How multilingual students find the right words.


Falah Rajput, Contributor

When New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden’s pregnancy made news in July last year, I was talking to a relative about how the former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was actually the world’s first elected head of government to give birth in office. While telling the story in Urdu, the language in which I usually talk to my family, I unconsciously switched to English to say the words “in office” to avoid the mental effort of searching for the right words to say in Urdu.

My relative was absolutely flabbergasted.

“No,” she cried, “Benazir gave birth in a hospital.”

She went so far as to name the exact hospital.

Constantly switching between two languages, which I learned simultaneously at a young age, means that I often find myself in such situations where I inadvertently imply a different meaning from what I had intended. English has been the primary language of my academic studies, but I speak Urdu with my family and friends, and even Arabic occasionally, depending on the circumstances. I find that my comfort level varies depending on the situation. I use English for academic and professional contexts, and Urdu for cracking jokes and narrating anecdotes.

At times, it feels as though I assume a different identity depending on which language I am speaking. When I step foot on campus, I turn on my ‘English’ mode. This practice is not uncommon. The phenomenon of associating a ‘mode’ with a particular language has been observed among many bilingual and multilingual speakers. Abdel Rahman Sadaqa, U3 Mechanical Engineering, has had a similar experience navigating the use of multiple languages.

“I think I am a different person depending on the language I’m using,” Sadaqa said. “I feel I am more compassionate and expressive when I speak Arabic and more professional in my English mode. This might be because I mostly speak Arabic to my friends and family, while I use English in academic and professional settings.”

Professor Debra Titone, who leads McGill’s Language and Multilingualism Laboratory, thinks that there could be multiple reasons why multilingual people might feel this split.

“Multilinguals might be more comfortable in expressing themselves in their first languages, like knowing when to crack a joke in a conversation. But when you are speaking in a second language, you might find it slightly more effortful, and hence will have limited attentional resources spare left to think about other aspects that might impact how you come across,” Titone said.

Titone also suggests that the feeling multilingual people experience might be associated with the fact that language itself serves as a proxy for culture.

“Languages might encode different things about social interactions that reflect cultural implications,” Titone said.

“For example, some languages such as Japanese, grammatically enshrine social hierarchy by the use of different pronouns for elders and children.”

Dr. Lydia White, James McGill Professor Emeritus in the Department of Linguistics, pointed to research on the difficulty of switching modes.

“Some research suggests that if you are in an environment where you mostly speak English and you receive a phone call from your mother and have to talk to her in your native language, say, Korean, you actually have to make quite an active adjustment between your [different language] modes,’” White said in an interview with The McGill Tribune. “The switch is more conscious when you are switching into a language in a context you do not normally associate that particular language with.”

Xin Yang, U1 Management, considers herself fluent in English, French, and Mandarin, but associates each language with different circumstances.

“For example, when I get home, I feel like my brain unconsciously clicks on the ‘Chinese’ switch and turns every other language off,” Yang said. “In contrast, as soon as I set foot on campus, I feel like I even forget how to say my name in Mandarin.”

White understands that context is critical to the ability for someone such as Yang to access any particular language.

“Context definitely affects how easy it is for you to access your other languages,” White said. “I speak both French and German, but I am very used to speaking French in Montreal. Anecdotally, when I go to German-speaking countries, my initial reaction is to speak French, and it takes some time to eventually shift to German.”

Sometimes, multilingual speakers can even switch between languages in the span of a single sentence or conversation, a phenomenon which is known in academic circles as ‘code switching.’

Code switching is the practice of alternating between two or more languages or varieties of language in conversation. Bilingual speakers may shift from one language to another entirely, or they mix languages partially within the same speech. Research has also shown that mixing two or more languages is not a random process, and there are in-depth academic descriptions of code-switching across different multilingual contexts.

If someone is speaking English in a group meeting, and then switches to French to explain a particular point to a speaker, they are code-switching.

“I code-switch all the time,” Yang said. “It is particularly noticeable when I speak with people who speak and understand both English and French like I do. I will find myself switching between the two languages, whether it’s for specific words, or sentences or even complete thoughts, without noticing.”

There has been plenty of research into what influences the choices we make about which language to speak on a particular topic. A number of studies have investigated the qualitative links between topics and the language choices multilinguals make. These studies have reached similar conclusions: Multilingual speakers use their native languages to discuss topics related to their ethnic identity and to reinforce intimacy and self-disclosure, whereas they use their environment’s majority language, like English in most of North America, for topics like sports, education, world politics, and science and technology.

While the linguist's definition of code-switching refers to the fluid nature with which multilingual people can switch between languages, it has since expanded to include how people from minority groups adjust all forms of communication and expression to navigate certain social situations or audiences.

Recently, the surge in popularity of the New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Jagmeet Singh in the 2019 federal election has been partly attributed to his ability to switch between multiple speaking styles, from formal English to the so-called ‘multicultural Toronto English,’ depending on the situation. During the federal election debate earlier this month, Singh made the surprising choice to disrupt the otherwise sophisticated mode of the debate and address his opponent, Maxime Bernier, in a colloquial and casual manner.

“You could have just said ‘Hey man, I messed up,” Singh said.

Such switches between dialects and languages demonstrate how we customize our choice of words based on the occasion. Since humour, like conversational register, tends to be both culturally and socially-specific, many multilingual speakers also feel more comfortable making jokes in the language they associate more with a casual ‘mode.’

Owais Khan Ghori, a second-year Doctor of Pharmacy student at the University of British Columbia (UBC), is fluent in both English and Urdu. He finds that his ability to express himself varies between different languages.

“Urdu comes off as more expressive,” he said. “There is [a] greater variety of idioms and sarcasm that I can use, which can be not fully translated into English. While talking with someone in English, I could slide in a comment in Urdu that sounds much funnier [than the equivalent of its English translation].”

Dr. Monique Bournot-Trites, an Associate Professor in the Department of Language and Literacy Education at UBC, believes that this is because language itself is a sociocultural tool.

“Expressions like idioms are cultural, because with one expression, you can understand exactly what the interlocutor means, which is much more than the literal meaning of the three or four words that form an idiom,” Bournot-Trites said. “Also, the usage of expressions like idioms is also a way to belong. If one can learn to comfortably use these expressions, second language speakers can also gain a sense of belonging with that language.”

Multilingual speakers have observed that such expressions often lose their meaning in translation. In popular media, the representation of multilingualism, as a result, is rich ground for miscommunication and confusion. For example, the 1970s British comedy series Mind Your Language follows a group of adult learners from around the world who have signed up for an English as Foreign Language class, and their creative interpretations of the nuances of the English language lead to hilarious situations.

In one instance, the English teacher Mr. Brown thinks that a £5 bribe should be enough to free a student, who has been mistakenly arrested.

“It’s an old English custom,” Brown explains to another of his students, Nadim. “I scratch your back and you scratch mine.”

However, Nadim understands the proverb literally, and thinks Mr. Brown is asking him to scratch his back. These kinds of misunderstandings are not just limited to proverbs, but further extend to other socio-cultural experiences like humour.

In my own experience, I occasionally catch myself cracking a joke with a friend in our shared language. Moments like these provide me with a sense of belonging and familiarity in the hectic and sometimes alienating campus environment.

Dahye Jung, B.Com ’19, finds that speaking Korean with someone gives her a feeling of belonging on a campus, where she normally speaks either English and French.

“When I meet someone with whom I can speak Korean, there is an unspoken bond and a certain level of trust that [forms],” Jung said. “Especially when you are the minority, it feels good to see someone who shares your culture.”

Jung finds that humour is a particularly special route to building a bond.

“When you can have ‘inside jokes’ in another language with someone else in class and no one else understands, it [is] fun,” Jung said. “[I like] to be able to have a little pocket of privacy with one other person through language.”

The Language and Multilingualism Laboratory has conducted research on the connections people make with language, when they looked at the emotional connotation of words when read in a first or second language.

“We learned that the emotional punch of a word is more profound when it is in one’s native language compared to when it is in a second language,” Titone said. “Say for example, a speaker might find cursing in his or her first language more shocking but the same shock is not experienced when cursing in a second language. This could be because speakers might not appreciate the linguistic nuances of profanity in the second language and this could lead to potentially grave social implications, say if a person curses in a social setting without realising the impact of their words.”

Language is more than simply grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. The languages we speak are connected with our identities—who we are now, who we were when we grew up, the places where we grew up, and how our experiences encode emotions.

For me, the nuances and particularities of language often come across in other scenarios when the situation reverses. In a job interview two years ago, the interviewer took a tangent from the standard behavioural questions that I had prepared for and asked me to tell a joke. It was in this moment I realised that the jokes I could naturally recall from memory—the ones which would have made my friends laugh—were all in Urdu and would lose both their meaning and proper context if translated into English. I ended up telling a personal story, and while the interviewer laughed, it was probably out of courtesy.

While it may lead to the occasional mishap, speaking different languages has given me an opportunity to transcend linguistic boundaries associated with humor and, more generally, language. And following my job interview, I committed to memory some standard jokes in English. One of these exhibits a play on English words that can often leave new learners confused.

“The past, present and future walk into a bar,” the joke goes. “It was tense.”