Code-mixing or code-switching is completely normal and occurs in virtually all children who learn two languages simultaneously. Although it is common, it can also be a cause of concern for some parents. Code-mixing is basically just using two different languages in one sentence or during a conversation.
There are many different types of code-mixing. Here are some of the types:
Intra-utterance mixing: “Mama, quiero leche con cookies and banana”
Inter-utterance mixing “Mama, quiero leche. Oh, and cookies too!”
Mixing words: “Mama, quiero leche, please”
Mixing phrases: “Mama I want some leche con galletas y banana”
Mixing clauses: “Mama, quiero leche but I don’t want a banana”
Mixing pragmatic patterns: “Mama, quiero leche; leche; milk!”
This table shows that code-mixing can involve small pieces of language, such as sounds. Alternatively, it can involve words or large pieces of language, such as phrases. There is also a lot of variety in how much children will code-mix. Some may code-mix frequently while others may only do it sometimes. They may code-mix differently and at different rates with different people. It is common to see children using 1-2-word sentences to code-mix across sentences. As their language grows and their sentences get more complex you may seem them code-mix within sentences.
But even adults code-mix! Some of you may have heard of the term ‘Spanglish’, which is basically just mixing English and Spanish together. This happens with bilinguals in other languages as well. Typically, adults will code- mix in casual conversations more so than during more public or formal settings perhaps because code-mixing may be viewed as more casual language.
So why do children code-mix? There are actually two theories: Unitary Language System Hypothesis and Gap-filling Hypothesis. Unitary Language System Hypothesis says that children code-mix because their languages are not differentiated in the early stages of speech development. On the other hand, Gap-Filling Hypothesis says that the child uses another word from the other language because they don’t know the appropriate word. It is normal for certain vocabulary to be stronger in one language than the other. There are also other possibilities such as pragmatic explanations when the child is trying to emphasize what they are trying to say or when expressing certain emotions. Social norms can also be another factor. Communities can have different social norms when it comes to when and where code-mixing should occur.
Although it is hard to know the exact reason why children code-mix, all the research says that code-mixing is not evidence of language impairment and should not be considered as such. Also, if your child code-mixes there is no reason to deter them from doing so! Code-mixing is actually a great resource for any bilingual. It gives someone who is bilingual more ways to talk about their ideas that may not be able to be expressed in one or the other language. Code-mixing can also be a big part of someone’s cultural identity. Overall, code-mixing is normal in bilingual children and should not be discouraged.
Marissa Doletzky MS, CCC-SLP