Last week I listened carefully to my three-year-old daughter while she was playing with her dolls:
“Come on, amiguinhos! We are going to the playground”, said Motorista.
“Não, não! Eu não quero ir pro playground. Eu quero ficar em casa“, said João do Avião.
And so she played for a long time. Bilingual dolls mixing their languages: I loved it! My husband asked me why our daughter was playing like this. Why did Motorista not answer his question in one language? And why did João do Avião use an English word in his otherwise Portuguese reply? Doesn’t our daughter know the word “playground” in Portuguese?
Yes, she does and in her conversations with me, she uses it as well. But let’s be honest: where we live, we do not go that often to the “parquinho.” And this also applies to the dolls, Motorista and João do Avião, that our daughter knows mainly from TV, despite their made up Portuguese names.
As in our previous blog I can now explain that in this situation there is no language confusion. Code switching, or the use of more than one language within a single discourse, is a well-known phenomenon in the field of linguistics. Many researches have shown that code switching is not related to lack of competence in one of the languages. Instead, code switching has many functions and is often a sign of sociolinguistic competence (see the very accessible blog Why do children Code-switch if you want to read more about this topic.)
Bilingual children can distinguish between their languages and even from a very young age they are able to flawlessly adjust their language to that of their conversation partner. Research by Elizabeth Lanza (professor of linguistics at the University of Oslo), for instance, showed, that Norwegian children as young as 2 years old are already able to do so. My daughter is no exception to this. In her conversations at her daycare, for example, you will rarely hear Portuguese words in her speech.
But why were the dolls mixing their languages then?
Several studies show that bilinguals mix their languages more often if their conversation partners also mix. We, as speakers, adapt ourselves to our interlocutors. This is called accommodation: if someone uses two languages in a conversation and we are competent in these languages, we are likely to use both languages as well. Accommodation is not only related to code-switching: if someone speaks fast, we also (unconsciously) start talking faster. This is, in fact, beneficial for communication.
There are also psycholinguistic reasons for one’s accommodation to code-switching. I will however not go into these reasons at the moment. I will refer to this topic on a next occasion. For now I want to make clear (once again!) that mixing two languages is not a sign of linguistic confusion.
Motorista and João do Avião, dear readers, are language mixers: on TV they speak one language; when mamma plays their voices, they speak Portuguese. By mixing her languages when playing with them my daughter was simply accommodating to their language mixing. As far as I am concerned, Motorista, João do Avião and all her other amiguinhos may continue to mix their languages. I listen and enjoy.