An orgy of code-switching

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From David Moser:

I attended an all-day series of talks today at an academic institution. Some of the panels were in Chinese, some in English.  One that I found particularly interesting was an afternoon panel with the CEOs of several Chinese companies. The panel was supposed to be in Chinese, but I found it hilarious that all of these participants, steeped as they are in American and Western culture and business, seemingly can no longer speak pure Chinese.  It is simply impossible for them.  Some of the panelists could hardly speak even one sentence without throwing in an English word or two.   I started writing down some of their code-switching, but it was so ubiquitous I soon stopped even trying.  Here are some examples:

Note:  Transcriptions and translations added by VHM (words originally in English are bolded).

Wǒmen gōngsī zuìjìn celebrated wǒmen de 16th birthday. 我们公司最近 celebrated 我们的 16th birthday. ("Our company recently celebrated our 16th birthday.")

Xiǎo Liú, wǒ wonder nǐ néng bùnéng yùcè zhège market trend rúhé? 小刘,我 wonder 你能不能预测这个 market trend 如何?("Liu, I wonder if you can predict what this market trend will be like?")

Nǐ yào shàngkè, bìxū dé shàng nàxiē kěyǐ get involved de dōngxī. 你要上课,必须得上那些可以 get involved 的东西。("If you want to take the class, you have to get those things that will enable you to get involved.")

Nǐ zuì hǎo hái shì enjoy zhège guòchéng. 你最好还是 enjoy 这个过程。("It would be best if you enjoy this process.")

Zhème zuò, wǒ zhēnshi chū yú passion cái xíng. Dàn zhège passion de definition shì shá? 这么做,我真是出于 passion 才行。但这个 passion 的 definition 是啥? ("In so doing, it won't work unless I'm really doing it out of passion.  But what is the definition of this passion?")

Zhège particular Zhōngguó market shì fēicháng fragmented, dàn nà bubble hòulái busted zhīhòu, wǒmen kěyǐ reconsider wǒmen de options. 这个 particular 中国 market 是非常 fragmented, 但那 bubble 后来 busted 之后,我们可以 reconsider 我们的 options. ("This particular Chinese market is extremely fragmented, but after the bubble busted, we can reconsider our options")

Tāmen cóng blood lǐmiàn jiù yǒu business de DNA, tāmen jiùsuàn natural innovators. 他们从 blood 里面就有 business 的 DNA, 他们就算 natural innovators. ("They have business DNA in their blood; they can be considered as natural innovators.")

Wǒ juédé Zhōngguórén bǐ Měiguórén yǒu gèng duō de desire. 我觉得中国人比美国人有更多的 desire. ("I think that Chinese people have more desire than Americans.")

Zhāng xiānshēng shì bùshì juédé yǒudiǎn bèi left out zàiwài, wǒ jiànyì nǐ cānyù jìnqù jiù huì live up to tā gāngcái shuō de zhíyuán dì nà zhǒng expectations. 张先生是不是觉得有点被 left out在外, 我建议你参与进去就会 live up to 她刚才说的职员的那种 expectations. ("If Mr. Zhang is feeling a bit left out and marginalized, I suggest that, should you get involved, you'll live up to the expectations for staff members that she mentioned just now.")

Wǒ yào jiǎng yīgè personal experience, nǐ kěyǐ believe it or not. 我要讲一个 personal experience, 你可以 believe it or not. ("I'd like to tell a personal experience, and you can believe it or not.")

Méiyǒu, wǒ just kidding, dàn bùfáng tell you the truth… 没有,我 just kidding, 但不妨 tell you the truth… ("No, I'm just kidding, but there's no harm to tell you the truth…")

And this delightful misunderstanding:

A: Zhè shì wèishéme yǒurén shuō wǒmen Zhōngguórén shì the Jews of the Orient. A:  这是为什么有人说我们中国人是 the Jews of the Orient. ("A:  This is why some people say we Chinese are the Jews of the Orient.")
B: The juice of the Orient? Dōngfāng de chéngzhī?? B:  The juice of the Orient?  东方的橙汁?? ("B: The juice of the Orient? Oriental orange juice?")

And on and on.  These poor Chinese business elites literally can no longer speak like normal people.  This kind of linguistic mixing is incredibly common in China, as we all know, but I've never experienced such an orgy of code-switching in my life.


  1. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 6, 2015 @ 10:15 pm

    How do we distinguish between code-switching and heavy use of loanwords/loan-idioms? In English it might seem a little odd or affected for someone to use multiple stock French-derived phrases quite close together in the same discourse (e.g. "je ne sais quoi" in one sentence, "tres chic" in the next, and "au courant" in the one after that), but you wouldn't say they were actually code-switching between English and French. I think as a parlor trick I could write a chunk of a legal brief with at least one borrowed-from-Latin fixed idiom (per se, de minimis, forum non conveniens, pro hac vice, res ipsa loquitur, et cetera) in each consecutive sentence for a page or more without the typical reader finding the result obviously unnatural to the ear.

  2. Chris Waigl said,

    November 6, 2015 @ 10:35 pm

    You should probably listen to German business people, especially in software engineering disciplines…

    (And I had a (German native speaking) physics professor in Heidelberg, who, during a lecture was doing his usual thing of carrying out the mathematical transformations on the blackboard, with a running commentary, of course in German. At one point he said something very much like: "… und wenn wir jetzt auf beiden Seiten 1 addieren und dann die XYZ-Formel anwenden, dann enden wir up mit … " ('… and if we now add 1 on both sides and then use the rule of XYZ, then we end up with …") He was surprised and annoyed that we broke out in laughter because he didn't even notice he was inserting English into his sentence.)

  3. Maya said,

    November 6, 2015 @ 11:08 pm

    Was the conference in China or the US? This is so common if you're in the home country. When I was in China my friends and I would code switch between English and Chinese all the time ("he's such a 帅哥," "it's much more 方便 to go that way," etc.)

  4. Ken Miner said,

    November 6, 2015 @ 11:31 pm

    dann enden wir up mit

    Love that. Once in a multilingual chat room I typed "tot ziens" when somebody left and a Dutch woman asked me, in English, where I had learned that. I quickly cobbled together "ik heb het opgepickt", then apologized. "No," she said, "that's fine." Maybe it was good Dutch!

  5. K. Chang said,

    November 6, 2015 @ 11:59 pm

    There seems to be various levels of fluency to languages.

    On lowest level, you have to think in your native language, then translate mentally into the other language.

    On a higher level, there seems to be two types.

    The CEOs above, know the concept in more than one language, and brain simply pulled the closest term in whichever language the speaker happen to have the clearest memory or association, and spoke that. They are NOT switching, they are sort of "language agnostic".

    The other type are able to actively code-switch by thinking in any language they are fluent in, and speak that language, and switch to a different language to continue, but they can keep the languages separate, at least mostly.

    Obviously the two types overlap somewhat, and that's my observation.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    November 7, 2015 @ 12:24 am


    The conference was in China.

  7. peter said,

    November 7, 2015 @ 1:20 am

    Fortunately, as is well-known, speakers of English resist using loan words, especially from French:

  8. Riikka said,

    November 7, 2015 @ 4:59 am

    In Finland Swedish (finlandssvenska), Swedish that is spoken in Finland, mixing Finnish in is very common. It can either be sentences or words – some people start speaking in one language and, when they forget one word, change to the other language completely, while some do just the same kind of mixing that the Chinese CEOs did. I think the best known example is "det är kiva" where "det är" is Swedish meaning "it is" and "kiva" is Finnish meaning "nice, fun".

    Finland Swedish doesn't only borrow Finnish words (or words borrowed to Finnish from other languages.. it's complicated) but even Finnish "logic", as different Finnish is from Swedish. Finland Swedish can mimic Finnish in preposition usage by, for example, going "på kaffe" ("on coffee"), having sauna "på stugan" ("on the cottage"), which sounds just as weird to Swedes than English speakers – because Finnish uses suffix -lla/llä (on, at) in these cases.

    Jonna Kaarnattu, in her master's thesis "Attitudes to code-switching and its effect on the language usage of bilingual speakers" in Finnish Swedish ( ) argues that code-switching is used as stylistic tool, to intensify the message, to fill in gaps and to mark closeness. Also, some expressions can feel more natural in one language than the other. She interviewed 21-29 year old speakers of Finland Swedish, who mostly consider code-switching positive when used deliberately as a stylistic tool, but negative if it depends on the speaker not knowing the correct word. Speech, where half is Finnish and half is Swedish felt wrong, possibly because it felt no longer code-switching but a sort of pidgin language. According to the interviewees code-switching does enrich one's vocabulary (because every language has words unique to it), makes communication easier and quicker, and can be a quirky part of one's language identity. On the other hand, it can affect one's credibility negatively, make people think one's not fluent in any language, one is uneducated, or it can irritate the speaker him/herself when they need to resort to a words from another language because they either don't know or remember the correct one.

  9. Lukas said,

    November 7, 2015 @ 5:03 am

    This is pretty common in Germany and Switzerland, too. I work at a software company, and we speak and write mostly English, since we have employees from all over the world. When German-speaking people are talking to each other, they tend to use English words for anything that they don't normally talk about in German. I don't think it's surprising, it's just how language works.

  10. Mark Liberman said,

    November 7, 2015 @ 7:01 am

    This seems more like what has been called "code mixing" or "language mixing" in Hong Kong — see e.g. John Gibbons, "Code-mixing and koineizing in the speech of students at the university of Hong Kong", Anthropological Linguistics 1979; Kang-Kwong Luke, "Why two Language Might Be Better Than One: Motivations of Language Mixing in Hong Kong", in Martha Pennington, Ed., Language in Hong Kong at Century's End, 1998. This literature distinguishes several different kinds of English-origin mix-ins, some of which are clearly full borrowings (with integration into Cantonese pronunciation norms) while others represent the use of bits of English mixed into Cantonese morphosyntactic framework.

  11. Peter S. said,

    November 7, 2015 @ 9:05 am

    In graduate school, I had a roommate from the Philippines. When he spoke to his sister on the phone, it was in a seemingly random mixture of English, Spanish, and Tagalog (even though I only knew English, it was quite easy to tell which word was in which language; properly pronounced –which he clearly did–they sound quite different).

  12. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 7, 2015 @ 9:43 am

    I wonder what it was like in 12th-century England, when some Anglo-Saxons (those with ties to the ruling class) started throwing Norman French into their language.

    [(myl) Indeed. At this point we need to quote James D. Nicoll's 5/15/1990 post to rec.arts.sf-lovers:

    The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.

    Turn about is fair play.]

  13. Robert Coren said,

    November 7, 2015 @ 10:07 am

    @Chris Waigl summons up a childhood memory of mine. My piano teacher was from Vienna, and although she spoke perfectly fluent (and only lightly-accented) English, my lessons would occasionally be interrupted by phone calls from her mother, which were conducted entirely in German. Well, almost entirely: I remember one fairly long speech (I had no German then, so I didn't store any of it) that ended with "cottage cheese". (I think I recall a reference to "Forty-second Street Shuttle", but it's more understandable that this phrase would have no reasonable German representation in context.)

  14. Mark said,

    November 7, 2015 @ 11:43 am

    "hilarious" … "pure Chinese" … "normal people"

    What this post demonstrates most to me is that language practices are always inseparable from ideologies about them and the people employing them. Bilinguals gonna bilingual. Code-switching, code-mixing, translanguaging–whatever term you want to use–is precisely what "normal people" do.

  15. aka_darrell said,

    November 7, 2015 @ 12:17 pm

    We live in an older neighborhood that is perhaps 80% Mexican heritage and many conversations in Spanish are peppered with English words. Almost all obscenities are English and words for 'stuff' such as "bicycle" or "seat belt" are English. In the supermarket an older person often speaks Spanish and the an accompanying kid will respond in English.

  16. marie-lucie said,

    November 7, 2015 @ 12:30 pm

    words for 'stuff' such as "bicycle" or "seat belt"

    It is likely that the immigrant families could not afford such things before immigrating and that is why they know the English words better than the Spanish equivalents that they did not have occasion to use.

  17. MIlan said,

    November 7, 2015 @ 1:12 pm

    @J. W. Brewer "How do we distinguish between code-switching and heavy use of loanwords/loan-idioms?"
    Probably this can't be decided in every single case, but as a rule I would say that one is dealing with loan-words and idioms as long as it would be possible to understand the tex with knowing only a finite and relatively fixed catalogue of loans. If L2 lexical items are combined into phrases in the second language, according to its grammatical rules, however, it is a case of code-mixing.

  18. Dan Lufkin said,

    November 7, 2015 @ 1:15 pm

    In Stockholm in the 1960s it used to be common to overhear (on public transport, for instance) a conversation between two elderly people, one speaking Swedish and one speaking English. They were siblings or cousins, one of whom had emigrated years ago and who no longer was used to thinking in Swedish, but who could still understand it. The one who remained in Sweden had a working passive knowledge of English from TV and film. The system seemed to work fine. I wonder whether there are other countries where English has penetrated so thoroughly.

  19. Bathrobe said,

    November 7, 2015 @ 8:14 pm

    For the speakers at the conference mentioned in the post, it seems to me that the English represents the vocabulary that they normally use for those particular fields or activities. While they know Chinese, the vocabulary they habitually use in marketing, business, etc. is all in English, and I they might find translating it into Chinese ungainly, unnatural, or peculiar. They are not used to talking about, say, "market trends" in Chinese and would have to make a large mental effort to convert to 市场趋势 or 市场走势 each time the concept came up — especially when there are so many concepts coming one after another. Even uttering a single sentence in "proper" Chinese would probably consume much of the mental effort that they would prefer to put into vocalising their thoughts.

    In some cases it appears that the semantics or nuances of the English term might not be felt to completely match the literal Chinese translation — words like "passion" or "business" or "live up to". For instance, while Chinese has 生意 and 商业, I don't think either of them completely matches up to the concept of "business" in English and the constellation of attitudes that English speakers (particularly businessmen) have towards it.

    In the case of "get involved" or "left out" I suspect they would have major problems even coming up with what they felt was a suitable Chinese term. They are clearly used to discussing these matters with the vocabulary of English.

    This doesn't apply to all of the examples, of course. Some of it comes from habits of discourse picked up from English (wǒ wonder nǐ néng bùnéng). They appear to be simply unused to conducting this kind of discussion in Chinese! In other cases, coming from an English-speaking environment, they are used to speaking of "celebrating their 16th birthday" rather than 举办了16周年庆典 or 喜迎了16周年, or whatever they may have meant by this.

    Finally, I think unspoken cultural values also play a role. It's acceptable to use English in this context because English is unconsciously regarded as "more prestigious", "cosmopolitan" or "cutting edge", and it's assumed that savvy people or those aspiring to become savvy will know English. I doubt that Chinese speakers invited from, say, Russia or Saudi Arabia would indulge in a similar level of code-switching in and out of Russian or Arabic — even if they could speak those languages to a decent level — and would make an extra effort to translate concepts into Chinese. It's quite possible that attempts to translate into Chinese would lend a "groping" feeling to their speech as they struggled to come up with acceptable Chinese equivalents for concepts that they knew in other languages.

    The idea that everything that needs to be expressed can be translated into or expressed in a particular language is a product of the modern ideology of "national standard languages", which inhabitants of major Western nations accept without much question. But in fact it takes a huge amount of effort to ensure that a national standard language is self-contained and fully equipped to handle all the concepts of economics, science, technology, and the many other spheres of life and knowledge in the modern world. It requires dictionaries, textbooks, standardisation, the translation of large quantities of material, and widespread education to ensure that every language is up to the task of handling at least the basic aspects of whatever could be thrown at it. It's certainly not strange that not everyone who speaks two languages is aware of the "translation equivalent" for every term they know in their two languages.

  20. Sam Kaislaniemi said,

    November 8, 2015 @ 4:22 am

    @Mark Exactly.

    To continue of what Bathrobe comments on, I would imagine it's not uncommon even in China for the company-internal working language to be English. And jargon is hard to translate – I can sympathise, for I find it difficult to talk about my work in other languages than English.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    November 8, 2015 @ 7:58 am

    @Sam Kaislaniemi


    In connection with the ABC Chinese-English dictionary database which they wanted to buy, I had some dealings with Microsoft in China about 15 years ago. Already then, their internal language in the Beijing and Shanghai offices was English. Around the same time, I also had contact with several other major companies in China where the situation was exactly the same.

  22. Robert Coren said,

    November 8, 2015 @ 10:43 am

    @Dan Lufkin: I would bet (based on a few samples) that the Netherlands is another such country.

  23. Jimbino said,

    November 8, 2015 @ 6:50 pm

    In "…but it was so ubiquitous I soon stopped even trying," isn't "so ubiquitous" as silly as "so unique" and "so perfect"? An isn't the "even" misplaced?

  24. Chas Belov said,

    November 8, 2015 @ 11:20 pm

    Native English speaker in San Francisco here. Have studied Spanish and Cantonese but barely can order dinner in either one. I will occasionally drop in Spanish or Cantonese words when talking to myself, but virtually never with others.

    When I was actively trying to practice talking to native speakers in what little I had of each language, I would occasionally draw a word from the wrong language (Spanish for Cantonese or vice versa). So I'm guessing, at least for a language learner, foreign languages are handled in a different place in the brain than native languages. I wonder if truly bilingual people handle both languages in the native language section of the brain.

    This is all conjecture, not scientific reasoning.

  25. Eidolon said,

    November 9, 2015 @ 1:34 pm

    In my experience, this level of code switching/mixing is usually seen in people who have never acquired the same level of proficiency in one language that they have in another, eg immigrants who came to America at an early age, and being subsequently immersed in English, never bothered to learn their "native" language beyond second grade level, even though they could speak it fluently otherwise. I cannot imagine this being the case for these Chinese CEOs unless they are immigrant returnees, as they must have been educated and immersed in Chinese for the bulk of their lives. And I observe that the phrases they use are rarely "jargon." It'd be understandable, per Bathrobe's logic, for them to use English for jargon because that's what they're comfortable with. But I don't buy the idea that they have to think hard to say "celebrate", "wonder", "get involved", "enjoy", "market", "blood", "believe", "left out", etc. in Chinese, but have no trouble saying the rest of the Chinese words they did.

    To this end, my own personal take on this is that unless these CEO are actually immigrant returnees from English speaking countries, I'd be more keen to believe that they're doing this to be fashionable – because, indeed, they are immersed in an environment in which sprinkling English into your speech is professionally impressive – rather than because they've lost the ability to fluently convey their thoughts in only Chinese.

  26. Eidolon said,

    November 9, 2015 @ 1:46 pm

    Sorry for the double post, but another thought occurred to me as I hit submit.

    Another explanation for the phenomenon is that these CEOs are not native speakers of Mandarin, and thus Mandarin to them is similar to English in that *both* are second-hand languages incompletely acquired through the course of professional life/education. The stereotype of such a character study would be, say, a Cantonese speaker born in Hong Kong, who subsequently acquired English as a L2 language, and then Mandarin as a L3 language. For the younger generation of business people, Shanghai would do just as well.

    Timing is rather important here. The PRC did not "open up" to the West until the late 70s and early 80s. English language education and exposure in the country was weak until then, and the CEOs of Chinese companies tend to be in their 40s and 50s, making them already in their teens when the country began to make a heavy investment into globalization. I'd be surprised for such people to have been educated and immersed in English to such a degree as to have to code-switch to speak Chinese.

  27. David Marjanović said,

    November 9, 2015 @ 7:17 pm

    This literature distinguishes several different kinds of English-origin mix-ins, some of which are clearly full borrowings (with integration into Cantonese pronunciation norms) while others represent the use of bits of English mixed into Cantonese morphosyntactic framework.

    I'm not sure how good this criterion is. In German, the oldest English borrowings (late 19th century) are integrated in phonology and even spelling (Streik, Schal); the next layer (early and mid-20th century) is integrated phonologically but not orthographically (Training with -[ʀeː]-); the current influx is not integrated phonologically – people under 40 or 45* have /ɹ/ and /θ/ as loanword phonemes.

    * Or 25 in East Germany.

    In "…but it was so ubiquitous I soon stopped even trying," isn't "so ubiquitous" as silly as "so unique" and "so perfect"?

    It's the same phenomenon. I wouldn't call it "silly", though; it expresses "ubiquitous and so common and conspicuous" in just two words…

    An [sic] isn't the "even" misplaced?

    No, why? "I not only stopped doing it; I stopped even so much as trying it."

    I wonder if truly bilingual people handle both languages in the native language section of the brain.

    People with two native languages have two native-language sections in their brain.

  28. michaelyus said,

    November 10, 2015 @ 12:38 pm

    As a second-generation immigrant of (Mandarin-speaking) Chinese descent growing up and having been educated in an Anglophone country, all of the above sentences sound "natural" to me, and certainly do not require any less neurological processing (and certainly less than all-Chinese for me). The comparison with Hong Kong or Singapore is very apt: the linguistic environment of the corporate business world lends itself well to abundant blooms of English within the Chinese. I myself have heard and used "wonder", "get involved" and "passion" in almost those exact contexts, and they are so assimilated that they probably have standard Mandarin tones in my idiolect (1-3 for wāndě, 1-3-1 for gēt /ɛ/ ǐnvōu(v)d and 4-3 for pǣxiěn [that's e for IPA /ə/, not /ɛ/]). In my experience, it is common enough for people to come across certain concepts in a different language that the translation for it in their own "native" language becomes less used and less natural for them.

    From this conversation, it certainly feels like an abundance of loanwords rather than code-switching: there is no indication of English being the matrix language in any of the sentences, nor of the "starting in one language and ending in another" that can be seen in the code-switching common amongst immigrant children.

    One interesting syntactic feature: a preference for the English verbs to be conjugated according to standard English rules (especially Chinese 被 bèi [a kind of passive voice verb] + English past participle). Characteristic of my Chinglish as well…

  29. Bathrobe said,

    November 10, 2015 @ 6:39 pm

    Interesting comments from Eidolon and michaelyus.

    While michaelyus feels that this is borrowing rather than code-switching, my own feeling is that it's hard to draw a very clear line. An example from my own experience:

    A Chinese company I worked for had an office in Australia which employed a Beijing native who had emigrated there two decades ago. Whenever she came to head office to discuss business, this lady larded her Chinese with significant amounts of English, but since I'd also met her in Australia, I know that she was actually suppressing an inclination to use even more! Given that there were only two people in the Australian office, I don't think that her use of English reflected some kind of cultural code-switching in an Australian context, nor did it represent established loans. Her use of English in a Chinese context seemed to reflect the fact that English was the language she used for business in Australia, and that she found it difficult to switch to using pure Chinese.

    I should add that her use of large amounts of English vocabulary is just a matter of degree. In the trading business, even Chinese operating in a Chinese environment use 'bids' and 'offers' in preference to the Chinese equivalents. Although the degree seems to depend on the person, English terminology seems to have infiltrated the language of business in China more than other fields.

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