At the Lower East Side Preparatory High School in New York, it’s not unusual to hear different languages flowing in the classroom — in one sentence.
“Mira, mira guey, I don’t understand la tarea,” — “Look buddy, I don’t understand the homework,” says one young boy to his classmate.
“Are you tarado?” — Are you dumb?, his friend shoots back, laughing.
This has been a part of America’s dialogue since the nation’s start — the mixing of two languages in a conversation, whether it be Spanglish (Spanish and English), Chinglish (often Mandarin and English) or another combination.
The use of Spanglish or other language combinations has been seen by many as a sign of laziness or poor language skills. In recent years, however, scholars have found there is sophisticated brain work behind code-switching, or CS, the linguistic term for switching between two languages in one conversation.
“There is widespread agreement that CS is patterned, i.e., not random,” said Almeida Jacqueline Toribio, of the University of Texas at Austin, who has been studying bilingualism since the early 1990s.
In fact, Toribio’s research shows that even those who are not completely bilingual or proficient in both languages still follow logical, grammatical rules when they code-switch.
Arturo E. Hernandez, a professor of psychology at the University of Houston and author of “The Bilingual Brain,” has found that what English-Spanish code-switchers do when they speak is similar to what people do when they multitask — for example, driving and talking on a cellphone at the same time.
“Everyone is born with this task-switching gene,” he said.
Perhaps this will pave the way for a different view of this common practice, though scholars like Toribio acknowledge that’s not how many see it.
“CS remains a stigmatized bilingual behavior, viewed as a failure on the part of speakers to ‘control’ their languages,” Toribio said. Some see it as a lack of competence or even poor manners, she added.
Among the millions of Americans who are bilingual and bicultural, there is a lively debate about switching languages.
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