Code Switching in the Car

Code switching: a term in linguistics referring to alternating between one or more languages or dialects in the middle of discourse between people who have more than one language in common.Wikipedia

I was riding with my girlfriend in her car. We were pulling up to my apartment, and the guard was motioning to her.

Legend: SHH=上海话 (Shanghainese), PTH=普通话 (Mandarin)

> Her (SHH): Can’t I park here?

> Guard (SHH): No, you need to park over there.

> Her (SHH): Oh, over there?

> Guard (SHH): Yeah.

> Her (PTH): OK, got it, thanks.

> Guard (SHH): No problem.

> Me (PTH): Why did you use Mandarin just now?

> Her (PTH): I wasn’t sure if he knew Shanghainese.

> Me (PTH): What are you talking about? He spoke to you in Shanghainese, and you were replying at first in Shanghainese.

> Her (PTH): Oh.

> Me (PTH): So why did you switch?

> Her (PTH): I don’t know. Why are you giving me a hard time?

Ever since I first came to Shanghai I’ve been trying to figure out if there’s any pattern to the way bilingual speakers in Shanghai use Shanghainese and Mandarin. There are some obvious general patterns, but other times (as in the above example) there seems to be no reason at all.

It’s a little frustrating. Most people don’t pay much attention to their own natural linguistic processes and aren’t too keen on metalinguistic self-examinations either, which doesn’t help my understanding any.

Don’t Chinese people know they’re all supposed to be cooperating with me on this “understanding the Chinese language” thing?


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Do the people doing the code shifts know why you are asking? It’s evidently an unconscious thing with them. N’est pas?

  2. In my (meagre) linguistics training code-switching was generally due more to topic than understanding. For example, a doctor and patient who are friends will start off in (for example) Shanghainese as they greet each other and ask about their kids, but will switch to Mandarin when they start to discuss the Xray results. Whenever there are two languages that are shared by many one will be the ‘high’ language and on will be the ‘low’ language — one will carry out more formal functions than the other.

    But your example?? Isn’t much to go on…

    Another common one is code-switching because of a pivot word.. ie if the guard had said (where CAPS is mandarin):
    “no you have to park in the PARKING BUILDING.”
    Where the guard uses Mandarin for parking building because that’s the official name or something, then it causes the rest of the conversation to switch.

    You could look for these patterns in other things, possibly not this example!! I did read one essay once on Shanghainese but it was about status — people spoke Shanghainese to distinguish themselves from migrant workers, similar to the status of Cantonese (vs Hakka and Mandarin) in Shenzhen. People tried to learn Shanghainese not because it was necessary but because it increased their status.

  3. One thing interesting about this post is your use of “Me:” and “Her:” rather than “I:” and “She:” I think most native English speakers (and virtually all Americans) would use “me” and “her” even though it is technically incorrect. I’ve run into this issue with non-native speakers many times because they will invariably use the grammatically correct subject pronouns (which sounds stilted and school-marmish). So one of my Chinese friends asks: why do you use incorrect pronouns when you know they are incorrect? I don’t think it is merely a case of formal vs. informal language — even in great modern literature, writers often deliberately use the “incorrect” pronouns.

    That might be just as hard to explain as code switching.

  4. 托的: why is “me” incorrect grammatical usage?

    Related to language-switching, what I’d love someone to explain to me is why my brain now refuses to work in French. I’m fine right until I hit a phonetic component like “了” which has a different meaning in Chinese but shared sound. And then my brain just switches over. Strange and humiliating when it happens.

  5. “me” is an object pronoun. “I” is the subject pronoun. You wouldn’t say “Me said:”. In John’s post, “me” and “her” are not objects, they are subjects.

    Another note: to American ears, strictly using the correct subject pronouns sounds British (and by extension snobbish), which is odd if you think about it.

    John, your poetry and grammar blog rocks!

  6. here’s my guess in your specific example:
    she was distracted, thinking about parking (didn’t he interrupt her activity?) when she started speaking, and so spoke in whatever came most naturally to her, or in whichever form she usually uses in public — just automatically. and then when she thanked him, she made a deliberate language choice. possibility?

  7. Adding to the possibility Amy offered, how about one of the following:

    (1) “Her” habitually intended to use SHH to solicit friendlier service. After the service was rendered, “Her” let her guard down and switched back to PTH to which she’s more used.

    (2) “Her” deliberately switched back to PTH to let “Me” know that the transaction had completed.

    (3) “Guard” was not a native SHH speaker, “Her” detected a trace of PTH or accent of it, that’s when “Her” switched. That’s why she explained that she was not sure “Guard” knew SHH. Of course, “Me” could not tell the slight PTH accent that betrayed “Guard,” or can “Me”?

  8. Amy and Gin,

    I don’t think she did any switching deliberately. She didn’t seem to even know she had switched.

    And no, I wouldn’t notice a slight accent in someone’s SHH.

  9. If you want to see some real hardcore code switching, check out Hispanic bilingual children in Los Angeles, where they can code switch within a sentence. I believe that techincally that it is not suppose to be possible according to UG theory, because L1 grammars are not suppose to be able to interfer with L2 grammars.

    I wonder though, because I have done some English philology and as we know Old English became relagated to everyday crude language, while French of course became the more formal language that polite people used. As I like to say “primitive folk live in huts, while “fine” people live in a cottage.”

    Although just a hypothesis, a correlation might be seen with Shanghainese and Mandarin. Where, Shanghainese is seen as the everyday crude and vulgar (in the latin sense) language, while Mandarin is used for more formal phrases. Therefore if you noticed, she used Mandarin to thank the guard.

  10. The Hispanic one I think is referred to as code-mixing rather than switching.. used by Maori New Zealanders to indicate identity even if they or their adressee cannot [anymore or ever] speak fluent Maori.

    It wouldn’t have to be intentional for Gin’s one to work… it would all be subconcious.

  11. Kaili:

    Hmm.. If I had seen your response earlier, I wouldn’t have pretty much repeated the same thing. As far as I know the phenonmenon with Hispanic kids is still considered code switching, and code switching can happen at many levels. I think the more intimacy that one has with two languages, the more one can actually switch out VP, NP, PP, etc. If one isn’t too confident in one of the languages, and doesn’t seem to quite understand all the syntactical rules that build a tree in both languages, then the code switching is more reserved to just to single lexical items, such as dog and Hund in German.

    Anyways African Americans also code switch between “standard” and “AAVE” everyday as well when speaking with their own social class. This is found quite frequently in the middle class. They are also extremely unconcious about the code switch. Although I don’t know much about code switching, I am assuming that this form of code switching is due to the fact that the semantical meaning of certain phrases do not have an exact.. equivalency in the other language. Who really knows..

  12. People who can speak both dialects and PTH very well usually use PTH in a more formal situation, or for more formal expression. Sometime they do it subconsciously.

  13. I can switch between PTH and two other local dialects (neither of them SHH) freely and in full self-control, sometimes triggered by the dialect I am spoken to, but not really in reaction to how formal the occasion is, I think. I can switch between Mandarin and English also, though less smoothly.

  14. hmm: I’ve never studied code-switching/mixing closely, but I think w.r.t. UG saying that L1 and L2 grammars can’t mix, I think L1 and L2 lexicons can easily mix in any given utterance. The grammar is probably rooted more in one or the other, but the word choice for each lexical category in a given utterance is probably not limited to either. I do it all the time with fellow Chinese language learning friends (e.g. “Let’s go chi some fan.”)

  15. This is a really interesting topic, I’ve been wondering the same thing about the use of Mandarin and Taiwanese here in Taipei. My girlfriend was on the phone talking to her mom the other day, and after she hung up I asked her a question related to the phone call. She acted suprised and asked me how I understood what she said on the phone. Then she realized she had been speaking mandarin, but obviously she didn’t realize it. (I understand mandarin, but not taiwanese) From this you can see that she usually speaks taiwanese with her mom, but there was no obvious trigger that made her use mandarin this time (except that she always uses mandarin when she’s around me, so maybe it was stuck in her brain.)

    John, I hope if you make more observations on this topic you post them on sinosplice, I’d like to pay attention to the same phenomenon here in Taiwan and see how what I observe compares to what you observe in Shanghai.

  16. Hmm,

    The thing is, Shanghainese people are always using Shanghainese to say thank you. When you first arrive in Shanghai, xia ya nong is one of the first Shanghainese phrases you learn to recognize because you hear it all the time.

  17. JR,

    I observe instances like this all the time in Shanghai (most often in my girlfriend’s speech), I just don’t usually remember them when I get around to writing about it. Unfortunately this wasn’t the best example, either, but oh well…

  18. Gin, I think all the ideas you mention are all good possibilities, although perhaps unconscious rather than intentional. I would never have thought of that second one in a million years, but it’s very interesting.

    If she was using SSH as an in-group marker in the hope of having her request met (she may have already guessed that people generally aren’t allowed to park in that spot!) then switching back to PTH, hence suddenly increasing the level of formality, might even have been due to her displeasure in not having her request met. But again, probably not deliberate.

    Interesting example to provoke thought, though I guess we’ll never know the true reason for certain.

  19. In my opinion as a Chinese,code-switching is quite a normal phenomena in China.For you all know that there’re hundreds of dialets in China.It’s common that one Chinese can speak 2 language or more .Take myself as an example,I come from Guangdong province,thus I am familiar with Cantonese and Chaoshanese(for my hometown is Shantou city),and of course,I can speak Mandarin. I’ve been studying in Hangzhou for 2 years till now,so Hangzhouese is becoming more and more familiar to me.However,when I and my friends code-switch,we take it naturally,without thinking about”reason”,it’s indeed a reaction to the person you are speak to.For instance,we guys speak Cantonese in class and dormitory,but as long as I meet my Guangdong townees in school,Cantonese becomes our language(though we all can speak Cantonese )Maybe the certain reason turns out to be “showing familiarity between townees”.And another example,last semester I had a partime job in Mcdonald’s,Whenever there are foreign guests,we waiters are used to greet them in English,although some of the guests speak quite good Chinese.Obviously this “code-switching”is also naturall,just to show our respect to the guests.

  20. Sorry,I made a mistake.”For instance,we guys speak Cantonese in class and dormitory” the “Cantonese” should be “Mandarin”.
    Advice:John,It would be better if you add “edit” function in this comment box.

  21. John: Are we to assume your girlfriend is equally fluent in both languages, i.e. she can talk about virtually any topic in both languages without skipping a word, or searching her brain for the right one? Of course, I am not speaking about topics that uses technical words, or words that would be used only in settings such as school settings.

    Also do you happen to know how close the syntax structures of Shanghainese is to Mandarin? Are they almost similar in everyway EXCEPT for lexical items?

    What is interesting is that usually (or rather supposely all the time), people have said that there’s always some trigger of sorts that causes a person to code switch, sometimes it’s subtle and sometimes it’s not subtle, as in:

    Child: Mommy, look what I wrote!
    Mom: Can you write gato?
    Child: Si!

    Something subtle would be like if someone says a homophone that sounds almost like the same word in the other language.

    Therefore if your girlfriend is slightly more comfortable with Mandarin, then perhaps that homophone suddenly triggered her to respond back in Mandarin. Of course this is just one of the many ways code switching can occur, Comet explained the social reasons. There’s also the semantical reasons, where there’s no exact equivalencies, and you want to preserve as much as possible the semantical meaning of a certain language. Although like I said my knowledge of code switching is, “wishy washy.” The only reason why I know anything about code switching is because I was trying fix a problem in German syntax by using a fix-all method of simply calling the problem a “dialect,” and a speaker is simply code-switching.

    If you are really REALLY interested in code switching phenonmenon, Jeff Macswan wrote a book “A minimalist approach to intrasentential code switching,” concerning the constraints found in code switching.

  22. comet, I’m curious, do the MacDonalds managers specifically tell you to say “Hello” to foreigners? I never considered before that this might be intended as respectful, but now that you say it I do see your point. However, there is a problem: how can you know that the foreigner speaks English? Perhaps “Guten Tag”, or “Salve”, or any number of other greetings might be more appropriate depending on the mother language of the customer.

    Hmm…did you greet chinese customers in Mandarin or Cantonese?

  23. Code switching sounds like some kind of telecom term !

    I’ve dealt with code-switching my whole life and many overseas Chinese probably relate as well. I can speak Cantonese and English fluently so I will speak to my parents in both languages, often changing between both languages in a single sentence. The only explanation I can give is that I will say whichever word in either language that comes to mind first, you can call it laziness…

    I even do it now in Mandarin! I’ll mix in some Mandarin in my English conversations when I’m teaching classes or talking to Chinese people who can converse in English.

    For example, today I was asking a male student: “why are you 欺负ing her”. 欺负, in my opinion, doesn’t really have a very good definition (teasing, bullying, bothering, taking advantage of??) in English, (kind of like 厉害, powerful, awesome, strong??) so i just said it in Chinese. Anyway, my class had a good laugh at the 欺负 comment..

  24. Todd:
    hehe,the manager of Mcdonald’s never told us which language should we greet to the guests.However,in our opinion,English is an international language,the foreignor is suppose to be able to speak English.Of course,sometimes there may be some problem,just as what you said.I remember once one Korean came to Mcdonald’s,he can speak neither English nor Mandarin,and I don’t know any Korean ,so I had to turn to menu for help.He pointed what meal he wanted in the menu.In such situation,we switched to “gesture language” haha.It’s fun.
    Hmm~to your second question,I definitely greet guests in Mandarin.Just as English is a international language,Mandarin is a national language in China.It’s difficult for me to guess whether the Chinese guest can speak Cantonese,but I can sure they all can speak Mandarin.

  25. Kikko Man Says: December 9, 2004 at 9:52 pm

    You forgot the English code switch at the end of her telling you to shut up.

  26. Comet, if you walked into a McDonalds in Australia or the U.S. and the staff said “Ni hao,” would you feel respected? Just curious.

    I tend to think that most non-Chinese in China feel something like the following when they hear Chinese people say “hello” to them: 1) Considering China’s history, it’s ironic that the language of American imperialism is being used by Chinese to address all foreigners, even though in 98% of the countries on earth, English is not the mother language. 2) The only reasons we are being addressed with “hello” is because we look different, so it feels discriminatory, not respectful–especially for people coming from more multi-ethnic societies.

    I look forward to the day that China is the world imperial and Asian people (whether they are from Japan, Korea, Vietnam whatever) are all addressed “Ni hao” when they eat at McDonalds.

    That’s going to be infuriating for the Japanese, just as it must be for Russians and Iraqis to be addressed with “hello”. 🙂

    Sorry to get off the topic of code switching, which is very interesting.

  27. Hey John,

    Interesting topic. My wife was born in Lanzhou, raised in Shanghai then lived for half of the 90’s in Shenzhen (before we married and moved to California). So She is fluent in Mandarin, Shanghaineese, Cantonese and pretty proficent in English now.

    It is funny to hear her talk on the phone with her aunt in China she will mix Shanghainese, Mandarin and English all in the conversation, sometimes in the same sentence. Same thing talking to her Cantonese friends here, English and Cantonese code switching. Interesting as she has learned more and more English how that has crept into her Chinese conversations. When we were dating in China she hardly ever did that, even though she did speak some English back then.

  28. Laska, people already do something like that now in the US. Nobody off the street can tell the difference between China, Japan, and southeast Asia. They’re all “Asians” in their mind. This is especially pronounced in Mexican-Spanish which generally uses “chino” (Chinese person) to refer to Asians of any country (note, I speak very little Spanish, this is what my Spanish speaking friend has told me).

    Anyway, my point is, there is a third in which you can deal with someone saying “hello” to you to add to your list… Accept the societal view espoused in China that all foreigners speak English is widespread and pervasive, and maybe understand that they’re just trying their best to do what they think accomodates you.

    Now, I would hope that this idea changes, but change takes place slowly, but it’ll happen eventually. Until then you just have to deal with it…

  29. Comet,
    My bro in law family was from Shantou/ ChiuChow. Most people I met in Shantou did not understand Cantonese at all. I think their language(ChiuChowHua) is more similar to FukianHua and TaiwanHua.

  30. The city of Canton was developed mostly during the Tang dynasty by Cheung An political exiles. My Chinese professor told us The speaking language of the Tang dynasty is very similar to modern Cantonese, hence Tang poetry can rhyme better in Cantonese than Mandarin.

  31. In New Zealand, until recently, most Chinese people didn’t speak Mandarin. (WHAT??? Chinese readers exclaim). That’s because most Chinese NZer’s (50,000, about 2% of the population) emigrated from Canton, as early as the 1860s (Canton was the only open port remember?). Anyway, before 1949, so Mandarin wasn’t officially necessary. So when we see Chinese people (we as in Chinese speakers) we don’t greet them in Chinese since many people get offended — sometimes their families have been in NZ longer than Pakeha New Zealanders. They don’t want to be identified as Chinese, but as NZers (even though many still speak Cantonese). So now there is some tension, since there is about 50,000 Chinese international students as well and they look down on the CHinese New Zealanders because they can’t speak Mandarin. Which is funny, because English is more useful here 🙂 Anyway, so even CHinese greet each other in English, until they find out whether they are students/Mandarin speakers or what.

    Re McD’s: I heard that in China a McD’s manager MUST be able to speak English. And Dicos is trying to copy that. We went to the opening night of Dicos in Pengzhou (Sichuan) (the first fast food place in the town ever) and the manager himself came out to greet us and put us at a table and took our order. It was so embarassing. Anyway, he was so proud of his English, that he refused to talk to us in Chinese. I’m not sure if it was respect or showing off 🙂

  32. Another fast food story:

    A Chinese guy was working in KFC near my house, and some other CHinese guys came in chatting in Mandarin. He took their order in Mandarin, and when they left the Kiwi lady in the queue ripped into the staff member, saying “you shouldn’t speak Chinese in public, this is an English speaking restaurant!!”

    Far Out! I mean, imagine if they did that in China in KFC, how would my husband survive?? I was so angry when they told me the story, if I had been there I would have ripped into her I’m sure. I mean comeon, how does it really affect her? Does she think he’s going to get an extra chicken wing or what?

    • I work at a Chinese restaurant in the U.S. and am a native Spanish speaker. Our boss is from Qingdau, China and has yelled at us Spanish speakers when we speak Spanish in his restaurant. He told us that it is because it isn’t respectful to the customers to use a language that is not universal. We are only allowed to use Spanish when a costumer obviously doesn’t know English and my boss does the same. I guess I understand this concept, because it was very hard for me to learn English when I came to the U.S. I learned how to order from menus and say thank you from experience, not classrooms. I am always more comfortable speaking Spanish, but I agree that there needs to be a universal language. I think that those of my community who do not speak English are limited to what they can do in life. You can’t come into an English speaking country and expect to still speak your first language. When tourists come to Argentina where I am from and don’t know very much Spanish it bothers me a lot. It seems disrespectful. Why should immigrants to the U.S. not be respectful to the Americans? You speak Spanish in Argentina, and you speak English in the United States. It makes sense to me.

  33. Kaili,I heard Aussie is a pretty anti-Asian/racist country… is it the same in New Zealand?
    My friend immigrate to Tasminia, he is like the only Chinese there.
    In my community, I suspect most Chinese here are Fukianese(labors). I feel like an alien within the Chinese community.

  34. Funny Kiwi originated in the Yangtze valley in China.

  35. For me, code-switching is whatever expresses an idea/concept most clearly or familiarly. I have a Chinese-American friend, who, like me, grew up in the US to Shanghainese parents. When we talk to each other, it’s Shenglese (Shanghainese + English + Chinese) If we’re talking about food or things related to home, we use Shanghainese; if we’re talking about people we don’t really know or aren’t familiar with directly, we’ll use Mandarin, and everything else is English, for the most part. Usually what happens is that we’ll be chatting away in English– then she’ll throw in a chengyu to express one of her ideas, and then suddenly the conversation turns into Mandarin. From there it might switch back into English, or Shanghainese– it all depends on context.

  36. Wulong–I absolutely agree. I always respond to “hello” in Starbucks, McDonalds etc. with a smile and a “hi.” I always gladly speak to the staff in English, always doing my utmost to be friendly. In Kaili’s story about the manager, is it fair to say it probably would have been frustrating for him if his foreign guests hadn’t realized that he might lose face if he spoke to them only in Mandarin?

    Surely, though, I’m not the only person who sees irony in the “hello.” Ah, yes, but the irony is old history, let’s just get on with it, right? However Comet may find it interesting to hear this perspective on English from a foreigner. Anyway, I am very interested in his perspective.

    I have a acquaintance who has spent his life working against poverty in developing countries. As a young man, he was actually against teaching English (as many were/are) because he saw it as a tool of the American cultural hegemony. Now, however, his view is “whatever helps.” Very pragmatic.

    Surely since 1979 the Chinese are the greatest pragmatists of all?

    I am intrigued by the parallel Comet draws between English as a common international language and Mandarin as a common Chinese language. Would we agree that English would not be the world’s unofficial international language were it not (to put it simply) for the economic and military strength of the U.S.? If considered in its historical ramifications–the interplaying factors of British empire, American empire, Chinese empire, and, by Chinese standards, a relatively recent explosive American expansion starting with the genocide of American Indians (and the wiping out of 100s of languages) etc.– it’s an interesting parallel: English the putonghua of the world. (I’m discussing this view as a perspective, rather than disputing it is a fact, though that’s possible too.)

    In the code switching aspect, maybe not be so off topic after all. McDonalds, the imperial temple of the hamburger, causes me to switch to English to give the serving staff face.

  37. That was me.

  38. Kaili, I’ve heard that kind of sentiment before: that if you live in a country where the official language is English then you should speak English in public. Quite ludicrous, just a product of the resentment from would-be evesdroppers! Maybe in countries where Christmas is a public holiday, everybody should be forced to decorate a pine tree and sing Jingle Bells!

    Canton: “pretty anti-Asian”, as an Australian I am ashamed that my country has that kind of image, but I think that this statement is far too general. Respect and sensitivity towards other cultures has come a long way in Australia in the past 50 years, and I think that this development and change is still continuing. Certainly racism exists in the hearts of some, indeed a few years ago I had a friend whose prejudices were so revolting that in the end I chose to break off the friendship for that sole reason. But on the other hand there are also a lot of people like me, who have grown up in a multicultural environment with friends from all different backgrounds and who hardly even notice the colour of people’s skin.

    Unfortunately, places like Tasmania and Darwin and to a lesser extent my home town Perth have a reputation for being somewhat “redneck”. If your friend had immigrated to Sydney or Melbourne, he certainly would not be the only Chinese there, as those cities have large and well-established Chinese communities.

  39. In Latino communities such as in Miami, New York, and Los Angeles, often times people code switch mid sentence. This is really interesting. I’ve heard things like “No sabemos lo que we’re gonna do!” (We don’t know what we’ll do!).

    Here, amongst some of my Cantonese and Hakka friends, there tends to be outright replacement of some Mandarin words with the Cantonese or Hakka equivalent. For example, one of my friends always says “wai guo yahn”, “ri ben yahn”, etc. It’s really strange, and when I ask her why she does it, she just says that her Mandarin isn’t good.

  40. Canton:
    The mother language of Shoutou people is not Cantonese but Chaoshanhua,which you consider similar to FukianHua and TaiwanHua,so it’s normal that people in Shantou (especially some olds) don’t know Cantonese.However,as the business between Shantou and Canton is getting more and more.(like my father,he often goes to Canton for business)Quite a bit of business people in Shantou can speak Cantonese now.And we guys,who are inetrested in HONG KONG movies or pop songs,natually learn Cantonese from those things.Compare with people from other provices,we have more chances to come into contact with Cantonese.As far as I know,the youth of Shantou are able to speak Cantonese more or less,though not so fluent as people from
    To Todd,Laska and Kaili:
    Before discussing this topic,I’ve never realized that the foreigners are not used to be greeted in English,and even make you embarrassing.What you’ve said is indeed new and interesting(just as Laska mentioned)to me.I think the manager Kaili met in Dicos hold the same opinion as me,he has never thought of showing off but to give Kaili his best service,feeling like home,maybe.
    Forget that,I just wanna say I am so glad to have such opportunity to discuss topics with you all,making me see and know more about the point of foreigners.
    :)Especially to Laska,I am not”he”,I am “she”,cause I am a girl.haha~Does my view make me a boy?:)

  41. 🙂 hmmm, I am not sure why I thought you were a boy. I’ll try to figure out why and be more careful next time.

    Actually, I think the best way would be to greet non-Chinese guests in Mandarin and English, then let them pick the language. This practice is common in service and hospitality in Europe.

  42. Comment on code switching: I knew a young girl, American, who lived with her parents in Germany, Turkey, and Algeria and went to the local schools in each locality. You would start a conversation with her, say in English, and she would continue along untill she came to a word she was more comfortable with in another language, say German; and then she would continue the conversation in German, then in Turkish and then in Arabic, and then back to English, or some combination like that. It was was rather difficult to maintain interest in her conversations. She was twelve.

    Comment of English Imperialism. I find those comments rather interesting. I enter a McD everyone once in a while because I like to eat their ice cream cones. Some will great me in English, others in Chinese. I do not think it makes much difference to me one way or the other. I suspect those who know and feel confident with their English use English and those who are not confident use Chinese. I am just there to get an ice cream cone, not to make a political statement on language or cultural imperialism and so I am happy to greet them in whatever language they wish to use.

    I was in Vietnam and a young man I know studied French in the University and after graduating applied for a job with a French Hotel. The most important job criteria was to know English. So much for the Francophones.

    What makes a language international is not guns or political power, although they can set up the infrastructure that allows language hegemony; but rather it is commerce. Brits and Americans do not speak Norman French, although that was the language of the Norman French conquerors and the language of their military generals and their political leaders. Bismark had disdain for the Brits, a nation of shopkeepers with no military force, just a police constanbulary, or so Bismark said.

    That nation of shopkeepers established English as the international language of commerce. American English took its place at the end of WWII. English being the international commercial language makes it convenient for Englsh speakers, but it also makes English speakers lazy; they do not attempt to learn the local language as perhaps they should. Consequently, they need an intreperter, or someone who filters what they hear, say, and read. Not very prudent, I would think.

    I was working in Oregon once upon a time. I was listening to public radio from Oregon U. The guy was going on and on about the death of an old Indian women in Alaska, and she was the last speaker of her native language (this was not through genocide, but rather all the offspring of this people now spoke English). This radio announcer thought it was a crime. I thought to myself if he thought it was so important, why did he not learn this language and teach it to his family. Why did he think there was some genetic requirement that all those offspring needed to speak a language that no longer met their needs.

    When I was young, I also thought that any person coming to the United States to live or work ought to speak English. Since I have worked overseas and noticed that my fellow Americans do not attempt to learn the language of the country that I work in, I have changed my mind. What is good for the goose is good for the gander. So the Mexicans and Chinese and whoever can speak what ever language they want, I no longer find it offensive, although I think it prudent to know the language of the people you are among.

  43. Foreign language words creep into native language all the time. It is part of the natural evolution of a language, especially American English, owing much to our long immigrant tradition. In fact English itself is a real bastard conglomeration of Old English, Germanic and Norman French. How much English or Cantonese absorbtion is happing with Mandarin in China today?

    Perhaps because it lends itself so well to absorbing new words and cultural ideas, that this flexibility, along with commercial “imperialism” is why English is the world lingua franca today. Contrast this to the language police in France who try to keep Anglo words from infiltrating thier language. Point is that dynamic languages evolve while others just die off, owing to demographic shifts and historical trends. Except for clergy in the Catholic church, does anybody really speak pure Latin anymore?

    Here in California where I live, I can have “Yam Cha” dim sum (点心) for breakfast, carnitas from a taqueria for lunch and a plate of chao mian (炒面) for dinner and most people will know what I am talking about.

    For an funny example of English/Spanish code switching in a song, listen to “Caress Me Down” by the Reggae/Punk band Sublime.

  44. Luckly its only SHH and PTH.

    You know what very confusing is? For example when I was in China with some friends. I had to switch from/to Dutch/english/madarin/wenzhou-hua/german/french. No im not a language freak (I sux at languages).

    People should speak at least 3 FULL “non dialects” languages, esp. those bloody english native speakers.

  45. Canton,

    Although I’ve only been on Australian soil as part of 2hr stopovers on the way to China, from what I can tell from the Australian media and the Australian immigrant policies, New Zealand is less anti-Asian than Australia. Mostly because we are too far away to get boatloads of refugees, so we take them in of our own free will. Also, one of our biggest industries is export education (educating Asian international students) so it benefits us to be friendly.

    However, many people of our grandparents age are anti-Japanese (and hence anti-Asian since they can’t tell by looking) because of WWII.

  46. Comet,

    It’s not bad being greeted in English, it’s just that sometimes as a foreigner in China it’s depressing that we can never ever ever become an insider. We are always on the outside. Sometimes the use of English just emphasises to us how different we are and how far away we are from home/acceptance. On the other hand, I would imagine that tourists would love to be greeted in Chinese as they are having so much trouble getting around the country with little or no language.

    It’s also kind of stink that English is the McDonald’s language — you know, America taking over the world by trade etc…

  47. Asia by Blog

    Asia by Blog is a twice weekly feature, usually posted on Monday and Thursday, providing links to Asian blogs and their views on the news in this fascinating region. Previous editions can be found here. This edition contains China-Japan tensions, the f…

  48. karina gomez Says: May 15, 2006 at 2:17 am

    hello, im karina from argentina, i was wondering .. why is it that we code switch when we talk about subjects at the english teaching training course? we live in a bilingual community but we still code switch with other teachers, especially when we talk about methodology. and the switches are parcial, concerning technical words like PPP, TBL and the like.

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