As is the case in many households, my wife and I are both fluent in two languages to the degree that we speak to each other without a conscious thought as to which language we are using. We often alternate multiple times between languages in a single sentence.

I had never paid much attention to it before, but I began to wonder how we choose the language to express a given word, phrase or sentence. My first hypothesis was that we might be subconsciously choosing the language with the least syllables in order to economize speech, but my observations did not bear this out. Does anyone have other ideas or an answer based on research?


There is not a fixed set of factors, but one could be the one you listed, the need for economizing, which by the way is always strong and present regardless of the language. Languages always tend to say more with less effort and waste of energies (or sounds).

Another factor, which I think is very prominent, is the lack (temporary or not) of competencies in the other language.

What do I mean by this? If you're speaking one language and you just don't have the necessary competencies to say something (high register, specialized terminology, etc), you'll switch to the other one. This would happen if you knew that the other person has the same abilities that you do.

Code-switching happens in a community or in a group of people that share at least two languages (usually code-switching supposes the presence of bilingualism, or at least fluency in two languages from both speakers; it's related to Linguistic interference), so you know subconsciously that the other person can speak the other language, otherwise you wouldn't switch. If you have the competencies but you feel a sudden loss of words, you'll switch, maybe just for that sentence/expression.

Yet another factor, perhaps not applicable in your case but still worth to mention, is identity. For example, you speak a dialect with your family only and the official language of your country with the rest. One of your relatives moves away and they start speaking the official language more and the dialect less for various reasons. If you talk to them then, some code-switching might occur, because you sometimes use the dialect (being family) and other times switch to the main language (because maybe they keep using that one); they might do code-switching too, of course.

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    Thanks for making me aware of the idea of code-switching. That was very helpful. – Fred Jan 29 '13 at 18:47
  • This is probably much the same effect as what I posted. – jlawler Jan 29 '13 at 18:54

There's also Burling's Law of Bilingual Discourse (named after Robbins Burling, who formulated it), which states that

When two bilinguals speak, the weaker speaker's weaker language is avoided.

This applies, of course, only to situations where one of the speakers, at least, is not a native speaker of both languages.

Burling arrived at this formulation while trying to learn Norwegian in Norway, where everyone famously speaks excellent English; he found it a very difficult enterprise.

I experienced the same effect in Malaysia, trying to have conversations in Malay; my biggest successes were with people who didn't know for sure that I spoke English (I usually offered a choice between Spanish or Malay).

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    This intuitively feels right. However, is "weaker speaker" well-defined? Is it the speaker with the weakest "average" language strength, is it the speaker with the weakest language (of all speaker-language pairs), or something else? – dainichi Jan 30 '13 at 1:29
  • No. Not as far as I know, anyway; I'm sure Burling would agree that it's a social scale, partly individual and partly realistic judgement by others. After all, if whenever you speak Norwegian, you get answers in English, you're not going to learn to understand spoken Norwegian very well. – jlawler Jan 30 '13 at 2:17

It was too long for the comment, so had to post it as an answer. As a native speaker of several languages, when I talk to someone who is also proficient in these languages I select:

  1. a word that is shorter in one language
  2. a word that expresses more
  3. a word that is easier to articulate
  4. a word that is used and heard more frequently in one language. For example, such words as midterms, finals, papers are generally used in English because I study in English medium university and I hear them more frequently, than in my mother tongue.
  5. a word that has association with past or something special, for example denoting the group from which I came.
  6. and for constructions generally those that express more.

These are my observations of myself and my friends. It is clear that some factors are stronger than others such as 4, but I think more research could be done on this topic.

  • I especially agree with #3. I have noticed that often the language chosen just seems to roll off the tongue more easily, almost as if the more poetic language is chosen. – Fred Jan 30 '13 at 3:17

@Alenanno's answer is great, but there is yet another factor: conspiracy.

Sorry for a controversial example; please consider it from linguistic point only.

Say, your Thai girlfriend is talking with her friend, and they are discussing you. There's a big dialect of Thai, called Isaan, by the name of a large province. If they both are fluent with Isaan, they will almost certainly switch to Isaan. This is regardless if they speak something bad about you. This is rather a question of comfort, and Thai people feel much better if they are sure nobody else understands them.

See also Argot, for example.

As per suitability, this example is very relevant:

In Tolstoy's "War and Peace", when Pierre Bezukhov was asked (in Russian), "what is freemasonry?", he started answering, "c'est un fraternite.." and then realized he was unable to discuss abstract terms in Russian of those days.

I don't say modern languages are bad for any topics, but certainly, comfort and economize your speech are important criteria.

  • Yes. In- and out-group identification and maintenance is a very important feature in any speech situation. Reminds me of Geertz's Javanese sentence. – jlawler Jan 30 '13 at 16:03

In my experience, one of the most influential factors is the frequency in which the term is used or heard by the speaker in each language. Just like the single language case where a speaker may be more inclined to use a certain word or grammatical construct out of several equivalent options, because that option is more accessible to them.

This is also related to the expected accessibility of the utterance to the listener. Accommodation theory tries to explain this.

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