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 Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 21:29
  • Yeah, haha, but it isn't confusing to the two participants. Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 21:32
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    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. Commented Mar 15, 2014 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! Commented Mar 17, 2014 at 16:35
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    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.) Commented Mar 17, 2014 at 16:43

1 Answer 1


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

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    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! Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 21:59
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    code-switching is the linguistics term. You may check the real life section of the bonus link as well.
    – ermanen
    Commented Mar 14, 2014 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. Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 22:16
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    I don't think it's code-switching, but +1 for bilingual dialogue. Commented Mar 14, 2014 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
    Commented Mar 14, 2014 at 23:20

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