Between languages

If you can say at least a few words in several languages, you certainly have switched from one language to another in different situations.

I called a school today (in Germany) and asked to talk to one of the teachers. I was prepared to speak German. But because the secretary informed the teacher that I was calling about Cambridge exams, she probably assumed I only speak English so when she picked up the phone she said “Good morning”. I paused a second, then started speaking English. At one point of our conversation she found it difficult to say something in English, so I quickly switched back to German to assure her I could understand her. When we said goodbye it was the funniest. There were several goodbyes and tschüss-es.

So if I think back I believe I switched first to English so that we just carry on in line with my interlocutor’s assumption. I felt, I guess, that if I talked in German I would need to explain that I was actually based in Germany, that I wasn’t British etc, which would not be important to the issue which I was calling her for. Later I switched back to German out of a pure rescuer instinct, typical of the teacher in me.

But I have experienced lots of other situations when I, or other people around me, switched between languages for very different reasons:

  • to express something which they felt was best expressed in that language. Things like “assertive”, “challenge” etc have already been the subject of my posts in the past – how these words relate to concepts that are hard to put in other words in other languages. Slogans from business,  advertising or entertainment are also often quoted ironically – or not: “the best money can buy”, “I’m loving it”, “the show must go on”, “la vida loca” etc.
  • to simply show off – meaning something like god am I clever / a polyglot / well-read / elevated etc
  • to draw borderlines and indicate that you are worlds away from your interlocutor
  • to show solidarity by switching to a language that is easier for your interlocutor, or by expressing something in the familiar colours of the interlocutor
  • to show solidarity with others in the same profession for example – as it is among teachers of languages
  • to call up memories of shared experiences, which may have been connected with songs, people etc using that language or trips to such countries
  • to use a dedicated code for specific issues; for example, with my daughter I often mix words in English when I explain to her things about the environment, politics etc (because when we do English together we discuss such topics), but I mix words in German when we talk about her school, her friends or her plans for the holidays, for example – simply because these are areas that she discusses with her friends in German.

A few people have used words in English when talking to me just to be ironical. It was a way of saying “I’m spelling it out for you in the language you are supposed to master, so you understand very clearly what I’m telling you”.

Others have done it to try to score points in my eyes, with the underlying message that “this is what you can do best, so here’s the proof that I can also handle a bit of English, this way you’ll be able to appreciate I’m not a complete idiot”.

Over to you: have you switched between languages for these reasons – or for others? why have other people you know switched to a different language?