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I'm sitting in the San Francisco International Airport waiting for my flight to Taipei.  The guy next to me is happily chattering away on his cell phone to someone (or some people) at the other end of the "line".  What is curious is that one moment he is speaking in Taiwanese, the next moment in Japanese, then English, and then Mandarin.

I don't know whether it is proper to call this "code switching", because he is speaking each of these languages in whole sentences or even blocks of sentences.

He does not speak the languages with equal fluency, but they all sound natural and do not require great effort on his part to produce.  The man's first language seems to be Taiwanese, then comes Japanese (with a Chinese accent), English (with a multilingual accent), and Taiwan-style Mandarin.

What intrigues me most of all is trying to imagine who is on the other end of this unusual conversation.  I don't want to eavesdrop, and anyway it's just chitchat and the man is about five feet away, so I'm only unintentionally picking up a few details here and there in the conversation.

My best guess is that he's saying goodbye to members of his extended family who are passing the phone around or to people in his office.  It would really be something if he were talking to one person at the other end who could sustain such a conversation.


  1. John Thayer Jensen said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 2:41 pm

    Sitting on the train the other afternoon going home, the lady next to me talked – a single conversation – for over half an hour, now in Punjabi (I think it was), now in English, now in Italian. Same conversation – whole sentences in English and Italian. I don't understand Punjabi (if that's what she was speaking), but her utterances in that language were the longest ones. One conversation, though, yes, there might have been different people at the other end. She was sometimes silent for longish periods – a minute or more.


  2. John Thayer Jensen said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 2:42 pm

    PS – by her appearance, I took her as not fully Punjabi herself – possibly one parent Punjabi and the other Italian – which could explain it.


  3. Sanna said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 2:54 pm

    My friend B had a friend ('F') in high school. F had been born in Greece and lived there until 8 or 9. Her family had moved to Quebec, which had necessitated learning French and English, and either for reasons of exactly where they lived or maybe personal preference, F was better at French. The family moved again when F was about to enter 10th grade to Florida, where her English needed to improve quickly and also she started trying to pick up Spanish. What's one more, at that point?

    F's favorite joke, for when she understood something clearly, was, "Hey, it's like Greek to me!"

  4. Gene Anderson said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 2:59 pm

    As one who is incapable of being very good even at English, let alone anything else, it is always an experience to watch somebody like Lothar von Falkenhausen switch from perfectly polished English to French to German to Japanese to Chinese at a meeting without missing a beat. But the amazing linguists are the people from southern India–they grow up having to know English, Hindi and their usual language, and they generally wind up knowing all the Dravidian languages (which are close), and with that background they can learn anything. We had a Telugu-speaking temp for a while–she started chattering away in Bangali with a colleague from Bengal–I asked her if that was her fifth language or what, and she said "My tenth."

  5. DWalker said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 3:12 pm

    I know a married couple who are from India and Vietnam, living in the US. Their daughter speaks Vietnamese and English very well — at least she speaks English very well, and I believe she speaks Vietnamese very well. I can't personally tell.

    Sadly, the parents didn't make it a point to teach her any languages from India as she was growing up.

    Another couple I know are Dutch and something else non-American, and their kids are all trilingual counting English. I am impressed by that.

    Being fluent in five or six languages must be rare, but it's something to admire when it shows up in the wild!

  6. Theophylact said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 3:44 pm

    I had a friend at UC Berkeley who was Swiss, of Yugoslav parents. He spoke French, German and Italian with equal fluency, spoke Serbo-Croatian with his parents, and spoke flawless English with a slight but unidentifiable (to me) accent. After Berkeley, he spent a few years in Brazil and came back with yet another language under his belt. As a practical monoglot — I can read French pretty well, can pick my way through the printed versions of Italian, Spanish, and German, but I can't speak any of them or understand the oral versions unless they're spoken with agonizing slowness — I found this facility amazing. But I never had the opportunity to observe him code-switching.

  7. Dick Margulis said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 4:16 pm

    My Ockham's Razor–mediated guess is that what both Victor and John heard were conference calls.

  8. D.O. said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 5:25 pm

    I once was in a conversation. No, that's wrong. I was once talked to by a man who by all appearances was an American Orthodox Jew. His whole speech consisted of double-sentences. Yiddish followed by English translation (this is my best guess, I don't understand Yiddish).

  9. Jon Forrest said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 6:17 pm

    I had a dorm-mate at UC Santa Barbara who was born in Japan to Japanese parents. He grew up in South America because his father was sent by a Japanese company to run their company in South America. My friend went to American schools. So he spoke perfect Japanese, English, and Spanish.

    This would be only mildly interesting if it weren't for the fact that there was a sea urchin factory in Santa Barbara that was having labor problems. The company was Japanese-owned, run by Americans, and used mainly Latino workers. You can probably see where this is going. My friend somehow got involved in the labor dispute as one of the few people who could communicate with all interested parties, without interpreters.

  10. Lektu said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 6:43 pm

    Once, I was in a train and sitting next to me were two young women (either late adolescence or early twenties, perhaps) code-switching between Spanish, French, Catalan, English and, I think, Arab. They would start a sentence in a language, switch to another, then add a remark in yet another, back and forth, speaking really fast and, apparently, without any conscious effort. I was mesmerized.

  11. Michael C Dunn said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 8:12 pm

    I once knew a maitre d' in Cairo in the days when the Russians were still around. he was Armenian and grew up knowing Armenian, Russian, Arabic, and maybe Turkish, and had acquired excellent English and at least conversational French and German. That may not have been all. Also a couple I know: the husband grew up speaking English but knew Brazilian Portuguese, learned Persian in the Peace Corps and Arabic studying abroad, then married a Puerto Rican who was studying Italian literature. I've been at gatherings where there was extensive code-switching.

  12. David P said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 8:35 pm

    I had an experience similar to Lektu's, riding in a several hour trip in a van in Morocco. The woman across the aisle from me (French) and the woman in the seat in of me (Italian) kept up a conversation between themselves for the whole trip, jumping between Italian, French, Spanish, and for all I know, Catalan (both were living in Barcelona at the time, although they hadn't known each other before the trip). The jumps were quite often in mid-sentence. I had the impression the switches came whenever the speaker hit a snag. Both were also fluent in English, but didn't use it in this conversation. The casualness and the frequency of the switching really was mesmerizing.

  13. IronMike said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 9:30 pm

    I see trilinguals every day here in Kyrgyzstan, effortlessly switching between Kyrgyz, English and Russian. Some of them also know Kazakh. Sigh…

  14. Ken Miner said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 10:00 pm

    Being fluent in five or six languages must be rare

    Not in Amazonia. For the latest cf. "Multilingualism in the Northwest Amazon, Revisited", by Kristine Stenzel. "… a linguistic dynamic in which the forces of convergence and divergence are constantly at work creating significant, though oftentimes subtle, differences among languages in the same family on the one hand, and interesting case studies of dissemination of features among languages from different families and indeed different typological profiles on the other." http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&ved=0ahUKEwj4r8Gd3J7MAhXokIMKHTyTDSEQFggcMAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.ailla.utexas.org%2Fsite%2Fcilla2%2FStenzel_CILLA2_vaupes.pdf&usg=AFQjCNED5fJ0axlgau6WxpuQPDO_TnOl0A&bvm=bv.119745492,d.amc

  15. Miles Archer said,

    April 20, 2016 @ 10:32 pm

    I worked with a guy who from the Netherlands at an American company. He spoke perfect American English with only the faintest trace of an accent. He lived in Barcelona and thus I assume he spoke Spanish though I never heard it myself. His wife is German and they spoke German in their home.

    I once met up with him at Schipol Airport to do some business nearby. He had to struggle for a minute to reset his brain to speak his native language!

    It's really sad that so many of us Americans are monolingual.

  16. kktkkr said,

    April 21, 2016 @ 1:26 am

    I like to think that all these people mentioned in the comments were on the same conference call.

  17. Hue said,

    April 21, 2016 @ 3:01 am

    Forgive my ignorance, but what is the difference between Taiwanese and Taiwan-style Mandarin? What are you referring to when using the word "Taiwanese"?

  18. RachelP said,

    April 21, 2016 @ 6:07 am

    Here in Luxembourg, the children speak Luxembourgish at home and/or kindergarten, then start speaking German at school, then French a bit later. If they are one of the good number who speak a different language at home (over 50% in the capital) that makes 4. And only then do they start on foreign languages!

  19. David Marjanović said,

    April 21, 2016 @ 6:12 am

    Being fluent in five or six languages must be rare

    In the West (very generously defined) and in China, yes; but in addition to the abovementioned Rio Vaupés area (endangered) and apparently southern India, it's also common in much of the Caucasus, northern Cameroon, northern Australia (severely endangered) and probably a bunch of other places.

  20. Bean said,

    April 21, 2016 @ 6:32 am

    There's a band I listened to that had songs in both French and Italian (in the same song). Because I understood both, I could never consciously tell what language they were singing any given line. The narrative of the whole song hung together and I didn't notice the language change; I had to stop and think about it, or say the lyrics back aloud. It's like it resided in this middle place in my mind, neither the "French" section nor the "Italian" section. Of course, another difference between songs and speech is that you listen to identical lyrics each time you hear a song.

    Also I recall meeting a German woman in Italy last year, initially speaking with her in Italian, then upon realizing we both knew English, switching back and forth between the two. Definitely the switch occurred when we would get stuck with some concept. I recall a similar situation with a French waiter who also spoke Italian. Now that it's been pointed out, it's interesting, even from "inside" the conversation, how naturally the switching arises.

  21. Joseph F Foster said,

    April 21, 2016 @ 7:26 am

    In the Summer of 1964 Middlebury College had four language schools, German, French, Spanish, and Russian. There were then no beginners' programs — the schools admitted mostly postgraduate students with a few undergraduates, of which I was lucky to have been one. A student was under oath to speak only the language of their school. But in volley ball games on the green, and in card games and chitchat in the student lounge, it was not common to hear a card game going on in two languages, fairly common to hear one in three, and two or three times I heard one going on in four–none of them of course English! Many of the students in the respective schools had had enough of some if not all the other three languages to at least sort of follow a conversation in it. So, to not violate the oath, each student was speaking only the language of their respective schools.

  22. V said,

    April 21, 2016 @ 8:18 am

    My great-grandfather, born and went to school in the Ottoman Empire, who was a merchant, spoke Bulgarian, Turkish, French, Greek, English, Romanian and Serbian.

  23. Terry Hunt said,

    April 21, 2016 @ 8:57 am

    One prominent European multi-linguist is the Formula 1 driver Nico Rosberg. With dual nationality of Finnish (Father) and German (mother) and raised in Monaco in which 4 languages are spoken (* below), he fluently speaks German, French*, Italian*, Spanish and English (all to my certain knowledge), likely Finnish, and possibly Monégasque* and Occitan*. With such a grounding, he may well have some command of further languages: it would be interesting to find out his full range.

  24. Coby Lubliner said,

    April 21, 2016 @ 9:18 am

    Some forty or fifty years ago I stopped in a village in the Aosta Valley, Italy, that was populated by Walser. As far as I could tell, everybody there spoke Walser German, the Valdôtain patois and Piedmontese as well as standard German, French and Italian. By now they (except the old folks) probably speak nothing but Italian and English.

  25. Coby Lubliner said,

    April 21, 2016 @ 9:21 am

    There is also the Aran Valley, Spain, where the natives all speak (or did when i was there in the 1990s) Aranese (a Gascon dialect), Catalan, Spanish and French.

  26. Curtis G. Booth said,

    April 21, 2016 @ 9:31 am

    I know a professor from El Salvador, fluent in English and his native El Salvadorean Spanish, who married a woman from southern New Mexico whose home language was also some form of Spanish. Unable to reconcile their Spanishes, they always speak English with each other, and their kids are innocent of any Spanish whatsoever, speaking only English.

  27. Victor Mair said,

    April 21, 2016 @ 10:24 am


    Taiwanese, also called Hokkien or Ho(k)lo and other names, is a Minnan topolect.



    Taiwan-style Mandarin is Mandarin as it is spoken on Taiwan.

    Taiwan-style Mandarin and Taiwanese are mutually unintelligible.

  28. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 21, 2016 @ 1:23 pm

    The particular four-language combination VM heard at his end of the line doesn't seem particularly unusual; my mother-in-law, for example, could handle exactly the same combination (L1 Taiwanese speaker, had her ROC formal education in Mandarin from an early age, and then learned both Japanese and English as more-foreign-than-Mandarin languages in the ROC schools at high school or college level). The oddity would be doing that much switching if you were talking to someone else – even if they had the same set of four, why would you switch around so much? (Code-switching conversations among my in-laws tend only to involve two languages per conversation, as best as I can tell, although not always the same two.) But the theory that different people were taking turns at the other end of the line accounts for that.

  29. BZ said,

    April 21, 2016 @ 1:36 pm

    I was interviewed at a large New York based company by someone who (like me) was fluent in both English and Russian. It was a very difficult interview, made even harder by the fact that he switched languages just about every other question. Now, I do code switching all the time, especially when speaking to my parents and brother, but this particular situation under pressure was somehow very unnerving.

    As an aside, when I got stuck on one of his problems, he kept telling me that I could go home or keep trying. I had to go home eventually when I realized I would miss the last Greyhound bus home (yes, it was that late by then, after 11 PM I think). Needless to say, I didn't get the job.

  30. Lugubert said,

    April 21, 2016 @ 1:47 pm

    At the Polyglot Gatherings in Berlin, badges are worn listing the participant's spoken languages. Ten or more isn't exceptions. It's of no use to overstate your proficiency, because you will be challenged. One guy doesn't enumerate but writes just "Try me". I think no guesses on what he managed are below 15.

  31. Matt Weber said,

    April 21, 2016 @ 2:44 pm

    J. W. Brewer's comment seconded. My wife's grandmother doesn't have English, but she's fluent in Taiwanese, Japanese, and Mandarin. She grew up on Taiwan when it was occupied by Japan and went to university in Japan; she had to learn Mandarin when the ROC took over.

  32. Quim said,

    April 21, 2016 @ 4:40 pm

    Living in a bilingual environment, I once had a professor who could lecture in one language while writing on the board in another. Last week I had to grade an exam (on math) written in two mixed languages. I had never seen that before. Switches occurred anywhere, even in the middle of a sentence. I guess the student had to stop to think and then resumed writing, unaware of the jump; sometimes there was a formula in between, but it's amazing that the sentence was still grammatically correct (if that makes sense).

  33. The Other Mark said,

    April 21, 2016 @ 6:31 pm

    Switches occurred anywhere, even in the middle of a sentence. I guess the student had to stop to think and then resumed writing

    My daughter grew up speaking French at school and English at home. She would forget words in one language (she was only little) and so would swap to the other.

    I can imagine students forgetting technical words easily, and so swapping languages would make sense.

  34. Ralph Hickok said,

    April 21, 2016 @ 8:32 pm

    Several times I've heard Asian people talking on cellphones in (I presume) their native tongues. But their conversation is frequently punctuated with "okay."

  35. julie lee said,

    April 22, 2016 @ 12:58 am

    If the major regional speeches, or topolects, of China are bona fide languages, and not dialects, as has been argued here in Language Log, then it is common for a Chinese person to speak four languages. My own mother, for example. At home in Central China, she spoke the language of the county (just like people in Monaco speak Monagasque). When she went to school in Nanking she learned Mandarin. Then she moved to Shanghai because of the Japanese invasion, and picked up and became fluent in Shanghainese. Then, because of the Japanese invasion again, she moved to Hong Kong, and picked up and became fluent in Cantonese. Then because of the Communists she moved to Taiwan and picked up some Taiwanese. Then she moved to America where her children went and learned to speak English. A lot of people made the same trek and became fluent in these four languages (Mandarin, Shanghainese, Cantonese, English) in addition to their native county language. As a child in Hong Kong, I heard four languages: my parents' county language (like Monagasque), Mandarin (like French), Cantonese (with the local servants), and English (in school).

  36. Lugubert said,

    April 22, 2016 @ 1:58 am

    Another anecdote: A friend of mine speaks seven languages. If they all were Indo-European, like my five, no big deal. But hers are from three widely different language families. I've heard her on the phone switching between Cantonese, English and Swedish, all the time speaking to the same relative,

  37. Doctor Science said,

    April 22, 2016 @ 8:21 am

    I'm fascinated by these reports of language-switching mid-conversation and even mid-sentence. Several of you have said that it involves speaking in LangA until you "hit a bump", and then switching to LangB. What kinds of things are bumps?

    It sounds as though you're speaking in LangA, you hit a moment when you need to think of a word for something, and if the first word the pops up is in LangB you put that in and keep on going in LangB. Is that what happens?

    The stories you're telling here are often about talking on the phone. Does this happen on the phone more than face-to-face, or is it just that the OP is about a phone call?

    My experience is that speaking in a different language (French or Spanish rather than English) goes along with a switch in body language and gestures, as well as words. Does this happen with mid-sentence and multilingual code switching, too?

  38. Victor Mair said,

    April 22, 2016 @ 9:17 am

    I think I mentioned before on Language Log once quite some time ago, perhaps in a comment, that one of the most common triggers for me to switch languages effortlessly is when I feel that it is more natural or appropriate to say something in a different language than the one I'm currently speaking. In this sense, I guess that you might say that each language has its own genius, and that it sometimes seems better, easier, or more exacting to say something in one language than another. To give but a single example, if I want to be circumlocuitous, to the extent that I am able to speak proper Japanese, I would choose to do it in that language rather than in English.

    On the other hand, it may just be a particular word that triggers the switch. For instance, I'm at a conference in Taipei where there are native speakers of Taiwanese, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, Russian, and English, and most of them know two or more of that suite of languages. So I feel fairly confident that if I'm speaking in Mandarin about lunch and if I say "bentō" followed by "wa hontōni oishī desu ne", many of the others around me will understand that I mean "this box-meal is really delicious, isn't it?" And whether they fully understand all of the vocables or not, it feels "right" for me to say it that way under those particular circumstances.

  39. Anthony said,

    April 22, 2016 @ 10:08 am

    Polylingualism or multiglottalism?

  40. Lela E. Buis said,

    April 22, 2016 @ 10:36 am

    Talking to the family might be one explanation. However, some people switch languages because ideas are easier to express in one or the other. If there are not words for what you want to say in Chinese, then maybe Japanese might work better. etc. This issue also results in mixtures of languages where some words are from one language and some are from another. A similar interesting situation is where one person is speaking in one language and the other is replying in another language. It all seems very cosmopolitan.

  41. julie lee said,

    April 22, 2016 @ 1:07 pm

    I don't know about switching body language and gestures with switching languages (within the same conversation), but I have seen a switching of personality with a switching of language (not within the same conversation). I have heard several Chinese friends, male and female, say they much prefer American friends to Chinese friends because Americans are simpler. Chinese people are so complicated. With American friends she/he can be more open and relaxed. I agreed. But as I think about it perhaps some Americans also feel the same way, that they prefer making Chinese friends to American friends because Chinese people are simpler, Americans more complicated. I've noticed some of my Chinese friends become much more open and warm when speaking English with American friends than speaking Chinese with Chinese friends. There is a personality switch with the language switch.

  42. Xmun said,

    April 22, 2016 @ 6:47 pm

    One variant form of polylingualism I've observed is a conversation between two people, one of whom spoke entirely in Mexican Spanish, the other entirely in American English (they were mother and daughter). They understood one other perfectly, and seemed to be well accustomed to the arrangement.

  43. Victor Mair said,

    April 22, 2016 @ 7:44 pm


    Excellent observation! I've often observed the same phenomenon among Chinese Americans, with the parents speaking Cantonese, Taiwanese, or Mandarin to their children, and the children replying in English.

  44. Bastian said,

    April 23, 2016 @ 3:09 am


    I've observed a singilar observation some years a go in a Cafetería in Santiago de Compostela: Two girls, by their age and the content of their talk most likely university students, were chatting, one of them speaking exclusively in Galician (the local language), the other using only Spanish.

  45. David Morris said,

    April 23, 2016 @ 6:48 am

    One day in my class in Australia, two students from Brazil and Colombia were having a conversation in Portuguese and Spanish, respectively.

  46. RO said,

    April 23, 2016 @ 8:04 pm

    Donald Trump's wife Melania is said to speak Slovenian, English, French, Serbo-Croatian, and Austrian German. However I could only find her speaking English in online videos.

  47. Chas Belov said,

    April 24, 2016 @ 12:57 am

    I remember about ten years back overhearing two people talking on the subway. At first, they were speaking Spanish with a Cantonese accent, or so it sounded to me. Then suddenly they started code-switching between Spanish, Cantonese, and English. I know un poco de español and siu siu Gwongdungwa so I only caught a word here or there, but it was making me dizzy.

    My mother once told me that her mother, who was an immigrant from the Ukraine, could speak ten languages. No information on fluency, however.

  48. Monty said,

    April 25, 2016 @ 6:11 am

    Excuse me if I've missed something, but isn't the correct term for this phenomenon polyglotism? In my experience there's a difference between being multilingual and being a polyglot: the latter term implies a sense of expertise/mastery not implicit in the former.

    Any insights are appreciated. Gracias:)

  49. BZ said,

    April 25, 2016 @ 8:21 am

    My mom who grew up in Ukraine (first in the west where Ukrainian was the primary language then in the east where it was the second language) and then moved to Russia (and then we all moved to the US) can understand Ukrainian perfectly well, but when she tries to speak it, often English comes out instead. She says English replaced Ukrainian as the default "foreign language" in her brain.

    Regarding "okay", I don't think of that as code switching even, at least in the context of Russian. It's widely known and reasonably often used. I can't think of a perfect analog in proper Russian.

  50. Chris Alderton said,

    April 25, 2016 @ 8:22 am

    I have a friend who, from her parents learnt Hakka, Hokkien, and Mandarin, who is a native speaker of English, and who has also learnt Spanish, French, and Italian. I am very jealous.

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