As I was walking by the oilieballen van just set up for the holiday season, I recalled the above sentence exclaimed by my 3-year son last year at the same time. For those not in the know, “Maman” is French for “Mummy”, “suiker” is Dutch for “sugar” and olieballen translates to “oil balls”. A classic example of why all bilinguals codeswitch – go between or mix their languages.
In the first instance, my son, at the time, was stronger in English and Dutch, and was learning French at school. So, as many young bilinguals do, he used the words he had in his global vocabulary to communicate with me. All bilingual children codeswitch, to greater or lesser degrees. Often parents, and even professionals, get stressed by what is a very normal part of the bilingual process. When children are acquiring more than one language at a time, they learn the words that are most useful in the situations they use each language in. So while it may seem that bilingual children have a limited vocabulary in each language, together they have at least the same vocabulary as a monolingual child. Children will sometimes know words in both languages – foods they eat at daycare and at home, objects that are frequent in the places they use each language. But often, they will know a word in one language, such as school-related words, and not know the equivalent word in the other. Generally, children outgrow this phase by about four years old – by then their vocabulary in each language, and their understanding of the boundaries of each language should be fully formed.
Which leads me to the second instance of codeswitching – my choice to use the word “olieballen” rather than the less appetizing English equivalent of “oil balls”. All bilinguals codeswitch for pragmatic (meaning-related) reasons – because we like the word better, because the exact expression doesn’t exist in the other language, or just because we feel like it. This type of codeswitching begins quite early – often as soon as a bilingual children are capable of consistantly differentiating, they begin codeswitching because they like it!
For parents raising children as bilinguals at what point do you need to be concerned about codeswitching? After about the age of four years old, if a child is still mixing languages frequently, it’s time to start listening carefully, to try and determine if the switching is happening because they need to – they can’t always make complete sentences in one or the other language, or if it is happening because they *want* to switch. Sometimes kids switch out of laziness – it’s easier to use the word you know that to think of the one that doesn’t come as easily. And sometimes, kids continue switching because their language development is not at an age-appropriate level. Each of these reasons merits a different kind of intervention, but both are usually “fixable”.