Code-Switching vs. Borrowing in Bilingual Children

 One thing that often alarms the parents of bilingual children is when their children start switching back and forth between languages mid-sentence.

This has been misunderstood and mischaracterized as a sign of “confusion” on the part of the child.

Both popular culture and older academic literature will tell you that mixing languages is a bad habit. You may encounter teachers who still believe this, and will bring it to your attention as a concern.

Take comfort — the old-fashioned critics are wrong. The most recent literature tells us that most mixed use of language is a natural and positive development in bilingual learners.

There are two major types of mixed language use: code-switching and borrowing, or “mixing languages.”


Code-Switching vs Borrowing


When a child (or an adult) switches back and forth between two languages in the same sentence, using both with fluency, it is called “code-switching.”

This means that the speaker is actively using both languages. He or she is, in effect, thinking bilingually, and using all the available language skills for self-expression.

If a German/English bilingual child were, for example, to say “Mom, can we go auf Urlaub to Florida this year, bitte?” it would be true code-switching — the child is using not just vocabulary but also grammar and syntax from both languages. Both the English and the German expressions for “going on vacation” are used back-to-back.

This is generally not done in excitement or confusion, but rather when the child feels comfortable in both languages. Bilinguals are much less likely to code-switch around people who they do not recognize as sharing their languages.

So while you may hear your child code-switch regularly, this is mainly because your child recognizes your household as a bilingual environment. It is much less likely to happen at school (if your child’s school is monolingual).


Borrowing or Mixing Languages

Code-switching is the use of two separate languages back to back.

Borrowing, on the other hand, means using one primary language, but mixing in words or ideas from another. In borrowing, the child speaks one language, and alters vocabulary from another to fit the primary language.

This is frequently done when a bilingual speaker lacks the exact word for the concept he or she wants to express in the language being used at the time.

For example, a fluent French speaker is likely to use English words, altered into French, when speaking about computing concepts that developed in English first: “Avez vous un point d’accès Internet” simply takes the concept “an Internet access point” and makes it fit into French. This is borrowing, rather than code-switching. The speaker is not really thinking in English, but simply taking vocabulary from it for efficiency’s sake.

Even non-bilinguals do this fairly regularly. An English-speaking chef would feel comfortable referring to his mise en place rather than taking the time to explain “the system by which I arrange my ingredients and tools,” and many gourmands use the Japanese adjective umami without explaining that they mean “a hearty-salty savory flavor.”

As with code-switching, this does not indicate confusion on a child’s part. It actually shows good linguistic skill — the child is using the most appropriate word for a situation. Sometimes the word happens to come from a second language, that’s all.

What To Do About Code-Switching or Borrowing?

Part of raising a bilingual child is accepting that they’re going to use both their languages. That was the whole point!

That means that, from time to time, your child is going to use both languages in combination with one another.

Don’t panic when it happens. It doesn’t mean your child can’t tell the difference between the two languages.

But even with full understanding that code-switching and borrowing is normal, I am still steering my children towards talking to me in monolingual mode (Russian please!). I correct them and ask to repeat in Russian (in a very gentle and friendly manner) because if I let them switch with me – they will soon lean heavily into English, our majority language.

From the other side, if you have a good community of monolingual people in your minority language (let’s say grandparents, aunts and uncles, school, church etc) then your child will frequently find himself in monolingual mode (witch id great!) and not so many corrections will be needed from your side. The only time to offer a correction (a gentle one) is if a child is mixing languages when speaking to someone who doesn’t understand both languages.

How do you deal with your child’s code-switching? Please share you ideas below in the comments – it will help all of us raise our bilingual kids!



  • Great!

  • What a great read. Makes me feel a little better about me switching languages mid sentence!

  • good answer

  • good answer

  • Amanda Grey

    My kids took the English verb “to flush” (the toilet) and Frenchified it to “flusher” – so much shorter than saying “tirer la chasse d’eau”!! We laugh about words like that. It makes language fun. Kids become very “language aware” and are much more open-minded to other languages and cultures.

    • Olena Centeno

      You are so right, Amanda! Kids are very language aware. My kids also have “Russified and Ukrainianfied” words that we cherish as a part of their childhood.

  • Great post. It is amazing timing as I was having this discussion with my husband. As the only bilingual person in our house, I find it difficult at times to speak Spanish solely. My husband and step-daughter are monolingual (English) and speak to the two toddlers primarily in English. Now, my 3 year relies heavily on English (even more that he attends a day program 3 times a week). I noticed that the a lot of the Spanish the kids were hearing, apart from our tot school time, was in disciplinary actions. I talked about that on my recent post.

    • Olena Centeno

      Stephanie, your kids are so adorable! I’ve just read interesting case study done by Claire Thomas in her book Growing Up With Languages. She studied 40 families and found that some of them were very strict and some very relaxed in terms of mixing languages, but ultimately all of the families succeeded in raising bilingual kids.

  • Hemi Waerea

    when our language met the english language our elders started using transliterations for many of the foreign concepts and gadgets etc. these transliterations are still used by many of our first-language speakers as that is the language they know. we have a language commission that are trying to use old words to identify new technology and concepts especially in this technically minded digital world. examples are kapu = cup, tiwi = tv etc. code-switching and borrowing (true english words) happens a lot with our bi-lingual students. i agree that if they are confident and fluent in both languages they do this naturally. they also know which language to use when speaking with particular people. nice read and i confess i am one who switches codes, borrows and using transliterations when speaking our native tongue m?ori and english.

    • Olena Centeno

      Hemi, it is fascinating! I’ve never heard the term transliterations but I like it a lot. Code-switchers unite!

  • Eolia Disler

    Thanks for this post Olena! My son is borrowing words from German or French, depending to whom is speaking to. That annoys my husband a bit. I will send him your post right away!

    • Olena Centeno

      I really hope your husband will find a piece of mind after reading it:)

      • Eolia Disler

        hihi… You wanted to say peace of mind, don’t you?

        • Olena Centeno

          I did, but auto-correct played joke on me – turned out really funny:)

  • Khadidja Hadri

    Thank you for this great post! It is so relevant and applicable to many bilingual countries.
    In our case, Algerian children do mix their two languages (Algerian Arabic and French) in the same utterance or conversation, but this often occurs unconsciously and without being aware of each language boudary,i.e., they are not able to identify which language they are speaking as most french loan words have become part of the Algerian Arabic language.

    • Olena Centeno

      Hi Khadidja, thank you very much for sharing your observation of language dynamics in Algeria. This morning I was reading with kids about history of English language during Middle Ages and it was exactly the same story. After England was conquered by Normans English language borrowed many French words and made them their own. Also the language of Celts had a huge impact on English. It is just proves that language is a living matter that changes over time!

      • Khadidja Hadri

        Absolutely true, Ms. Olena. As an English language teacher who already acquired some French words, I can easily recognize those French borrowed words and this actually helps many Algerians to learn English more quickly. Thank you very much for replying, I really appreciate your comment.

  • CHALK Academy

    Thank you for writing this post! Would you be able to site the articles in your post? Thank you!