Creating an English-language mash-up

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Edwin Encarnacion (left) and Jose Bautista (right) are two of the multilingual members of the Toronto Blue Jays (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

First aired on Babel (30/7/12)

"She has a certain je ne sais quoi."

"He's a mensch."

"Eureka! I found a solution."

We borrow words from other languages all the time. Known as "code-switching," it happens in bilingual communities, at school and even in the Toronto Blue Jays dugout, where more than a third of the team's players speak Spanish as their first language. And with more languages coming together in increasingly multicultural centres like Toronto, code-switching is happening more and more often. Babel turned to Rena Helms-Park, a linguistics professor at the University of Toronto (Scarborough), to find out why.


Helms-Park says there are two kinds of code-switching. The first is done by those who are truly bilingual and can move back and forth between languages with ease. The languages blend together in your brain, so it can be easier and more natural to use a word from a second or third language in conversation. This kind of code-switching keeps the brain active. And when a community that speaks multiple languages comes together, code-switching and changing the language you are using can reinforce and strengthen that sense of community.

The second kind of code-switching, Helms-Park says, is not true code-switching. When a person who is not fluent in a language uses a word from that language (for example, when an English speaker who does not speak French uses the term "je ne sais quoi"), it's simply borrowing a term from another language. The speaker is making the conscious decision to use that term.

When words that are borrowed become part of the everyday vernacular, they propel English forward. And as more people immigrate to Canada, they bring new languages -- and new opportunities to code switch -- with them. Helms-Park says that code-switching has always been a part of the English language. But thanks to an increasingly multicultural and digitized Canada, it's happening more often and with a greater variety of languages. These days, code-switching in Canada is just as likely to involve Hindu and Farsi as it is Spanish and German.

"English is always in a state of flux or else we'd still be speaking like Geoffrey Chaucer," Helms-Park said. But we don't need to worry. Code-switching may happen with increasing frequency, but fundamental changes to English take generations. "There will be a stability in the language, irrespective of what we do. These changes take place but they're rather slow, bit by bit."

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