Code-switching is the switching of languages by multilinguals within a single conversation. “He is bragging! This is a statement, I frequently hear when expat children switch languages or use them interchangeably. Mixing languages is bragging, exaggerating, or a sign of poor language skills.

The opposite is true. Combining two languages in one sentence is so complicated that you can only do it if you are fluent in both. Mixing languages are strategies that require metalinguistic skills.

Mixing languages is called “code-switching” and/or “code-mixing. These are processes that occur in people, who speak more than one language or dialect.

In this article, I will explain the two English terms further. From theory and through examples from the lives of expats and their children. I also look at what possible motivations are now, consciously and subconsciously, to switch languages in a conversation.


Code-switching is the switching between two or more languages or language variants (dialects) within a conversation. Language switching can occur at the start of a new sentence, or ‘within’ a sentence. For example: ”It was crowded in the city. Tantos tapones (so much congestion)!”


Many people use the terms code-switching and code-mixing interchangeably. Some linguists make a distinction in which code-mixing refers to combining or crossing two languages and code-switching refers to switching between languages.

An example of code-mixing is getickled (English-Dutch), as a mother of a youngster raised in English and Dutch gave as an example. Or parkear (English-Spanish), as I myself have been using for three years. Code-mixing often happens subconsciously and is more common with young beginning multilingual children. Code-switching happens more consciously and more often with already “accomplished” multilinguals.

Motivation to mix languages

So what could be reasons to switch languages, or mix languages? The studies that have been done on this subject cannot show this with 100% certainty. Simply because it is very difficult to study a large group of multilinguals under exactly the same conditions.

Myers-Scotton (1993), in her study of social motivations for code-switching, takes the “negotiation principle” as the basis for all language choices. This involves choosing the form of one’s own contribution to the conversation in such a way that it can serve as an index to the “set of rights and obligations” that one wants to take effect between speakers.

In addition, Myers-Scotton (1988) argues that according to the code-switching can be seen on the one hand as a tool and on the other hand as an index:
“For the speaker, switching is a tool, a means of doing something. For the listener, switching is an index, a symbol of the speaker’s intentions. Switching, therefore, is both a meaning and a message” (p. 156).

It is going too far here to cover all kinds of theories and models. If you are interested in this, I can recommend Wouter de Greve’s thesis “Social motivations for and structural properties of code-switching” (2007-2008) for further reading on this topic. The thesis is written in Dutch. You will also find more sources there to consult.

Reasons for switching or mixing languages

What is suggested in the theory (and partly emerges from the studies that have been done) includes the following reasons:

  • adaptation to conversation partners; for example, if one of the conversation partners speaks only Dutch and the other speaks English and Dutch, someone switches to Dutch so that everyone can join in the conversation. If one person speaks Dutch and the other English and the speaker speaks both, the speaker will address each in his own language
  • instrument to achieve something in the conversation; for example to show expertise
  • social desirability; for example within a student group of an international study the unwritten rule is that English is spoken
  • inclusion or exclusion of certain groups
  • not being able to think of words or expressions that are needed in the language being spoken at that time
  • expressions that have grown through multilingualism and/or are literal translations from another language

More examples of older expat children

We were in the car with our 20-year-old daughter for over two hours the other day. She was with her American-raised, Dominican 19-year old friend. What struck us was that this friend told everything 95% in Spanish, 5% in English, and our daughter understood everything and answered in Spanglish and English.

Spanglish is a mixing language between English and Spanish, In Spanish, the language is often called Espanglish. This is an example of code-mixing such as drinquear – to drink instead of beber.

As background: Our daughter has been studying in the Netherlands for almost five months now after two years of international education in the Dominican Republic. She is pursuing an international course of study in the Netherlands. Her Spanish really became second nature to her just before she left and now that she has been back here for a few weeks, she speaks Dominican Spanish better than I do.

In our conversations, especially when her brother Stefan (age 16) is present, her language switches mostly between Dutch and English, since they are both English-speaking students. Our son only speaks Spanish if he really has to, but understands it well.

Stefan’s code-mixing consists of literal translations in Dutch from English. This doesn’t work grammar-wise. For example: ”Wacht voor mij !” (Wait for me) In Dutch it is: Wacht op mij (Wait on me)!

More information about code-switching and code-mixing

Nemo Kennislink wrote this article in Dutch on Switching languages is nothing to worry about.

Ute Liemacher-Riebold PhD, is an intercultural language and communication consultant. She has made a video about code-switching and code-mixing. The video is in English.

You can find several studies and scientific reports on code-switching. The one from Ghent was mentioned earlier, but also this one at the University of Leiden and the university in Utrecht.

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