Should you be worried about language mixing?

The short answer is no. Parents of child who are learning a second (or third! or fourth!) language should not be worried if they hear a sentence that mixes two languages. An example of this is “我要去 the zoo” or “my friend James va a la playa.” This phenomenon is called language mixing, or code-switching when adults do it. The two sentences above are examples of lexical mixing, which happens when a word or several words of one language are inserted into a sentence of another. This is probably the type of language mixing that comes into people’s heads when they think about the topic, but phonological mixing, morphological mixing, syntactic mixing and pragmatic mixing are other types of language mixing as well.

Language mixing can be useful

Often, parents and educators get really worried when they hear language mixing in young learners. They think that language mixing is a sign that a child is confused and has somehow mixed up two or more language systems in her head. There is not really any evidence to support this idea, however.

One reason to not get to worried about language mixing is that adults do it too. There are lots of examples of adult bilinguals mixing words from one language into a sentence in another. I’ve noticed that Chinese-English bilinguals often use the English word “nice” in Chinese speech, e.g. “她非常nice” (She is very nice.) Maybe there is something about the word “nice” that a Chinese equivalent just does not quite capture. Maybe using the word “nice” is a nod to the importance of niceness in American culture. Whatever the reason for it, when we adults mix Chinese and English in the sentence “她非常nice,” there is no doubt that we are not confusing the two languages.

Why do kids mix languages?

One explanation for language mixing in children is that they do it because they hear from adults! At least one study shows that the number of mixed utterances children used was correlated with the number of mixed utterances they heard from their mothers. Parents whose children are learning a second language should not be concerned if they hear language mixing from their kids. The children are most likely not confused about which language they use and their brains might even be making a sophisticated choice about which words to use.

For more information about how kids learn language, check out the FAQ section

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