Multilingualism: Multilingualism in Everyday Life Mixing and Switching between Languages

Mixing and Switching between Languages
Mixing and Switching between Languages | Illustration: Melih Bilgil

In big cities, and indeed in language border regions, it is particularly common for people to use more than one language in a single statement in their everyday lives. What significance does this have in specific cases? And is such multilingual practice really as “chaotic” as people often assume? Or is not linguistic mixing in fact a quite “normal” phenomenon?


Multilingualism is expressed in a very wide variety of ways in everyday life: sometimes speakers switch back and forth between their languages, sometimes they mix them. The use of the official national language or of a lingua franca such as English plays a particularly important role. For most speakers, these are foreign languages they have mastered to a greater or lesser extent, often interspersed with elements from other languages: essentially, in other words, they are “hybrid contact varieties”.

Whether a speaker in everyday life will or can use more than one language will depend on the linguistic skills of those taking part in the conversation (on their “language profiles”) (Mondada 2001, Pekarek Doehler 2005), as well as on social norms. In situations in which it is appropriate to use only one language, multilingual speakers must temporarily ignore all their other resources. The choice of language amongst multilinguals is more flexible, speakers being able to switch from one language to another.

In all of these cases the key is to make the most of the available possibilities, to be creative and to play, as it were, with one’s linguistic skills. This also involves taking certain risks (Lüdi, Py 1986: 63–68): especially when multilingual conversation partners do not use forms prefabricated in their memories but depart from traditional paths to explore innovative new forms of expression and use “mixed languages”.

In extreme situations, this can result in dialogues such as this exchange between a Swiss booking clerk and a Brazilian customer at a railway ticket office:

Customer         =<duos passagem para Freiburg deutsch>.
Clerk               Freiburg Deutschland jä okey. ((lange Pause))
voilà, si vous faire la carte à la machine? oui. (3) va bene.
Clerk               voilà. il prossimo treno (.) binario cinco hm? dodici diciotto.
Customer         merci. obrigado.
Clerk               bitteschön. service
Customer         obrigado (h)
Clerk   molto grazio. ((sic))


The prescriptive standardized use of language stipulated in grammar books and taught in schools is the opposite of such language mixing. In many cases, it is used to “separate the wheat from the chaff”, that is to say to distinguish “simple” working-class people, including immigrants, from a country’s elite classes. The concept of “language cultivation”, based on the idea of there being a “correct” and “proper” use of language, dates all the way back to the seventeenth century in Germany (cf. Admonition to the Germans. Of German Language Cultivation by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz). Even if the idea of “language cultivation” has a somewhat mythical character, it is used by educated speakers not least to prove that they belong as a matter of course to the culturally dominant stratum. Members of other strata use it to express their desire to advance socially.

The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, when referring to societies in which people use language to vie for recognition and participation, talks of a “linguistic market” in which the most highly prized language variety functions as the “legitimate language” (Bourdieu, 1982): the one tacitly acknowledged as the best and most valuable by all members of a language community. This applies even – and indeed especially – to those who have mastered their own either incompletely or not at all. Within a space characterized by dialects, sociolects, registers and mixed languages, the “legitimate language” is thus regarded not as one variety among others but as the language per se.

Within the framework of such models, the language used by members of lower social strata is seen as deficient (Bernstein 1971). Although this simplified perception was not even upheld for long by Bernstein himself, it has persistently remained part of the general public’s view. This results in unrealistically high benchmarks being applied to both languages spoken by multilingual immigrants and their children; accordingly, little value is attached to their individual multilingualism in everyday life even today.


Nonetheless, recent research has shown that the use of multilingual resources is very common, not only statistically speaking, and that it is not nearly as “chaotic” as critics who subscribe to the norms often complain. Instead, it follows “multilingual norms” (Jessner, 2008). When a Spanish immigrant in French-speaking Switzerland says to his companion “Vamos a la gare”, thus combining a Spanish verb with a French noun (the article being identical in both languages), he does so not primarily because he cannot think of the Spanish equivalent (“estación”) but because “gare” and “estación” relate to two entirely different spheres of experience: the former to the place where immigrants meet in Neuchâtel, the latter to the point of departure or arrival back home in Spain. And when a Swiss German apprentice describes his workplace by saying: “il y a de grands mast de stahl”, he is following the grammar conventions of what is known as code switching when he uses German lexical material to form words in the French manner to compensate for gaps in his vocabulary.

These forms of “multilingual speech” correspond to patterns which, though established, are never entirely stable and are constantly being renegotiated between multilingual speakers. This is known as “plurilanguaging” (García 2008, Pennycook 2010). Contrary to popular belief, this phenomenon can also be observed in situations where non-native speakers use a lingua franca among themselves. This is the case for example when German and Italian scientists speak English to one another, or when immigrants from different countries use German – their second language – at the workplace. A lingua franca is thus nothing but a more or less hybrid contact variety which enables successful communication but should not be mistaken for the “Queen’s English” or standard German spoken by native speakers. In a wider sense, researching these varieties falls within the remit of multilingualism research (Hülmbauer, Seidlhofer 2013; Siemund 2013).

Considerable research has already been conducted into the acquisition of multilingualism, the everyday speech practices of multilingual people and the peculiarities arising from verbal contact. By contrast, little as yet is known about the relationships between multilingualism, language education and educational success. This is likely to change soon: a research cluster on “Language Education and Multilingualism” funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) began its work in 2014 and promises to yield some interesting results.  

In principle, these observations on multilingualism in everyday life have many implications for the classroom. It is especially important to accept forms of language mixing for what they are: an entirely normal means of successful communication between multilinguals. Anyone who accepts that any lingua franca constitutes a form of language mix will thus also accept that lessons in German as a second language do not result in “perfect” bilingualism and that the German spoken by immigrants will always contain traces of other languages.


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