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Code-Switching: How bilinguals switch between languages

People who learn two languages from an early age can switch between languages without even a second thought, sometimes even in the same sentence: It is known as “code-switching”. But how do they do it?

According to research, these lucky individuals have two separate processing modes/sound systems for each language, meaning that they can easily be distinguished in their head. When discussing the differences between two languages, the most obvious differences of words and grammatical rules are there, but people forget the simplest reason is that the sounds for each language are different.

To take an example, the sound “ba” or “pa”, is pronounced slightly differently in the English and the Spanish language. Although it is very subtle, English people vibrate their vocal chords after they open their mouth to speak, but with Spanish people this happens slightly before they open their mouth. This means that a Spanish “pa” sounds like an English “ba”. These are the subtleties that bilinguals will pick up on, particularly children, who will have to subconsciously switch their sound system in order to learn more words in the particular language.

Sound system

This was tested by the University of Arizona, who conducted the study with a group of bilingual speakers, who were split into two groups and each group were told they would hear a rare list of English/Spanish words. Each list was in fact the same; made-up of words beginning with “ba” or “pa”, yet the pronunciation was altered for each language. Each group was asked to detect the sound they were hearing, and succeeded. The same test was later conducted with a group of English speakers, and the result was that they could not decipher between them, proving that they do not have two different sound modes like the bilingual speakers. It is as if when the bilingual speakers are told they will hear English words, they go into English mode and the same with Spanish.

This research shows that bilinguals hear each language as they would if they were a native speaker in each language. Despite the common view that bilinguals will always be more confident in one language than the other, this research suggests otherwise.

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