Adding Foreign Words to Conversation – Is That Showing Off?

Yizhou Wang & Christine Reyes

Illustration by Yizhou Wang

If you are a bilingual or multilingual speaker, one thing you might be guilty of is accidentally mixing languages when you speak to others. A simple “thank you” may turn into a merci beaucoup or a “hello” may become a kia ora.  

 If you are even studying a foreign language or consuming media produced by other cultures, you might be doing the same thing. This phenomenon of combining two or more languages is called language mixing and code-switching.  

Illustration by Yizhou Wang

“Oooh that kai looks good, can’t wait to dig in!”

This is an example of language mixing. Language mixing usually happens amongst bilingual or multilingual speakers; they may abruptly (and often accidentally) combine aspects of two or more languages while not primarily deriving words from any single language. 

  A Spanish magician said he could make himself disappear. 

He counted “uno, dos…” and he was gone. 

He disappeared without a tres. 

 This is an example of code-switching. Code-switching, on the other hand, is as simple as switching from one language to another to create a special effect.  This happens quite often with English words as the English language has become so abundant in our day to day lives. As an effect of western imperialism, English is the second most spoken language in the world. In turn, learning and speaking English as a second language has become generally common in most parts of the world. 

In some countries like China, English is used in companies and professional settings as an official language to communicate with international customers. Regardless of whether the pronunciation is standard or not, people in these settings are more likely to mix English words within conversations in their native language. The way they speak does make sense for those who can understand both languages but it might not always be grammatically correct. 

 Code-switching can also be used to communicate concepts that can’t be accurately expressed in a single language. In this case, with proper code conversion, you can quickly and more effectively let the other person know what you want to say.  

 Here’s an example. Imagine you and your friends are going to have some Chinese wontons for dinner. You wouldn’t want to say that dinner will be ’a kind of dumpling filled with minced pork and spices that will be boiled and served with soup’, instead you could just say “wonton” as is would be the easiest way of communicating it. Once you say the word wonton, the person who knows the dish will understand immediately.

 In fact, code-switching words are not only used for foreign foods but can also be applied to other topics and situations too. 

 For example, komorebi (木漏れ日) in Japanese refers to “sunlight that shines through the gaps in the woods.” Gökotta in Swedish is “the first bird twitter in the morning.” While the German word kummerspeck is the “weight gain from emotional overeating.” It is more complicated to use an entire sentence to explain these concepts when there is no direct word in English, it is much simpler to replace them with the foreign translation equivalent.

If someone ever asks you why you are gaining weight so fast, you don’t have to explain it with all your might. Just touch your stomach and say, “this is my kummerspeck“. 

Language mixing and code-switching can either improve or hinder communication. Photo by Mimi Thian.

 Code-switching has a special social pragmatic consequence while language mixing does not. People who are speaking a mixed language mostly grew up in a bilingual or multilingual environment. For them, mixing the language is not done on purpose, it’s just something that comes naturally. 


However, there are those who tend to criticize people who mix up languages. For example, in the Philippines language mixing can be perceived in a negative light as it often comes from a place of privilege. The ability to speak English in Philippine society has been elevated to become an identifier of one’s education, wealth, and social standing. To mix languages in this case is a way to deliberately show off their privilege and can be unfavourably viewed by bilinguals themselves.  

In Bentahila’s research on language, he found that among Arabic-French bilinguals in Morocco, multilingual speakers also strongly disapprove of language mixing and their comments suggest that they associate it with lack of education, carelessness, affectation and a lack of identity. You could say that there exists a group of language purists who wish nothing than to keep the sanctity of a nation’s language intact, without influence from the outside world. But with the world becoming increasingly connected, this seems like an impossible task.   

In many cases, the occurrence of code-switching is affected by the language environment you’re in. In Christchurch for instance, a multilingual language environment exists due to the diverse groups of people that reside here. Language mixing and code-switching does occur with the latter being more common within the wider society. If you were to hear language mixing, it would usually be within close social spheres of people that share a native language that isn’t English. Often you’ll hear groups of friends talking in their native tongues with English words or phrases peppered in between. Other times, it’d be a conversation in English but a foreign word will be inserted if it can’t be fully expressed in the English language.

So does anyone really say foreign words to sound more intelligent in conversations? Of course, the existence of such a group of people can’t be ruled out. However, not everyone is like this. Sometimes, it’s just more suitable using certain expressions in a different language. Furthermore, it can also reinforce a speaker’s sense of identity as they express themselves in ways where one language just wouldn’t be enough. While perceptions of this may vary, what’s most important is that we are able to voice our thoughts in whichever way will bring us closer to understanding one another. That’s what really matters in the end.