Why Bilinguals Code Switch

The proficiency that a bilingual person has in both languages, the context in which the languages are spoken, and unconscious changes in their use are the factors that make people who speak Spanish and Catalan switch from one language to another, or code switch, according to a new study carried out by Cognition and Brain Plasticity researchers at the Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBELL) in Catalunya, Spain.

The team, led by Antoni Rodríguez-Fornells, designed a questionnaire to help understand individual differences among bilinguals when they code switch. This questionnaire is already being used in Canada, Finland, France, and India. Rodriguez-Fornells warns that “it is necessary to consider that bilingualism depends on the sociolinguistic situation in each area or region where it occurs. For example, Catalan in Catalunya is not now the same as it was 60 years ago. In the Basque Country there are not many situations of code switching because Euskera is not spoken as often as Catalan in Catalunya and, in Belgium, for political reasons, French and Flemish don’t coexist in the same way.”

One factor that makes individuals change the language they use is proficiency. For example, when the subject speaking in Catalan uses a Spanish word because she doesn’t know the right word in Catalan, and vice-versa. Another factor is the context in which they are: the characteristics of the interlocutor or the chosen topic will lead them to speak one language or the other. And, finally, the unconscious changes from one language to another that have no linguistic or sociolinguistic reasons.

“This unintentional and unconscious switching,” suggests Rodríguez-Fornells, “may be related to a lack of cognitive brain control. Sometimes, bilinguals change automatically from one language to another, for no apparent reasons.”

Cognitive control is the ability we have to monitor our behavior, predict errors, plan actions and inhibit them, and be aware of the changes and conflicts that result. Therefore, this skill requires a system that constantly monitors our behavior and the effect on the environment. In some cases, code switching goes unnoticed and hypothesized to be related to cognitive control.

The group is investigating whether bilingualism may enhance cognitive abilities, how it can change the brain, and if it can help in neuro-rehabilitation. Rodríguez-Fornells explains that “for some authors, switching between languages observed in some groups, such as between siblings in bilingual families may be negative in the sense that linguistic wealth is lost, but for others, switching very quickly may even be positive (some even say creative), and could be transferred to other cognitive functions and make the brain more flexible in cognitive control.”

The report highlights the research of Ellen Byalstock “who suggests that using a second language can be a cognitive reserve that makes us have more resources against aging or disease processes.” In any case, the researcher warns that “we are still beginning to study the effects of bilingualism on the human brain and we must keep in mind that according to languages, societies and the political environment, bilingualism is different and it is expected that this will have differential effects on brain development in children.”