Is there a word that describes or denotes a type of conversation in which two speakers speak two different languages.

In our country, Pakistan, there are approximately 75 languages, from which Urdu, Punjabi and Sindhi are common, excluding English.

So today I found two women speaking two different languages. For example:

Speaker 1 has Urdu as their mother tongue.

Speaker 2 has Sindhi as their mother tongue.

Speaker 1 and 2 spoke their own mother tongue, which are different (Urdu and Sindhi) but both can understand each other's language.

I thought that this is known as "intermingling conversation," or a "code switching." In my opinion, we can't use such words because code-switching refers "shifting completely to the other language for a word, a phrase or sentence, and then revert back to the base language."

Example sentences:

  • They were in a bus and had [adjective] conversation.

  • They were in a bus and had [noun or noun-phrase for such conversation].

I agree that the question (which is suspected as a duplicate one to this question) is really a duplicate, but its single answer still doesn't satisfy all. In that question, the phrase "bilingual dialogue" was suggested, which I (and others may) think that this refers to the code switching as well, which I don't want here. Some words confuse the readers which sense do they mean.

I would also love to quote the comment of @Lambie regarding the term "bilingual" over here:

"Bilingual refers to one person. Not two people each of whom has a passive knowledge of the other's language but do not speak it well enough to use it actively."

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    I suggest you find a Canadian forum somewhere. They are a bilingual nation (English and French). In Britain I'm not aware of such a word, this is probably for the historical reason that for centuries we almost always spoke in a single language - English! The nearest adjective I can suggest for your word is "bilingual" but maybe the Canadians can do better. – chasly - supports Monica Nov 26 '18 at 10:37
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    You’re quite right about code switching – it’s definitely not that. I’ve done this many a time myself (it’s reasonably common in Scandinavia, whose languages are all more or less mutually intelligible, for everyone to just speak their own language when communicating across borders), but I’ve never heard a name for it, nor ever really thought about there not being one. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 26 '18 at 10:44
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    A Star Wars conversation? – colmde Nov 26 '18 at 11:26
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    Very good question. A linked idea is when someone who speaks two languages easily and mixes them within their speech (for example, because there is a more precise word in one language than the other). I'm not sure of a word for that either, aside from bilingual. – Dan Nov 26 '18 at 13:07
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    @Dan That is "code switching": "Oh" said the Mexican immigrant in New York, "you mean when I start a sentence in English et se termine en espagnol?" – Martin Bonner supports Monica Nov 26 '18 at 16:13

In his book Talk in Two Languages, Joseph Gafaranga examines, among other things, the patterns of conversation within bilingual families. He calls the pattern described in the OP's question the parallel mode. Here is a screenshot from Google Books of the introduction to his discussion of the parallel mode pattern.

enter image description here


So by Gafaranga's terminology the Urdu and Sindhi speakers were conducting a conversation in parallel (language) mode.

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    Just to be absolutely clear, is the term "parallel mode" used by other linguists too? Or is it only a coinage of Garafanga's? – Mari-Lou A Nov 27 '18 at 7:49
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    @Mari-Lou A. In the context of my readings on language policy, I came across the term parallellingualism to denote the use of dual languages in Nordic universities. This impressive term obviously stuck in my memory and prompted a search on "parallel languages". This resulted in me finding Gafaranga's book, but there were no other resources that used the term with the same meaning on the first 5 or so pages of hits that I looked at. (Note that I have corrected the author's name. The Google link shows the wrong name - but works correctly.) – Shoe Nov 27 '18 at 8:07
  • @Mari, typo in writing the name of "Gafaranga" in your comment. ;) – Ahmed Dec 15 '18 at 4:00
  • @Ahmed unfortunately, when Shoe corrected the spelling (see edit history) my comment had already been written and comments cannot be edited after 5 minutes :( Also see Shoe's comment directly above yours, they mention the spelling error in Google's link – Mari-Lou A Dec 15 '18 at 6:25
  • @Mari, oh! all right. Now I see :) – Ahmed Dec 15 '18 at 9:05

I believe the most accurate word you'll find for the conversation itself is "bilingual." As in:

The two ladies were having a bilingual conversation

However the inability of the two speakers to fully command both languages is a property of the speaker, not the conversation. The term for this inability is "receptive bilingualism." You would need to change up the syntax a bit to clarify the situation:

The two ladies were having a bilingual conversation, however both were only receptively bilingual in the other's language.

"Passive speaker" is another way to refer to this type of speaker, however this could also imply that the speaker is simply non-aggressive in their speech.

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    No señor, nope. Bilingual refers to one person. Not two people each of whom has a passive knowledge of the other's language but do not speak it well enough to use it actively. – Lambie Nov 26 '18 at 23:38
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    +1 for “bilingual conversation – Lawrence Nov 27 '18 at 5:35
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    @Lambie the third linked definition of bilingual is "of, involving, or using two languages." In the example as constructed where "conversation" is the subject, the meaning implied seems quite clear and, since the relevant definition does not mention "people", quite relevant. – ZachP Nov 27 '18 at 13:41
  • People are said to be bilingual, education can be bilingual (provided in two languages). However, that does not mean a conversation carried on by two people, each using a different language is called bilingual. That would mean they both use two languages in the conversation. – Lambie Nov 27 '18 at 14:16
  • @Lambie I'd argue that the same property that makes education eligible to be bilingual makes a conversation eligible as well. Both conversants are in fact using both languages, its just that they can each only send in one language but can receive in both. – ZachP Nov 27 '18 at 17:15

One term that comes up in this context is cross-language (or cross-linguistic). I haven't found a formal definition for this term, but it is fairly transparent. It collocates with "mutual intelligibility" (see below) but also appears in contexts where, for example, the participants in the conversation are employing an interpreter. A couple of examples of use (bolding added):

[W]e aimed to assess the cross-linguistic intelligibility between the related languages as it is in actual practice, i.e. including the effects of the participant’s education. Our study therefore offers an overview of the cross-language intelligibility between related languages . . . .

Charlotte Gooskens, Vincent J. van Heuven, Jelena Golubović, Anja Schüppert, Femke Swarte & Stefanie Voigt (2018) Mutual intelligibility between closely related languages in Europe, International Journal of Multilingualism, 15:2, 169-193, DOI: 10.1080/14790718.2017.1350185

People using Skype or web applications can now have a cross-language conversation, each speaking in a different language.

"Real-time Speech Translation in 23 Languages for Business; ReadSpeaker Adds Text-to-Speech Voices to Translate Your World's Voice-to-Subtitles Software", Monday, November 26, 2018 (press release)

Another potentially relevant term is mutual intelligibility. From Wikipedia:

In linguistics, mutual intelligibility is a relationship between languages or dialects in which speakers of different but related varieties can readily understand each other without prior familiarity or special effort.

Note that in linguistics "mutual intelligibility" generally1 refers to inherent characteristics of the languages, rather than special knowledge on the part of the speakers—that is, it's usually used for related language "pairs" like Portuguese and Spanish or Swedish and Danish,2 but generally wouldn't be applied to, say, an English speaker who knows some Mandarin and a Mandarin speaker who knows some English speaking to one another in their own languages.

With that caveat, I think the adjectival form, mutually intelligible, could be used for your situation. The plain meaning of the phrase is fairly transparent and would seem flexible enough to encompass the English/Mandarin situation described above, particularly as it is also used in non-linguistic contexts to describe communication and conversations. Some examples of use, both technical and non-technical (bolding added):

"Are Urdu and Sindhi mutually intelligible languages?"

Yahoo Answers question (opinions in answers are mixed)

In my experience of observing Spaniards and Italians talking in their respective languages to each another, it is possible for them to have a mutually intelligible conversation as long as they speak clearly.

Conor Clyne, "How different or similar are Italian and Spanish?" Tsar Experience, August 25, 2016 (blog entry)

Whatever the differences between the Stoics and the Christians, they can be put into mutually intelligible conversation.

Christopher Kavin Rowe, One True Life: The Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions, 2016

So for your example, you could say something like

  • They were in a bus and had a mutually intelligible, cross-language conversation.
  • They were in a bus and had a cross-language conversation.
  • They were in a bus and had a mutually-intelligible conversation in Urdu and Sindhi (respectively).

1 "Generally" only because I've seen some suggestion that sociolinguistics occasionally use it in a different sense.
2 See the May 28, 2014 Language Log post "Mutual intelligibility" and especially its comments for an informal discussion of the degree of mutual intelligibility of dozens of language pairs.

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    +1 But I'd also note that "mutually intelligible" is a property of the two languages, not of the speakers. OP implies this may be the situation by mentioning the Pakistani languages, but as stated the two ladies could be able to understand the other language (but not speak it) through personal familiarity rather than due to the mutual intelligibility of the two languages. – ZachP Nov 26 '18 at 17:11
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    @ZachP Yes, absolutely that's the case in technical linguistic terms. That's what I was trying to get at in the paragraph after the definition. – 1006a Nov 26 '18 at 17:17
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    I totally misread that paragraph and upon re-reading it I'm not even sure how! Mea culpa – ZachP Nov 26 '18 at 17:35
  • No worries--that paragraph is kind of wall-of-textish, so probably I should rewrite it for clarity. @ZachP – 1006a Nov 26 '18 at 20:17
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    Yiddish and Hebrew aren't mutually intelligible at all, but one person speaking Yiddish and the other Hebrew but understanding each other is a case for the OP. Or Mandarin and Cantonese, or Scots and English. I don't see how mutual intelligibility is relevant. – Mitch Nov 26 '18 at 21:01

It has been called code-mixing in academic papers.

Code-mixing is the mixing of two or more languages or language varieties in speech.


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    I believe this refers to several languages being used by one speaker in their speech. It does not appear to cover the case where one speaker consistently uses one language and the other one consistently uses another language, while they both understand both languages. – GSerg Nov 26 '18 at 15:32
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    I believe GSerg is right. Code-switching and code-mixing are not always kept separate at all, but even when they are, they normally refer to the same speaker drawing on multiple languages, rather than to multiple speakers drawing from one language each. In database structure terms, code-switching/-mixing is a one-to-many (or many-to-one) relation, whereas this question is asking about one-to-one relations with unique foreign key constraints. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 26 '18 at 16:38
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    This answer would be even better if it linked to, or referenced, the DOI of one or more of the academic papers in which this term is used. – shoover Nov 26 '18 at 17:12
  • Did you mean to say 'code-switching'? That refers to a single person using multiple languages (that they know the other person understands. The OP is talking about when one person uses one language solely, and the other another one alone, but they both understand the other. In such a situation, code-switching may well occur but not necessarily. – Mitch Nov 26 '18 at 21:06
  • code switching or mixing refers to a single-person thing. It does not involve two people and languages are codes, anyway. Code switching and mixing is intra-lingual not inter-lingual. – Lambie Nov 26 '18 at 23:34

There is a concept of diglossia.

The use of two markedly different varieties of a language in different social situations, such as a formal variety at work and an informal variety at home. [American Heritage]

Usually this term is used when the same people are speaking both languages (e.g. people who speak an official form of the language in formal occasions and a dialect the rest of the time; or else speak English at work and another language the rest of the time).

By stretching it a little, we could also call this particular situation (where individuals speak a single language but understand two) as a case of diglossia?

In this particular case there does not seem to be any high or low language, but simply two persons from different backgrounds speaking different languages (hence it is a situation of multiculturalism) but sufficiently familiar with the other language that they have a passive knowledge of it.

What is interesting to guess, is how this situation might evolve in time: by one language supplanting the other? Or a fusion of the two, similar to what happened to Middle English? Or a third language (as English) taking over?


I am a translator and interpreter and speak four languages (I am quadri-lingual, in fact). There is no specific term for this. And it's certainly not bilingual.

If this refers to two people, it just means they at least passively know each other languages but actively only use their own. They each have a passive knowledge of the other's language, otherwise they'd be speaking one or the other. They are passive "speakers" of a language. passive speaker

Passive knowledge means you can understand a language or read a language but cannot actively speak it with any confidence. For example, in my case, I speak three Romance languages but do not actively speak Italian. However, my passive knowledge of Italian is very good so I can actually carry on a conversation with an Italian speaker if they can understand English. (In fact, I can carry on a simple conversation but can understand an advanced one passively.)

But beware: In the world of translation and interpretation, a passive language has a more technical meaning: it means the language from which a translator or interpreter is working. This is often symbolized as: German>English, English>Chinese. If a person is bilingual (which is not as frequent as one might imagine), this is signified like this: English<>Chinese.

Here is a blog post about this issue as regards active and passive vocabulary in language learning, though it applies to monolinguals as well. passive and active vocabulary

I often speak English to my husband and he responds in Spanish. We have a conversation in two languages.

Bilingual means an individual can speak two languages equally well, though there are different levels of bilingualism. And, if I hear someone say: "We had a bilingual conversation." I would understand that each of the speakers spoke two languages and both switched back and forth between those two languages without causing a break in their conversation due to lack of understanding.

As for codes, mixing and switching them is not "inter-lingual". A speaker code switches within her or his own language.

Reading over the answers, I had to laugh when thinking about having a conversation with someone where one person uses a different language than the other and they understand each other. Of course, they understand each other, otherwise it would not be a conversation, would it? And, I daresay that mutual intelligibility is an issue that does not involve more than one language necessarily. Who hasn't had a conversation with eggheads in a monolingual situation where there was no "mutual intelligibility" at all?

And for the record, the idea that a Spanish speaker can understand a Portuguese speaker is a very specious idea. The fact much in the two languages is very similar does not account for the parts that are completely different. And this can lead to major misunderstandings and comical situations. (I just can't think of an example at the moment, as I write.) The mutual intelligibility factor is true only to a limited extent.

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