If you've seen the first Star Wars trilogy (meaning Episodes 4 - 6), in the original Star Wars movie, Han Solo is in the cantina talking with Greedo (and yes, darnit, Han shot first! no shame in that, Greedo posed a mortal danger to him). But each is speaking in his own language, Han in English (Empirish?) and Greedo in his native language. Yet the conversation proceeded normally -- for a little while, at least.

I have a personal experience with this phenomenon, having once been in the US Army in the Netherlands attending a NATO class on how to maintain a particular kind of microwave radio, and for the lab portion of the class I was paired with a German soldier. It happened that we were both bilingual in English and German, and so rather than both of us using one or the other language, I proposed that we speak our native languages, and see how that would work -- both of us understood each other's language better than we spoke it. So we did and it worked out really well. I imagine that it sounded darned funny to some of the other US soldiers in the room who overheard our conversation (the class was taught in English, so non-US and -Brit soldiers had to have English as an additional language to attend).

Designating one's native language as A, and a second language as B, is there a word for this kind of conversation where the two participants speak their own language A while understanding in their language B?

  • Confusion? Cacophony? :p – George Cummins Mar 14 '14 at 21:29
  • Yeah, haha, but it isn't confusing to the two participants. – Cyberherbalist Mar 14 '14 at 21:32
  • 1
    I do this nearly every day of my life with colleagues at work. It is not at all uncommon for us to be carrying out trilingual conversations. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 15 '14 at 1:51
  • @JanusBahsJacquet, that's neat! Are you in Switzerland? I live deep in an English-speaking continent, there's no reason for anyone to know any other language (except once in awhile Spanish is useful). I even have a hard time getting my German-born wife to speak German to me! – Cyberherbalist Mar 17 '14 at 16:35
  • 1
    No, not Switzerland—Denmark. I just happen to work in a place that’s relatively evenly divided between Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians, all of which are mutually intelligible with just a bit of practice. (There are some Finns, too, but Finnish is quite a different kettle of non-Indo-European fish, and nobody understands them much unless they switch to Swedish, which they usually do.) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 17 '14 at 16:43

You may call it bilingual dialogue but it is an aspect of code-switching as well.

Multilinguals—speakers of more than one language—sometimes use elements of multiple languages when conversing with each other.



Further reading:

Article: “Code Switching” in Sociocultural Linguistics - Chad Nilep - University of Colorado, Boulder

Book: Multidisciplinary Approaches to Code Switching - edited by Ludmila Isurin, Donald Winford, Kees De Bot

Chapter 6 - Two speakers, one dialogue - An interactive alignment perspective on code-switching in bilingual speakers

  • 2
    Sounds good, but there may be an official linguistic term for it, for which I will hold out. For a while anyway. I read up on code-switching and "bilingual dialogue" doesn't seem to be a true aspect of code-switching. Although I can see the attraction of saying it is. Nice bonus! – Cyberherbalist Mar 14 '14 at 21:59
  • code-switching is the linguistics term. You may check the real life section of the bonus link as well. – ermanen Mar 14 '14 at 22:01
  • Yes, as I say, I see the attraction, but what I described involved no switching, per se. That's a great link, by the way. – Cyberherbalist Mar 14 '14 at 22:16
  • 1
    I don't think it's code-switching, but +1 for bilingual dialogue. – Canis Lupus Mar 14 '14 at 22:31
  • If you think from the perspective of the other person, you switch the whole language, even from the beginning. It may happen during the conversation as well. Added more sources. – ermanen Mar 14 '14 at 23:20

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.