Code-switching and the Interpreter

I am interpreting consecutively. I am well-rested, fully focused, alert and engaged. Almost effortlessly, I allow the equivalent words,phrases and structures to flow through my brain and out my mouth. An interpreting instructor of mine once called this being “in the groove.” It doesn’t happen every time, but more and more often I find I get better at it as I gain ever more confidence and expertise. It is one of our common goals, an ideal we strive to achieve in our work.

My sister, a trained classical singer, once mentioned to me that watching anyone perform well in whatever endeavor always reminded her of an ice skater at her very best, an analogy that really intrigues me when I apply it to interpreting. When I am on my game, it does feel as if I am gliding seamlessly from one language to the other, my brain shifting back and forth, ready to address all the challenging mental gymnastics coming at me.

Oddly, though, I find I can only achieve this switching back and forth when I am actually interpreting. My brain seems incapable of mixing the two languages in everyday conversation, no matter whom I am speaking with.

Weird, isn’t it? Many of my bilingual friends think nothing of starting a sentence in English and finishing it in Spanish, or nonchalantly tossing foreign words willy-nilly into a monolingual communication. (I even have a friend who does this when she writes!)

It’s called code-switching.

Not only do I find it difficult to mix my languages, but when I hear it done, I can feel my brain suddenly grinding and shifting like a manual transmission manhandled by a novice driver. And when I am at a gathering with bilingual friends and we start to chatter away, my head is soon aching with the effort of listening to all the switching back and forth. My inner ice skater feels as though the ice is all bumpy, and I am no longer skimming along. Since I don’t know what language is coming next, my brain cannot prepare itself, and screams: “Hey, I was listening to that, don’t change the channel!”

When I speak Spanish, I speak only Spanish, and when I speak English, I speak only English, and the twain meet only in the courtroom, or the hospital or at the deposition table.

Code switching is a subject of a good deal of discussion, both pro and con. Conventional wisdom used to have it that people who mixed languages were either too lazy or too ignorant to express themselves properly in one language. Nowadays, on the contrary, code switching is often considered as proof that a person is truly bilingual, and chooses which language to use according to specific cultural and personal factors. New research seeks to show that it is an intrinsic part of being bilingual (Grosjean).

I must say that this conclusion makes me somewhat uncomfortable. I consider myself fully bilingual. I have lived and studied in various countries. As a graduate student in this country for many years, my main language for speaking and writing was Spanish. My colleagues and instructors were all extremely well-educated and well-informed scholars and  intellectuals from many Spanish-speaking countries. I have read and studied works of literature in Spanish and other languages from all over the western world. My accent in Spanish is impeccable, my use of idioms and vocabulary on the educated native level. Why don’t I do code-switching?

I think perhaps the main reason is that I learned Spanish in another country, with absolutely no contact with the English language. For one year, I heard and spoke no English, and I firmly believe that the two languages somehow came to occupy different parts of my brain. I believe something similar happens with others who did not learn their two languages simultaneously. I have noticed that when I converse in Spanish with people who were born in other countries and learned English as a second language, we almost invariably stick to Spanish. With my friends who were born here and speak Spanish as a second language, we usually communicate solely in English (except when we need to say something we do not want overheard, of course!) It is only with my colleagues who grew up here learning both languages at the same time that code-switching comes into play.

I find myself wondering what impact, if any, code-switching has on interpreting. I am not referring here to the dreaded Spanglish used by some witnesses, which presents its own headaches for the interpreter, but whether the habit of mixing languages in social communication helps or hinders the interpreting process. I plan to investigate this more fully. Meanwhile, if anybody out there would like to share experiences, please comment below!


There are many websites, blogs and books on the subject of code-switching. Here are a few I have found of interest, but just google the term, and you will be amazed at the number of sources that address this phenomenon.

Websites and Blogs:

Lewis, Benny. How to Speak Multiple Languages Without Mixing Them Up. Retrieved from the website Fluent in 3 Months

Nortier, Jacominel (2011) “Code-switching Is Much More than Careless Mixing: Multilinguals Know the Rules!” Retrieved from the website Multilingual Living

Soto, Roxana A. (2010) “What is Code-Switching and Why Do Bilinguals Do it?” Reitrived  from the website SpanglishBaby: Raising Bilingual Kids.

 Scholarly papers and books

Grosjean, François. (2010)  Bilingual: Life and Reality. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Mahootian S. (2006)  Code Switching and Mixing. In: Keith Brown, (Editor-in-Chief) Encyclopedia of Language & Linguistics, Second Edition, volume 2, pp. 511-527. Oxford: Elsevier. Retrieved from

Price, Tom. (2010) What is Spanglish? The phenomenon of code-switching and its impact amongst US Latinos”. Début: The Undergraduate Journal of Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies Vol 1, No. 1. University of Southampton, Southampton, UK. Retrieved from:

9 thoughts on “Code-switching and the Interpreter”

  1. Betina Frisone says:

    Hi, Kathleen ~ I am totally with you on the ‘grinding and shifting’ with the mixing of languages. I was raised 100% bilingual — born in Mexico City, raised in Chicago, and moved back-and-forth between the two cities several times. While in the U.S., Mom was very strict about using Spanish-only at home or at family/friends’ homes, and English-only the moment you stepped out or if there was anyone in the room who did not understand Spanish. Only in recent years have I fallen into the custom of mixing languages (NOT Spanglish, but as you say, “mixing languages”) when in the company of bilinguals. At first I felt as if I was lowering my standards. But I don’t think it comes from that; it might actually be some sort of unspoken statement that ‘I know you know that I know the right term in the both languages, but I’m so comfortable with you that I don’t need to prove my linguistic prowess to you.’ Overreaching? It’s OK, tell me if I am!

  2. Kathleen says:

    Thanks for the comment, Betina! I have no objection to code-switching; I think it’s a fascinating phenomenon and shows an extraordinary agility in using two languages for communication. I just don’t seem to have that, and I find it interesting. I wonder if you find that the use of both languages in everyday speech affects your interpreting capacity? Just wondering!

  3. Al Navas says:

    Thank you, Kathleen. As I read the article, it brought back memories of my early days of interpreting at the local jail. One of the detectives asked a question (in English, of course), and I asked the Hispanic person the question…in English.

    Blank stares, and a comment by the detective, made me realize I had made a huge mistake. That was the first time; two others followed in that same year.

    I believe that using two languages makes it easy for *me* to switch. And when I do, I may or may not detect it. But I try hard to avoid it at all costs.

  4. Vicki Santamaria says:

    This is a fascinating subject! As I read this, I started thinking about if I code switch, and when. I realized that I mostly code switch with my husband, who is a native Spanish speaker, but very fluent in English. I’m a native English speaker. Sometimes I code switch with my interpreting colleagues. And to a limited extent, I do it with one of my daughters, who has studied Spanish for several years.

    For me, I code switch only with people I’m on a very familiar basis with, so I guess it involves not being embarrassed about speaking more than one language at a time. It’s kind of like the special language some sets of twins develop. Or it’s like how my mother would talk to us kids in Pig Latin or Alfalfa Talk, and we learned to talk back to her. We would have died for her to talk to us that way in public!

    There’s a bilingual lady who works in probation in the same courthouse I work in as an interpreter. When she sees me, she always greets me in Spanish, even though the rest of the conversation is usually in English. To me it’s a form of recognition that the two of us have a language in common that others don’t.

    One last thought. Sometimes I’ll be busy doing something when out of the blue my husband says something to me in Spanish, and I completely miss what he said, as if I didn’t even know Spanish. I think it happens when I’m thinking in English, or concentrating so intently on something that the Spanish part of my brain doesn’t register what he’s saying.

  5. Kathleen says:


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