Language mixing and bilingual secrets [Transcript]

May 29, 2022

Sharon Unsworth: Welcome to Kletsheads. The podcast about bilingual children. My name is Sharon Unsworth, linguist at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, a mother of two bilingual children. In this episode of Kletsheads, we talk to 12-year-old Sara from Ireland about learning to read in Arabic and using her Italian as a language to share secrets. And in Hot off the Press, we talk about language mixing. We know that most, if not all, children do it. But what makes some children mix more than others? I’ll tell you about some recent research that explores the answer to that question. Keep listening to find out more.

Hot off the Press

Sharon Unsworth: In Hot off the Press, I tell you about a new piece of research on bilingual children. I summarize the most important findings and try to translate them into practice. This time we’re talking about a topic that’s about as bilingual as you can get: Language mixing. When you know two or more languages, you can in principle at least always choose which language you use to express yourself. The choice you make may depend on who you’re talking to. So whether they’re bilingual or monolingual, whether you normally mix with them or not, and the context. So to what extent does the context allow the use of multiple languages? Some contexts are more monolingual than others, so very often more formal contexts, like school or work, tend to be more monolingual. Now bilingual children have to learn how to do this, so how to control their two languages so that they mix in situations where it’s okay and don’t when it’s not. Some children are better at this than others. And the research that I’m going to tell you about today asks why? There are two possible explanations. The first is the children’s language proficiency. So basically, if children don’t know certain words in one of the languages, they’ll use the word from the other one. My favorite example, which I’m sure I’ve mentioned before on the podcast, is one that my daughter used when she just started school and she was annoyed at me for something and said: “Stop Mummy or I’ll put you in the gevangenis“. Gevangenis is the Dutch word for prison. I know that she didn’t know the English word prison, and so she used the word that she’d learned at school. Language proficiency can also affect whether children mix or not in the two languages in a more general sense. So if your two languages are not that well developed, it can be difficult to control which language you use. Second possible explanation for why children mix has to do with their general cognitive skills, so skills that we use every day to learn and to get things done. These include skills which help us to set goals, to ignore unnecessary information or distractions, to plan what’s needed to reach our goal. They’re often called executive functions. And these are skills that are needed in all aspects of daily life, independent of language. So imagine that you pick up your phone to call somebody, then you see a message flash up from somebody else. You need cognitive control to ignore that message and reach your goal of phoning the person you originally set out to call. Now the idea is that the cognitive control that you use there is the same that you need as a bilingual. When you decide to use one language, you need to ignore the other. There’s lots of research on this with adults, and it’s quite a controversial topic. According to some researchers, if you’re better at certain aspects of cognitive control, then you’re less likely to accidentally use the wrong language. And certain contexts are particularly challenging and you need more cognitive control in those contexts. So if, for example, you’re in a conversation with two different people and they both use a different language, then this is more challenging and requires more cognitive control than if you’re in a conversation with one person using one language. So if you’re a child growing up with an Italian speaking parent and a German speaking parent, then you’ll need more cognitive control. If you’re in a conversation with both your parents, then if you’re in a conversation with just one of them by themselves.

Sharon Unsworth: The study we’re talking about today looks at the extent to which those two factors, language proficiency and cognitive control, predict whether or not children use the right language with the right person. Its research carried out in the US by Megan Gross and Margarita Kaushanskaya at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. What the researchers did was to collect data from Spanish-English bilingual children between the ages of four and six, and they all differed in how good they were at the two languages. The children had to do three types of tasks. The first was a language test, combining both languages to give us an idea of their language proficiency. The second was a test of cognitive control. And this is a task where children have to sort cards, so they see cards with different shapes on them. For example, triangles and circles. And these shapes have different colors, for example, red and blue. And first of all, they have to sort the cards into two panels based on color. So the red go in the red pile and the blue go in the blue pile. And then after a while the game changes and they have to sort the cards based on shape. So instead of focusing on color, they have to focus on shape and put the triangles in the triangle pile and the circles in the circle pile. And how well they’re able to make that switch from sorting by color to sorting by shape, that gives you some indication of their cognitive control skills. Finally, the third task was the one that we’re really interested in here, that’s the language control task. It involved children describing pictures to somebody and that somebody else spoke only English or Spanish. And children did this in three different versions. So once they did the task where they spoke only with a Spanish speaking person, in the second version, they did the task where they spoke only with the English speaking person, and in the final version, both the Spanish and the English-speaking person alternated and this happened randomly, so they didn’t know whether they were going to be speaking to a Spanish-speaking person or an English-speaking person. And what the researchers did was measure whether they used the correct language or whether they mixed. So in conversation with a Spanish speaking person, did they use Spanish as they were supposed to or did they mix and use English?

Sharon Unsworth: So what did they find? I’m going to tell you about three main findings. The first was that how dominant children were in one of the two languages had an effect on how much they mixed. So some children were better at English than Spanish, so they were dominant in English, but with others it was the other way round. There were better in Spanish than English. And this had an effect on how much children mixed. So if they were better in Spanish, then when they had to describe a picture to the Spanish-speaking person, they almost always did so in Spanish. But when they had to describe a picture to the English-speaking person, there were more likely to mix in some Spanish words. The reverse was also true if they were better in English, they hardly ever use Spanish when talking to the English speaking person. But when they were talking to the Spanish-speaking person, there were more likely to mix in some English words. So that’s the first finding.

Sharon Unsworth: The second finding was that how much children mixed had to do with how proficient they were in the two languages. Children with better overall language proficiency were less likely to use the wrong language, so the language that wasn’t the same as the person that we’re speaking to. So that’s the second finding then. The better the language proficiency, the less they mixed.

Sharon Unsworth: The final finding has to do with cognitive control. Remember, that was the second possible explanation for why children mix. And what they found was that cognitive control also played a role in whether or not children mixed, but only in the context where children didn’t know whether they were going to be speaking to a Spanish speaker or an English speaker. So the bilingual context. So if children had to alternate between the English and the Spanish speaking person, there was more mixing by children with less developed cognitive control. Or rather the other way around. If children have better cognitive control, they were better able to use the right language with the right person. It’s important to say here that the finding is about there being a relationship between mixing and cognitive control. On the basis of this research, you can’t say whether one causes the other.

Sharon Unsworth: What can you learn from this study as a parent? Well, I think the findings from this study should be reassuring because they show us that it’s certainly normal that children mix from the dominant language, so the one that they’re better in, the one that they tend to use the most, to the non-dominant language. It’s also good to know that it’s not only about language proficiency, but also about general cognitive skills and these skills develop as children get older. At the same time, it’s important not to draw the conclusion, oh, my child mixes a lot, so their cognitive control, the cognitive skills must be worse. Finally, it’s important to emphasize that language mixing really is part and parcel of being bilingual is normal, and there’s no cause for concern when your child mixes. There are all kinds of factors that can play a role in mixing, including the two that were mentioned here. If you want to know more about language mixing, listen to the very first episode of Kletsheads heads, which is all about this topic.

Sharon Unsworth: What can you learn from this study as a teacher or speech language therapist? Well, one thing I think you can take away from this study, is that if children are dominant in their home or heritage language, if they’re much more proficient in that language than the school language, they may be more inclined to mix from the heritage language into the school language. And they may do this even if you as a teacher or speech language therapist only speak the school language with them. Whether they actually do do this at school remains to be seen though, I think, because children often learn very quickly that it’s not the idea that they use the home or heritage language at school, at least in most schools and in many countries around the world. Also, whilst it’s not a direct conclusion from this study, I think it’s helpful to point out that we know from other research that allowing heritage languages at school can help the children who are less proficient in their school language, not only to learn the school language, but also to understand the subject matter better and it can also increase their self-confidence. If you want to know more about that particular topic, listen to episode 9 from the first season of Kletsheads.

Sharon Unsworth: If you want to know more about the research I just told you about, or even read the paper yourself, you’ll find the link in the shownotes. Time now to hear from this episode’s guest.


Kletshead of the Week

Sara: Hi. My name is Sara. I am 12 years old. I live in Dublin, Ireland, and I speak English, Arabic and Italian.

Sharon Unsworth: So who do you speak English with?

Sara: Mostly my brothers. They’re not the best at the other languages and my friends. And at school. And sometimes with my parents. Most of the time.

Sharon Unsworth: Aha. And what about Arabic?

Sara: My dad. And like my grandparents in Morocco, my cousins. I speak Italian with my mum and my aunt and uncle and my cousins.

Sharon Unsworth: Aha. And do you like being bilingual?

Sara: Yeah, it’s cool.

Sharon Unsworth: Why is it cool?

Sara: Well, like, it’s kind of nice. Not always having everyone know exactly what you’re saying and kind of like if you were to say, let’s say something that you don’t want anyone else to say, you can just say it in that language. And it’s kind of cool to have your own private chats.

Sharon Unsworth: Do you know that’s one of the most popular answers to that question. Bilingual children like having a secret language.

Sara: It’s cool. Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: And are there less fun things about it being bilingual?

Sara: Not really.

Sharon Unsworth: Mm hmm. Well, that’s fine to, right?

Sara: Yeah. I mean, sometimes I guess kids will be, like, trying to ask you everything and expect you to know everything about the language. Like I’d say, I could speak Italian, but I’m not like fluent. So some kids in my class come up to me like, oh, you’re Italian. You know what this is and what this is what this is like every time that I can speak it, but I’m not completely fluent. They’re like but you’re Italian, you should know.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, you mean like certain words or something?

Sara: Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, yeah, well, that’s quite normal, I think, for being bilingual. Right? Which language do you prefer to speak?

Sara: English.

Sharon Unsworth: English, why?

Sara: Well I’m more fluent in it. And basically everyone can understand. So it’s not that like only some people can understand me, but like all my friends and family. So I can speak to everybody more easily in English.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Okay. Were you born in Ireland?

Sara: Yes.

Sharon Unsworth: So you’ve lived there all your life?

Sara: Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, yeah and is it important to you to speak English and Arabic and Italian?

Sara: Yes, because if I didn’t, then I wouldn’t really be able to communicate with the rest of my family. I’d have to always go, let’s say to my dad in Morocco, like, oh, can you tell them this or tell them that? But this way, if I actually know the language, I can speak to them because I feel like it’d be kind of awkward if I didn’t.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, yeah. And I suppose it makes it easier to have a better relationship with them, right?

Sara: Yeah. And a connection. So you can actually understand each other. Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: And do you go very often to Morocco or Italy?

Sara: Well we didn’t go to Italy this year, but we might be going later. And we’re going to Morocco in July.

Sharon Unsworth: What’s the best thing about going to Morocco?

Sara: The beach and obviously seeing the family and the food.

Sharon Unsworth: Aha. I don’t really know Moroccan food, so tell me something that’s kind of typical.

Sara: Tajine, couscous, that kind of stuff.

Sharon Unsworth: Sounds good.

Sara: Mostly a lot of stuff with .. in it.

Sharon Unsworth: And when you’re older, what languages do you think you’re going to speak?

Sara: Definitely English. I might still speak Italian and Arabic, but mostly 100% English.

Sharon Unsworth: What will make sure that you still speak Italian and Arabic?

Sara: Probably my parents.

Sharon Unsworth: What do they.. Do they tell you not to speak English? Or how does that work in your house?

Sara: Sometimes they’ll be like, oh, they like it.. I’m not going to respond to you unless you say it. And they say, like, come on, you know how to say it. So they kind of encourage me to say it in it, but if I don’t know then they let me off, but I feel like I also do want to still keep like being able to speak those languages because it is a cool and handy thing.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. So do you mind if they say, come on, you know, I’ll say it in Arabic or Italian?

Sara: No, I don’t really mind. I think it’s kind of like a fun challenge.

Sharon Unsworth: Okay, good. That’s nice. Imagine if you’re when you’re older, quite a lot older, I imagine. And you have kids yourself. What language are you going to speak to your kids?

Sara: Well, it kind of depends where I live. I mean, if I live in Ireland or let’s say if I moved to Italy, that I’d probably speak Italian to them because like they say, be able to like learn it and they’d be living there, so they should know it. But if I still live in Ireland that I probably would still speak English, but just a tiny bit of like Italian or Arabic too.

Sharon Unsworth: Have you got friends who are bilingual as well?

Sara: My friend Penelope, she’s also Italian and she’s in my class. And then there’s a few classmates in my class that are from different countries, and they can speak the language like there’s a kid that is in my class that’s from Malta and Russia. And there’s another kid who’s also Croatian, and then there’s another who’s British. But that’s not really a different language, but.

Sharon Unsworth: And do you talk about being bilingual, or is that not something you really talk about?

Sara: I sort of talk about it like if they’ll ask me if I know something or they’re like, oh, is anyone here bilingual? Or they want to know about something that I’ll tell them, but otherwise they don’t really talk about me like being like, oh, I’m bilingual and I talk these languages.

Sharon Unsworth: And you said you had a friend. Was it Penelope who’s also Italian speaking?

Sara: Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: Do you ever speak Italian with each other, or do you just stick to English?

Sara: We mostly stick to English. But sometimes if there’s, like, a secret, we don’t want the rest of the class to know, we’ll speak Italian.

Sharon Unsworth: Aha. So maybe what’s your favorite word in Italian?

Sara: Farfalla. Farfalle.

Sharon Unsworth: Farfalle. Is that. Is that kind of pasta? Or is it.

Sara: Yeah. It’s like it’s actually butterfly, but the kind of pasta is shaped in a butterfly.

Sharon Unsworth: A-ha. So, farfalle.

Sara: Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: And what about an Arabic? Have you got a favorite word in Arabic?

Sara: I like the word salaam, but otherwise you don’t really have a favorite word.

Sharon Unsworth: What was that word salaam?

Sara: Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: What does that mean?

Sara: Well, it’s kind of from the like the greeting, like, salaam alaikum, which is like a greeting. Like, if you were to translate in English, though, it’d be like, peace be upon you. But in Arabic, it would be like a way of saying hello.

Sharon Unsworth: Uh huh. Have you got a pet?

Sara: I do. I have fish.

Sharon Unsworth: Do you talk to fish?

Sara: Yes, I actually do. It’s kind of weird.

Sharon Unsworth: And what language, though?

Sara: English. I feel like they are. I mean, they’ve been in an aquarium where there’s a lot of, like, English speaking people, so I’m guessing they know English more than Italian or Arabic.

Sharon Unsworth: I think so.

Sara: Yes.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, probably. Do you dream at night?

Sara: Yeah, I do.

Sharon Unsworth: Mm hmm and do you know what language you dream in?

Sara: I usually dream in English. Because if I’ll ever dream of, let’s say, people talking, you should be speaking English. Because most of the time, let’s say people I know are in my dreams. And my friends so they’ll be speaking English. I’ve never really had a dream in a different language.

Sharon Unsworth: How do you know?

Sara: I don’t.

Sharon Unsworth: You just guessing?

Sara: Yep

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Right. So, you know, like animals and make different sounds in different languages. Did you know that? So if you like, say, in Dutch, for example. So I live in the Netherlands and then Dutch, a cow doesn’t say moo, but cow says boe.

Sara: What, that doesn’t make sense.

Sharon Unsworth: Doesn’t make sense? So what does it, what sound does a cow make in Arabic, do you know?

Sara: No idea.

Sharon Unsworth: No idea. In Italian?

Sara: Moo.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah?

Sara: Same, yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: And what about? Because often a frog is also.

Sara: Ribbit ribbit.

Sharon Unsworth: Also in Italian?

Sara: In italian, it’s cra cra.

Sharon Unsworth: Ca ca?

Sara: Cra cra.

Sharon Unsworth: Ca ca?

Sara: C r a c r a. Cra cra.

Sharon Unsworth: Ah, cra cra. Okay.

Sara: Doesn’t sound like a frog at all

Sharon Unsworth: No. I thought you were saying caca, which in..

Sara: Italian is poop.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, well, you can use that in Dutch as well to make to, say, poop as well. Can you teach me something in Arabic? Because I don’t really know. I know shukran that means thank you, right?

Sara: Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah, what’s a really, like, hard word to say?

Sara: Mae alsalama.

Sharon Unsworth: Say it again?

Sara: Mae alsalama.

Sharon Unsworth: Mea alsalama.

Sara: Yeah. It’s like, bye bye.

Sharon Unsworth: Bye bye, mea alsalama. Did I say it okay?

Sara: Mea alsalama, so yeah. Pretty close.

Sharon Unsworth: Okay, good. And have you got a nice Italian word for me? So I know a little bit of Italian, but not really very much yet.

Sara: Biglietto.

Sharon Unsworth: Biglietto?

Sara: Si. Yep.

Sharon Unsworth: What does that mean?

Sara: Ticket.

Sharon Unsworth: Ticket. Biglietto.

Sara: Biglietto.

Sharon Unsworth: Biglietto.

Sara: Yeah.

Sharon Unsworth: Now, I’m curious to know whether you read. Do you read a lot?

Sara: I love reading.

Sharon Unsworth: You love reading? Hmmm. I’m curious to know, can you read in Italian?

Sara: I can read in Italian a bit, like I’ve read Little Women. I read like 20 pages of Little Women in Italian, but it was kind of hard. And I’m learning Arabic, how to read it on Duolingo.

Sharon Unsworth: Aha. What’s that like then? Because it’s very different, isn’t it? Arabic from English or Italian.

Sara: Yeah. Because you read right to left and the letters are different. You could also do different things to them and sometimes they get joined. So you don’t know what letter. Then they’ll have things on top that would like change the way it sounds. So it can be kind of very confusing.

Sharon Unsworth: Mm hmm. And how are you finding that? Learning to read in Arabic?

Sara: Well, with the help of Duolingo, I mean, they’re kind of doing it pretty easy. So. So far, I’m okay. But if you gave me something that was just in Arabic and I had no help, I would have no idea where to start.

Sharon Unsworth: Did you decide to start to learn to read in Arabic?

Sara: Yes. My dad always encouraged me and he was like, You should always learn it because it’s good. Like, I never was able to do it, but then I decided, why not just do it? So then I.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. And it’s going well?

Sara: Yes.

Sharon Unsworth: Mm hmm. And can you write in Arabic, then? Because I imagine that’s even harder, right or not?

Sara: No, I can’t write. Nope.

Sharon Unsworth: Do you think you might do when you’re older?

Sara: Yeah, mabye.

Sharon Unsworth: All right. Did you say you have brothers and sister?

Sara: No, I have two brothers.

Sharon Unsworth: Two brothers. Are they a younger? Older? Do they speak Arabic?

Sara: They’re younger, so they don’t really know as much as me because when I was younger my mum would mostly speak to me. But then when I started school I learnt like, I learnt more English at school, so then I started using English more than Italian. So then whenever my brothers came along I’d always speak to them in English because that was the language I knew the most. So that I kind of developed into them knowing only, let’s say, a tiny bit of Italian and a tiny bit of Arabic, and mostly just talking to everybody else in English. Mm hmm.

Sharon Unsworth: And do you think your mum and dad are bothered by that or not?

Sara: Uh a tiny bit. I think so. I think they’d rather like have them still know lots of English but like know just a tiny bit more Italian and Arabic. And for them to actually understand more things and to be able to talk more fluently.

Sharon Unsworth: And what do you think about that?

Sara: I think that’s fine. It would be better if they knew more because then they’d be able to communicate easier. But for now, I think that’s fine that they don’t know everything.

Sharon Unsworth: Okay. And do you think that might change as they get older?

Sara: Yes. I feel like when they get older, we’ll be able to talk more Italian and Arabic to them because it’s, they definitely won’t forget English at that stage. They’ll be old enough, like English is engraved into their memory. It’s like, oh, if we talk to them in Italian or Arabic that they’ll still know English.

Sharon Unsworth: Aha. So you think they know English well enough so then you can change to using more Italian and Arabic? Is that what you’re saying?

Sara: Well I wouldn’t it make them speak it all the time. I would just encourage them. Like if the neighborhood friends, let’s say knock door at school, they obviously wouldn’t have to speak Italian Arabic. But with us, I would like encourage them to speak Italian or Arabic with my parents.

Sharon Unsworth: Mm hmm. Yeah. Do you sometimes, do you ever mixed languages up in a sentence?

Sara: Sometimes.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. What do you think about that? Does it bother you or do you think that’s just normal?

Sara: It kind of bothers me sometimes because I want to say something and then like, oh, and then I’d say it in Italian and they just don’t understand it. And they what are you talking about? Then I have to restart my sentence. But it doesn’t happen too often that it bothers me. And I’ll be like, oh, I wish it’d go away. And I would. I would stop mixing up Italian and Arabic and Italian and English.

Sharon Unsworth: Okay, so we normally finish by I ask somebody to tell me how you say thank you and goodbye. So maybe you can tell me how to say thank you in Italian and goodbye in Arabic? You told me before, but I’ve forgotten already.

Sara: Okay. Yeah. Grazie is thank you. And then mea alsalama is good bye in Arabic.

Sharon Unsworth: So grazia and mea alsalama?

Sara: Yes.

Sharon Unsworth: Yeah. Okay, Grazia Sara and mea alsalama.

Sara: Yes, that’s it.

Sharon Unsworth: That’s it for this episode of Kletsheads. We’ll be back in two weeks’ time with the next and final episode of the season, an episode all about words. Why do bilingual children know words in one language but not the other? Why do they find it hard to find the right word sometimes? And how are all the thousands of words that they know from their different languages organized inside their heads? Hit subscribe in your podcast app to make sure you don’t miss the next episode to find out the answer. Until then.

Sharon Unsworth: If you want to know more about Kletsheads, go to our website at That’s where you’ll also find more information about this episode. If you want to make sure you don’t miss an episode, subscribe to Kletsheads using your favourite podcast app. If you know someone else who might enjoy the podcast, then I’d really appreciate it if you would share it with them. You can do this via the website or in your podcast app. And if you’re on social media, we’d love it if you followed us. Our handle is @kletsheads. Thanks for listening. And until the next time. Or as we say in Dutch: tot de volgende keer!

This transcript was generated using and was checked by Aniek Ebbinge.

Comments are closed.