'Fake' use of language or why I hate having to switch language

21 Sept 2012

This post was influenced by Jan (@jexner). A few days back he tweeted:
Once I have settled on a language I use with another multilingual, it is uncomfortable for me to switch to another one. Feels fake.

and I thought: 'thank God, it's not just me then!'

Once I have established a relationship with someone, I find it extremely difficult to switch to another language. As I mentioned before, switching languages with bilingual colleagues is awkward but feasible as both languages tend to be used for different purposes. I used to work in a bilingual environment. Where I taught French, a lot of the staff spoke English and French. With some of those people, we spoke mostly one language and if we had to switch for whatever reason I always felt somewhat uneasy.

But the true test was in my family. Before LJ was born, hubby and I toyed with the idea of speaking French together as we figured LJ would become dominant in English quickly if we had stayed in the UK. We tried! Well, he tried! He would come home and ask me what I wanted for dinner in French, told me about what was on TV in French (even though it felt weird: talking about English TV in French). I just couldn't do it. I would answer single word sentences and nod. When we wanted to speak about less trivial issues, we always ended up switching. And more often than not, it was me who switched back to English.

Why? Well, I am not completely sure. There may be different reasons. We had established a relationship (over 10 years) in English and using French felt to me like we had to start again from scratch. Also, even though his French is/was good, I felt like I would be misunderstood at times. I felt it was giving me an unfair advantage in a way. Whereas in English, we were both non-native speakers, in French we were unequal.

I know some people do it and very successfully. I admire them! I wasn't able to do it and in a way I am glad we didn't as LJ is very dominant in French now that we are in Germany. Had we spoken French, she would hear no English.


  1. I totally agree with you. I feel uncomfortable if I have to change language with someone I'm used to talk in another language. But I notice that I'm fine if the reason for this change is the presence of a person who doesn't understand the first language. Like in meetings or discussions among friends, it's natural to me to switch to the language that the majority understands and speaks. - I had a friend I was used to talk italian with. At a certain point we switched to swissgerman (she was nearly native in), in order to make our friends feel comfortable. Every time I looked at her, I switched back to italian and she did the same. So we both agreed to not look at eachother in order to be consistent in swissgerman. It was a bit weird, but after a few times we had to do so, we got used to it and now we're fine.

  2. What an interesting way to do it... Thanks for sharing.

  3. I'm just the same! Once I establish which language to use with somebody, I stick to this, but I have no problems switching when other people are around- I am pretty used to have conversations with different people in different languages. But with one person, I prefer to stick to one language.

  4. This is so interesting! I find this happening a lot with Spanish-speaking friends that I meet in the US. For me the problem is not only that English comes to me more naturally (as a native speaker), but also that I'm never quite sure which language they would prefer to be speaking. Sometimes they enjoy getting to speak Spanish, but sometimes people like to practice their English or, after many years living in the US, actually feel more comfortable speaking English, since they do this on a daily basis. Sometimes I feel like I would be insulting them by switching to Spanish, as if implying that their English wasn't good enough.


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