Bilingual Conversations

When I first moved to Montréal almost four years ago one of the things I noticed right away at work was how people whould speak french and english in the same conversation, even the same phrase. An english speaker would ask a question in english to a french speaker who would answer in french, sometimes they would then both switch to the same, a natural way of doing things.

Since then I’ve made friends with whom I always speak english, some of them are perfectly bilingual so we could just as well speak french. With other friends it’s the opposite, they also speak both languages but for some reason we always speak french and it even feels weird, “unnatural” to speak english with them. I dont know how that happens, might have to do with what we first started speaking when we first met.

At a YULBlog meeting a couple of months ago there was a french (as in France) guy who lives in New York and is completely fluent in both languages but he was impressed in Montréal to see people speaking in the way I was mentioning before, he said that he finds it difficult to switch, to him they are two different ways of talking and he needs to concentrate to go from one to the next. Coming to one of our meetings was definitly a good example for him, it’s a constant switch between the two, perfect french, perfect english, anglo accented french, franco accented english, un mot en français, quatre mots en anglais, 3 autres en français, etc.

Parties are also a good example, as groups change, as people come in and out, sometimes even as they drink more, the language spoken by each group changes back and forth, except for technical talk which seems to be english more often than not I’ve never payed attention to which kind of subject lends itself to one over the other, maybe I’ll start paying attention to that.

Sometimes I’ll talk french all day and then find myself thinking in english while other times (for example when travelling) I’ll be speaking english all day and think in french. Dont know why. Again, doesnt seem to be any specific pattern.

All of this to say that I’ll be spending some time reading through the load of comments already written on another popular kottke post where he asks a few interesting questions about the subject of “code switching”, might be fun to see the various theories and stories about how/why it happens.

3 Comments

steph September 15, 2003

I don’t think there has to be a necessary reason why; it’s just that your mind has created a system whereby it uses whichever language is more efficient for the moment or to express the idea.

It’s like how I never swear in Chinese; if I have to swear in non-English, I’d probably end up somewhere either in Malay or Hokkien.

In ’15’, a movie I saw at the Film Fest recently, the boys were using both a Malay word and a Mandarin phrase within the same conversation (maybe something like 30 seconds apart), to denote ‘skipping school’ – this happens in real life :) It’s the case of which ever word comes to mind first – it’s our society which defines the ‘barrier’ for languages, not our brains. ;)

Martine September 15, 2003

When I lived in California and hung out with other québécois, it was interesting to see when we would switch to English or French, depending on what we were talking about. I think different experiences were described in different languages. Anything having to do with families, for example, was most likely discussed in French, because we all grew up in Québec. Work was often talked about in English. It’s a fascinating process, once that deserves to be studied in more depth.

Nika September 25, 2003

I love it. Not only are we bilingual but we can speak Franglais…or Frenglish…
It’s a phenomena that is quite particular to our province. Something I noticed when I first moved here when I was 11, but also something I felt quite at home with since I grew up speaking French at home in the US.
I work in a French agency where we produce mostly French ads, I work closely with French copywriters that have practically taken oaths to protect the French language, yet when I feel that I’m not expressing myself accurately in French I can flip to English without anyone missing a beat!
Oddly enough, when I’m wheelin’ and dealin’ with folks from TO, I often catch myself giving them ad lingo in French which, I soon realize, does not compute in their uni-lingual heads.

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