Life when code-mixing is the norm
In our house, it’s common to hear 7-year-old Samuel say, “Mommy, can you zavazovat my tkaničky?”
To which I respond, “You want me to help you tie your shoelaces?”
“Yep.” He grins.
“They got so zamotaný when I tried to sundat my boty after the hříště.”
“You got them tangled when you tried to take your shoes off after you came in from the playground?”
Blond-haired, blue-eyed Sam smiles wider. I loosen the knots in Sam’s mud-streaked, neon orange laces, and he slips his chubby foot into his black Adidas hiking shoes. It looks like he’s walked all afternoon dragging his untied, knotted laces through the slushy mud pit that his school’s playground turns into during the mild, rainy days we’ve had since Christmas. Sam knows he’s old enough to do his laces by himself. He also knows, if he’s persistent, I’ll help.
“There. Try to put the laces into bunny ears like I showed you.” While Sam struggles to tame his crusty laces into submission, I fight to push my frustration aside. Muddy laces can be washed.
But is it selfish of me to wish for my son to make one complete sentence in one language?
Sam isn’t the only one in our house who speaks Czechlish. When I ask if he has homework, 10-year-old Oliver says, “Nope. I don’t have many ukoly today. The teacher didn’t rozdávat the new učebnice.”
Before I can give him a lesson in English grammar (i.e. Don’t say “nope” to your mother and homework isn’t plural) or fuss at him for using Czech words when speaking English, 13-year-old Anna bursts into the room.
“Guys, who drank all the šťáva?” She glares at her brothers. The boys shrug their shoulders and look guilty.
All three of my children speak two languages fluently (Czech and English) and are learning a third (Spanish) and bits of a fourth (German). Instead of turning cartwheels at my family’s linguistic versatility, I find myself beating my head against a wall with the effort I put into decoding my children’s sentences.
I should be grateful that slipping in and out of languages is my children’s birthright. Instead, I am wringing my hands. Does it matter if Sam says most of his verbs in Czech? Should I tell Oliver (again) that the word for homework is uncountable in English? And, what do I say to Anna about a word like “šťáva?” In Czech, šťáva can mean anything from the juicy sauce of cooked meat to a sweet fruit or herb-flavored concentrate that is diluted with water to make a beverage. It’s not exactly “juice” but “syrup” doesn’t quite fit either.
I know many parents of multilingual children who share my frustration.
Code-mixing is a common characteristic of bilingual children, particularly in early childhood when a word in one language might be easier to pronounce or to remember than its equivalent in the second language. Although studies show code-mixing may pose challenges to vocabulary development in early language acquisition, by now, my children are old enough to have developed substantial vocabulary in both languages.
And, I have noticed (unlike when they were younger), they don’t code-mix with everyone. When speaking with their Czech babička (grandmother), they speak Czech. Nor, do they confuse English for Czech at school. With my parents, they speak English. Same with their English-speaking friends. Code-mixing seems to be a treat they reserve for their father and me.
The thought has crossed my mind that code-mixing, or speaking Czechlish as my family likes to say, could be one of those things my children do just to drive me crazy. (It ranks right up there with picking their toenails in bed or leaving half-eaten sandwiches in their book bags.) But, I hated to make that assumption without proof. Most of the time it seemed as if my children code-mixed subconsciously, almost as if they didn’t even realize they had swapped out an English word for a Czech one.
On Science Daily, I found an article called, “Speaking Two Languages for the Price of One,” which suggested that bilinguals who switch languages consistently are able to avoid the negatives of code-mixing or code-switching. (Research for the article was originally published in the Psychological Science journal.)
From the article, I learned that if bilinguals used the same substitutions (for a word or a concept) each time they spoke about it, they could eliminate time lapses which were often associated with switching languages. However, the research study found that while bilinguals were used to code-mixing, many did not do so consistently when left to their own speech patterns.
What do the benefits of consistent code-mixing mean for my family?
Reading about the normalcy of code-mixing helped me take a step back from my frustrations. Years ago, as brand-new parents, Radek and I made the conscious decision to break the one-parent one language rule (OPOL) in favor of a more as-the-situation demands language. (Groan. I know. How could we?) In our defense, I think we were visiting babička and got fed up with all the back-and-forth translating.
We simply spoke English with English-speakers (and during visits to the US), and Czech with Czech family and friends (and everywhere else in the Czech Republic). The children learned Czech in school, but I spoke English to them at home. Somehow it worked. Apart from their Czechlish, our children weren’t lagging in their vocabulary skills in either language. (Their accents are a different story, but more on that next week.)
After reading about the benefits of consistent code-mixing, it suddenly didn’t seem that strange that my children favored speaking Czechlish with me. Since my children know that I speak decent Czech and would most likely understand their Czech words, I wasn’t surprised that they thought (at least subconsciously) that it was faster to use Czechlish than to translate their thoughts completely into English.
Did my realization mean I would stop correcting them?
However, it did make me feel better to know they aren’t code-mixing just to drive me crazy or because they’re lazy (two assumptions I had prior to discovering the research).
I can accept the fact that some words are harder for my children to translate from Czech into English, either because the direct translation doesn’t have as clear a meaning, or because they are words used primarily in a Czech situation (i.e. school words like šťáva, družina, skříňka, šatna, tělocvik – see Key below for translations).
Still, it doesn’t mean I plan to ignore their code-mixing.
Nope. I plan to keep correcting their Czechlish whenever I hear it. How else will their language skills continue to improve?
When I told my plan to Samuel, he said, “Ok, Mommy. I rozumět you. And, if you don’t zvladnout the Czech, don’t worry, I can pomoc you.”
Yep. He’s still working on those tkaničky, too.
Does your family speak Czechlish? If you have any experiences of code-mixing (from any languages), I’d love to hear them.
Next week on Half-n-Half learn more about building strong language skills from a Czech speech therapist (who’s currently living in the US).
- zavazovat = to tie
- tkaničky = shoelaces
- zamotaný = to be tangled up
- sundat = to take off
- boty = shoes
- hříště = playground
- ukol/y = homework
- rozdávat = to give out
- učebnice = lesson book
- šťáva = fruit drink
- babička = grandmother
- děda = grandfather
- družina = after school care
- šatna = locker room
- skříňka = locker
- tělocvik = gym class
- mobil = mobile telephone
- rozumět = to understand
- zvládnout = to manage
- pomoc = help
Hi Emily, Funny & all quite true. A bit different outside of CZ. Here in the States, I call it “Changlish” (Czech English vs English Czech).
The ironic thing is that the adults use it, more so than the kids. Words creep into Changlish, for example: traffic “byla trafika”,
Another unique language quirk is that adults will add a Czech sounding ending or koncofka to a word & pretend it’s a real Czech word, example: dej to do trunku (put it in the car trunk) or koupim kold katy (cold cuts like ham cheese, etc) some how adding a magic “y” to the end of the word makes folks think it is now a Czech word..
There tons of phrases that seem to enter the lexicon & from what I’ve experienced, the longer folks are here, the more they use or create their own “Changlish” words.
Hi Marek, Thanks for writing! And, for adding some “Changlish” to the discussion. I have also heard my kids add a Czech “koncovka” to English words to make them Czech. Funny how you mention that many adults do it, too. It really is a way to make the language one’s own. I admire the creativity! All the best to you and thanks again for sharing another aspect of code-mixing. Best, Emily
Hi.Best if one parent uses only Czech anf the other English so kids can identify the language to be used with the parent they will talk with.PS. I the English parent used German their mother is German spoke English with the children.I tried the Czech but they mixed it with the other languages so I stopped Czech.Today the kids are multilingual from 3 Languages to 8 Languages. So it did help them.Be Blessed All.
Dear Zdenek, thanks for sharing your family’s story – 3 to 8 languages – very impressive! I am always eager to hear about other families and their linguistic journeys. All the best to you and your multilingual brood 🙂 Kind regards, Emily
Putting dirty dishes do sinku. Wearing sortky, Riding in a cara.
Thanks, Jana! Those are more great examples.
also driveovat the car
I’ve been with my Czech husband for more than 22 years now, living in the US the whole time. He’s taught me a lot of Czech words, and short phrases, but I confess that I am unable to put together many long sentences. And conjugation, proper gender, or proper use of cases? Forget about it! What’s worse is that I only know diminutive or baby versions of many words, and in many cases, animal version words. I knew the word “papat” far before I learned “jist” for eating.
We have owned parrots for the last 18 years. Our most recent two speak more Czech than English. I tend to mix the two languages when I speak to our most recent bird boy. Actually, so does my Czech husband. You might hear us say “Give me a pusa!” or “Go to klicka”. Other times we just speak Czech, like “Kaka na papirek!” or “Hodny kluk.” [Excuse any misspellings or lack of diacritics. ] His favorite words are “Kaka na papirek!”, “Poc”, “Dobry!”, “Dobrou!”, “Pa pa!”, “Ara cervenoraminy”, and most of all “Pusinku!”, which he says all day long and acts out with loud kissing noises.
I am a very enthusiastic cook, so over the years, I have learned several food/culinary words in Czech. I may have difficulty having a conversation with a Czech, but I can definitely read a Czech menu. I also know a very large number of words for animals.
Hi Cyndee, Thanks so much for sharing your Czechlish experience 🙂 I had no idea birds could be bilingual, too, but it makes sense. That is a pretty cool way (in my opinion) to pick up some Czech. I also know some cooking words from trying to experiment with Czech dishes. Do you have a favorite? Cheers, Emily
I try to cook Czech dishes at least once per week. I’ve finally mastered my mother-in-law’s Karlovarský knedlík, but had to find hrubá mouka online (and then in a Polish store) to really get them right. My favorite Czech meal is jahodové knedlíky. My mother-in-law’s recipe includes strawberries wrapped in a dough made with farmer’s cheese (tvaroch), and then boiled and topped with butter, more tvaroch, and confectioner’s sugar. They always ate them for lunch even though they seem more like a dessert to me.
Hi Cyndee, the strawberry dumplings are also a favorite of mine (and my children’s)! And, yes, I have discovered that the type of flour does matter to Czech dishes. Good luck with your Czech culinary endeavors and thanks for sharing your experiences.
Czechlish is no different from other multi-language family communication. As time goes on, one finds that certain words in each given language are actually better suited to each given situation. One Czech word may fit better than its English equivalent, and vis versa. This adds color and culture to language – it should be embraced. Our children grew up with Czechlish (now almost adults) but I have to say they will never have a problem of sticking strictly to one language or the other when it requires. But Czechlish conversations are always the best and most fun!
Thanks, James. It’s good to hear your family’s experience, and I agree some words do fit better than their counterpart in another language. Czechlish is still going strong at our house, too!
We are another ‘Czenglish’ (as we call it) family, living in Moravia and we have 2 daughters, currently 11 and 14. I am fortunate that we managed to nip mixing of languages in the bud when my eldest was still young. She also used to mix her languages and I used to feed the correct English back to her as you describe in the article, until I realised that it was not working. One day out of frustration I put my foot down and told my daughter that if she wants to speak to me, she has to use English only or I will ignore her. She was 2 years old at the time. It was difficult at first to actually go through with it, but my efforts soon paid off as my daughter realised fairly quickly that the only way to get my attention was to speak English. When the second one came we had already established that standard, so she was never tempted to mix her languages. Today the both of them are completely fluent in both Czech and English, without mixing them at all, and they also communicate fairly well in German.
Dear Johan, many thanks for reading my Czechlish story and for sharing your own. I think each family learns to make the “rules” or to create the environment for language learning that best serves the family. My children are fluent in both languages, too, but even now still mixing – sometimes for fun, just to keep us on our toes. All the best to you and your family in Moravia. Emily
CzEnglish not Czechlish … Prosím
Hi Stephen, I know some friends who say, “CzEnglish” but my children came up with the term “Czechlish” years ago, so that’s what our family says. But, the particular label does not seem that important (at least to me) – as long as the concept is clear.
Hi Emily, interesting read. I have left Cz in 1969, made my home in England. I have 3 grown up children, born and bread in England. All 3 are bilingual. I could not speak a word of English when we stayed in UK, so I spoke to my children in Czech…in those days I never hoped I would see my Czech family again , or go back to Czech, but I carried on in Czech at home and the English was outside….They are all well spoken in both languages, plus they are good at learning other languages. Cut the very long story short: my eldest – married to an Englishman lives in Prague, their boys are bilingual, my younger daughter is married to a Croation, lived in London and now lives in Frankfurt and their daughter ( only3 ) speaks Czech, English, Croation ( not particular in that order lol) and now is learning German. My son lives in England and I live mostly in Czech now….I think as you mentioned, if children know that one person speaks only one language, they stick to that language with them. I must say now we all use CzEnglish and laugh about it. A situation I never thought I would like as I was very pedantic about my mother’s tongue. Carry on writing, it is very interesting reading your views.
Dear Mirek, thanks so much for reading and writing me, and I apologise for my much belated response. My writing has been blown off course this past year, and I haven’t had the time or the inspiration to keep writing my family’s stories. But I hope that will soon change. Hearing your family’s story gives me hope that my decision to raise children in the Czech Republic and to try to expose them to as many languages as possible will one day lead them to raise their own multicultural/multilinguistic families wherever they choose. All the best to you during this challenging time! Emily