  4. shubert said,

    June 22, 2015 @ 3:35 pm

    For simplified characters, fortunately Taiwan and HK preserved the treasure. For dialogs, Putonghua is a progress.

  5. Dan Lufkin said,

    June 22, 2015 @ 3:47 pm

    I'm in a longitudinal medical study in which I take a battery of mental tests every so often. I always score below average on vocabulary tests when the proctor says that all replies must be English words. Then the proctor says, for instance, "Now tell me the names of as many kinds of animals as you can in 60 seconds."

    I'll waste valuable seconds rejecting beasts like Nilpferd, Hingst, grävling and räv; words that didn't enter my mind until the proctor opened that door.

  6. ThomasH said,

    June 22, 2015 @ 5:25 pm

    I have the same experience when the context is in the family where everyone is pretty bilingual in Spanish and English. Personally (Spanish is my second language) Spanish will be "grace notes" additions when I'm speaking English whereas dropping English into Spanish may be a deficiency. My daughters are more like the Swedish girlfriend; they do it because it's easier or cooler.

  7. HomerM said,

    June 22, 2015 @ 8:42 pm

    Just an added thought. I learned to ski in French. When I returned to the U.S., I was totally unable to communicate in an American ski shop.

  8. ponfed said,

    June 22, 2015 @ 9:18 pm

    In my experience it's pretty common.

    I'm a French speaker in Canada and am at a nearly native level in English.

    Most of the time it's idioms. If I'm speaking French, I often have an easy english idiom pop in my head where there aren't any in French to convey the exact shade of meaning I want to express.

    Same thing if I speak English. A lot of English idioms have their equivalent in French and vice-versa. But a lot of times, there isn't one in one language or anorher that expresses exactly the same thing to the same degree….

    The importance of le mot juste, if you will.

  9. Apollo Wu said,

    June 22, 2015 @ 11:08 pm

    Besides lack of vocabulary for special subjects, one tends to use suitable expressions in another language only when addressing a familiar person or group. Like 'Thank you very much', 'sorry', 'bye'. The emotional flavor possibly includes a feeling of belonging to a higher social class (in Hongkong particularly) as well as being informal in the sense of familiar to each other and knowing the language capability of the listeners. The use of English words 'call' to replace '打电话给‘ appears to opt for a simpler expressions. In formal speech, or when speaking to strangers, the tendency is to avoid multilingualism.

  10. K. Chang said,

    June 22, 2015 @ 11:32 pm

    Personally, part of the problem with Chinese multilingualism is they don't seem to place much emphasis on accents, at least based upon my experience with the Chinese ex-pats. Some of them speaks grammatically correct English, but with a heavy accent. Not much fitting in there, almost as if it's unconsciously intentional.

    I sympathize with finding the matching idioms. I sometimes hang out in /r/translator and someone was trying to translate "make a difference with what you do" into Chinese, and obviously it's not coming across (Google Translate-d to "讓由你做什麼差別") I told him it can't be directly translated, and offered him 要做就做到有所作為 as the closest translation. ("If you want to do something, do it until you have accomplishment")

  11. K Chang said,

    June 23, 2015 @ 1:26 am

    My personal view on multilingualism is… "true mastery of a language is when you can think in that language without internal mental translation from your mother tongue". And if you are thinking in that language, you will by default also think in term of that language's idioms, expressions, and so on, unique to that language's grammar and context. Its when your knowledge in that language hit a blank spot when you reach further into your toolbag and start pulling out words from other languages.

    I am rather unique among my circle in that I switch languages depending on who I talk to. I speak English to my English only friends. I speak Mandarin to my dad. All my other Chinese acquaintances (except the English only ones) speak Cantonese so I speak Cantonese to them. A lot of people are amazed/amused at my language switching. I can probably pass for native speaker in all three, at least in short conversations.

    On the other hand, I am sadly out of touch in certain aspects of the various languages. I got a complete US education, so my Chinese is sadly lacking in technical terms, and esp. mainland terms as opposed to Taiwanese terms (and sometimes, HongKong terms). And as I spent most of my life out of Asia I am sadly out of touch with Asian pop culture terms too. I pick up what I can through newspapers and whatnot but it's never "enough".

  12. Victor Mair said,

    June 23, 2015 @ 6:30 am

    @ K Chang

    Over the years, I have had many graduate and undergraduate students from Hong Kong, and their linguistic abilities, to one degree or another, mirror yours. Depending upon when they came to the United States, in what sort of circumstances they lived in after arriving here, how often and for how long they went back to Hong Kong for visits, their Cantonese, English, and Mandarin were of varying fluency.

    Last year, I wrote a blog post that touched upon this phenomenon:

    "Mother Tongue: lost and found" (12/15/14)

    In that post was the following paragraph:


    The most amazing case is a male scholar from Hong Kong who essentially had no Mother Tongue. Here's how it happened. The school he went to in Hong Kong was an English language school, but not one of the better ones, so the quality of the English instruction and practice he received left much to be desired. He also learned some Mandarin while in Hong Kong, but it was even far worse than his English. After graduating from high school, he went to Japan for college and muddled along there without ever becoming fluent in Japanese because instruction at his college was bilingual — a mix of Japanese and English. After graduating from college, he went to graduate school in America, where I met him and where he confessed to me that he really didn't feel at home in any language. I used to read his papers for him and it was quite a challenge to help him put them into coherent English.


    Multilingualism is both a mixed bag and a mixed blessing.

  13. Vanya said,

    June 23, 2015 @ 7:43 am

    I have a friend from Singapore with a similar story. His command of English is much better than the scholar Professor Mair describes, but it is clearly not his native language. His true mother tongue is Hokkien, but he lacks the vocabulary to use that for anything beyond family conversation.

    I suspect it is increasingly common for educated native speakers of smaller languages to feel they have to resort to English for all sorts of business, financial, or technology topics. I even know a few native German and French speakers who are more comfortable doing business transactions or writing consulting studies in English than in their native tongues.

  14. leoboiko said,

    June 23, 2015 @ 9:39 am

    My experience like others have described. I'm so used to writing certain topics in English (my L2) that writing them in Portuguese (L1) feels like translating myself.

    Due to its ubiquity, English is also the pivot through which I study other languages (let's call then LNs), and by now I find it easier to do so than with Portuguese–LN materials. Lately I've been studying Old Tupi, a Brazilian Portuguese substrate. There's a Brazilian bird called jaçanã ([ʒa.sɐ̃.ˈnɐ̃] < Tupian */jã.sã.ˈnã/). Animal- and plant-names are always hard to memorize for us urban dwellers, and I kept forgotting which one was the jaçanã, until I found out its English nickname: Jesus bird—because it walks on water (well, on water lilies). Now I cannot help but mentally think of the jaçanã as Jesus birds (and, with such a descriptive name, can easily picture the bird itself).

  15. turang said,

    June 23, 2015 @ 9:54 am

    Indian cities, especially Bangalore or Bombay which have large populations of different language groups should be good places to check on the use of multiple languages by the population in general. Even many villages in South India seem to have multiple dialects and languages spoken. It might even be difficult for some people to identify what their "mother tongue" is.

    I grew up in Bangalore, speaking a dialect of Tamil, Kannada, English after a while and some what unusually Sanskrit at times. In the area where we lived there were speakers of Kannada, a few other dialects of Tamil, a dialect of Telugu and speakers of a sort of Urdu in what was called the Mohammedan colony. Bollywood Hindi songs wafted over the airwaves. I think we made use of all the language resources available as needed, sometimes consciously. There were also invented variations of languages generated using some rules on the standard languages around to keep public conversations of private in-groups private.

    There was written material in a lot of these languages around too, available for anyone interested in learning read them.

  16. Rodger C said,

    June 23, 2015 @ 11:13 am

    In the US Army 45 years ago i knew Puerto Ricans, especially longterm soldiers, who were terrible in both Spanish and English. And by "terrible in Spanish" I don't mean dialectal; they couldn't keep Anglicisms out of it.

  17. norman said,

    June 23, 2015 @ 3:03 pm

    So while I was born and raised in the US (English is my L1), I grew up speaking Cantonese at home. This was, however, peppered with many trips to Canada and HK to visit relatives whose poor English command initially forced me to use Cantonese grudgingly, but eventually I grew to like practicing and challenging myself to use it.

    Anyway, I still find Cantonese sometimes having just the right word to describe something that would take more effort in English – especially words describing food, facial expressions, and intense emotions!

  18. Dave Cragin said,

    June 23, 2015 @ 4:59 pm

    It was heartening to hear that Chips faces a problem similar to mine: my 2nd language is Mandarin, albeit to a limited degree. Because of the way I’ve learned, I generally think in Mandarin when I want to speak and don’t translate from English. If I know it, I know it.

    The problem comes when I try to say something in German, a language I took for years, but haven’t studied since my 2nd year of college. My brain fills in the German words I don’t know with Chinese (and so I generally speak English when talking with Germans). Even though I'm American, I'd use Chips' words, i.e., "it's bloody irritating” (and to follow Norman’s comments, these words express the feeling much better than the American equivalent “very irritating”).

    The thing I’ve learn the most from studying Chinese is what fluency means, i.e., I used to see it as black & white, but now I know it is gray. You can be fluent one situation and at a loss in another.

    The gain/loss of fluency can happen relatively rapidly. A Flemish speaking Belgian friend spent 3 yrs in the US working in vaccines. He then moved to the Netherlands and later commented “I couldn’t even talk about vaccines and it was my home language!”

  19. K Chang said,

    June 23, 2015 @ 7:49 pm

    A lot of it had to do with innate curiosity of one's personality. If a person is not curious to seek out new experiences such as new restaurants to try new cuisine, new locales to experience the culture, and so on, then ones language would be limited to that social circle only. Perhaps that is why they say you can't teach old dog new tricks, he lost that child curiosity for new experiences.

  20. julie lee said,

    June 23, 2015 @ 8:02 pm

    It's almost impossible to hear pure Mandarin spoken among my Chinese friends, who've lived in the United States for many years. When they speak Mandarin, it's always sprinkled with English words. One friend, when speaking Mandarin , keeps using the word "re-fi" as if it were a Chinese word. It stands for "re-finance your house" or "re-finance your mortgage". Her English isn't that good but she picks up words like "re-fi". I doubt you can express the idea more neatly in Mandarin. Another English word heard a lot in Mandarin conversation is "green ka", for "green card" (the card that gives you permanent residence in the U.S. and permission to work). "Ka" is written with the character 卡.

  21. Bob Davis said,

    June 23, 2015 @ 8:28 pm

    A Uruguayan friend and his brothers living in California speak their first language border Portuguese when pouring cement (Dad's profession), English when repairing cars (learned in California) and Spanish when discussing politics (school in Argentina).

  22. K Chang said,

    June 23, 2015 @ 9:43 pm

    @julie lee — re-fi is certainly far more succinct than 贷款重组 (loan reorganization) but never heard of "green 卡“. Most people just say 綠卡

  23. Norman said,

    June 23, 2015 @ 9:48 pm

    My friends and family use 綠卡 too but isn't the word 卡the sound for "card"? Or maybe I was creating a sound association where none exists!

  24. K Chang said,

    June 23, 2015 @ 9:57 pm

    Sometimes, I wonder if Chinese established Chinatowns just so they do NOT have to fit in. :)

    It seems most people I contact in Chinatown don't *want* to speak better English, even those who had been here for dozens of years. Almost without exception they have heavily accented English, even those who had lived on both coasts and spend most of their life here. It's almost as if living in Chinatown had obviated their need to speak better English, and after a while they simply gave up. I have an aunt (not biological aunt) who call me up about once a week asking me how to spell certain words (even though she has an iPhone, and Siri could have given her the spelling). But she's a social worker and writes letters in English and talks with others every day in English just fine (albeit, accented).

  25. K Chang said,

    June 23, 2015 @ 10:05 pm

    @Norman — no, ka 卡 certainly is close to "card". However, according to the term 卡 was first used as "(border) checkpoint" 關卡 and later, "stuck" 卡住了. I imagine the definition "small piece of paper" was added later, but it's common use now. However, in Mainland they also picked meaning as shorthand for truck 卡車,among others. :)

  26. Gnoey said,

    June 24, 2015 @ 12:01 am

    I come from Singapore where many people code-switch all the time between their ethnic languages and English, which is the common language among the different races and the main medium of instruction in school. I feel quite at ease in both Chinese and English, and with friends and colleagues, I tend to speak a mixture of both. Sometimes it just means peppering a Chinese sentence with some English words, but at other times I can begin a sentence in one language and finish it off in another. But when I am in a formal setting, I would use only English. When speaking to strangers, which language I use depends very much on which language I perceive the person to be more comfortable in, based on his or her age, ethnicity, occupation and apparent socio-economic status. At home I speak purely Chinese with my parents and only English with my sibling.

    For me, code-switching is sometimes a necessity because the formal language of the workplace is English, so there are work-related matters that can only be referred to English. If I were to use the Chinese equivalents, I would either not be understood, or sound as if I was showing off my Chinese.

    But in addition to this, I think that there are just some ideas or emotions that simply have to be expressed in one language rather than in the other or it won't sound "right", so speaking the "pure" form of one language risks losing certain shades of meaning that I wish to convey.

  27. Alan Wong said,

    June 24, 2015 @ 12:25 am

    From my experience with Japanese and Korean friends that are students studying in America, plenty of code-switching goes on when talking about and around food especially. American friends, Chinese friends, etc. seem to enjoy saying phrases like "gochisou sama deshita" after a good meal.

    As a second language learner of both Japanese and Korean, after getting used to many fixed-expressions, failing to say them around native speakers (that are, of course, accustomed to using them) makes me feel like I've left something incomplete.

  28. Mark Mandel said,

    June 24, 2015 @ 12:28 am

    Occasionally I find that Esperanto allows me to easily construct a word that conveys just what I mean, which is much harder to convey in English. Unfortunately, these days I have no one to speak Esperanto with.

    I can't remember an actual example, but nemalaprobinda is the sort of word I mean. Literally it means 'not worthy of disapproval'. It conveys, perhaps, a very hedged kind of "not bad". Ha, even better: nemalaprobeginda 'not worthy of strong disapproval'.

  29. K Chang said,

    June 24, 2015 @ 12:56 am

    @Mark Mandel — how about… "meh" :-D

  30. Jeff said,

    June 24, 2015 @ 5:18 am

    I've found that code-switching has been a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, I can express my thoughts so much more easily and freely when I talk to another person who speaks both Japanese and English. On the other hand, I always miss the depth of that interaction when I'm talking with monolinguals in either language. It's made it possible to communicate with more people, but I feel like I can only truly 'open up' with a bilingual. It's added a strange sort of distance with the monolinguals I've known for years.

  31. Caroline Shimakawa-Devitt said,

    June 24, 2015 @ 5:23 am

    It can also be down to memories you have of using or coming across a particular expression in a particular language. For example, I enjoy using a Russian expression when reminiscing because doing so brings back memories of where I was and who I was with the first time I heard it.

  32. julie lee said,

    June 24, 2015 @ 11:27 am

    @K Chang, @Norman,

    Ka卡 is indeed the common Mandarin pronunciation and transcription for English "card", so it is an English word (written with a Chinese character). There are many such words, for example, "xiu 秀
    (pronounced like English "show") meaning "show", ka-ss 卡司 for English "cast" ( for a movie or play), fen-ss 粉絲 for English "fans" (of a movie, star, etc.), ku 酷 (pronounced coo) for English "cool" (like "he's cool"). Recently I saw on this LL blog the word dou-ge 豆各 for English "dog". As to ka 卡 "card", we also say shengdan ka 聖誕卡 for "Christmas card" (聖誕 shengdan means "sacred birth"), or say in Mandarin such things as "Did you send him a ka 卡(card)?" Of course, as @K Chang points out, ka卡 is a Chinese character with other meanings too.

  33. The other Eric said,

    June 25, 2015 @ 7:03 pm

    Wait – is 卡 not the "real" word for card? I see signs for 電話卡s all the time in Chinatown!

    I guess it vaguely occurred to me it's an anglicism but then how do you say green/phone/credit card in Chinese?

  34. julie lee said,

    June 25, 2015 @ 10:52 pm

    @ The other Eric:

    In Mandarin, green card is "lvu ka 綠卡", phone card is "dianhua ka 電話卡", credit card is "xinyong ka 信用卡". In other words "ka" is an English word that has become a Chinese word. Just like Dao (Tao) is a Chinese word that has become an English word.

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