Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Why Aren't you Speaking the Right Language?

The question bilinguals sometimes ask themselves about their interlocutor

Post written by François Grosjean.

We saw in an earlier post that language choice, that is, deciding which language to speak with another bilingual is a rather subtle and complex behavior that nevertheless takes place smoothly and rapidly (see here). Bilinguals often have an "agreed-upon" language of interaction with people they interact with regularly (e.g. family members, colleagues, friends, etc.). When they are with others, then factors pertaining to participants, situation, content of discourse and function of interaction facilitate the choice of the appropriate language.

When speakers share at least two languages, and they use different languages with one another in the same interaction (A is using language X and B language Y), then one talks of non accommodation. If this is at the start of an exchange, a rapid adjustment usually follows, with one of the two languages usually prevailing. And yet, sometimes non accommodation may persist. It may even occur as the conversation is taking place. This is noticed invariably by at least one of the bilinguals, triggering questions such as, "Shouldn't we speak X?" or reflections later on of the type, "What happened just there?".

Non accommodation might even make one of the interlocutors upset, as Susan Gal, professor at the University of Chicago, reports in her study of language choice between Hungarian and German bilinguals in Oberwart, Austria. She relates that an elderly man told his friends during a game of cards how insolent a young bilingual salesman at the grocery store had been to him. "The little creep answered me in German" he stated, when he should have replied in Hungarian, the language he had been addressed in.

Several reasons may explain non accommodation. A rather trivial one is when a bilingual wants to stop someone overhearing what is being said. This is typical during a phone conversation when suddenly one of the two speakers starts using another language because someone has walked into the room or into hearing distance. The person on the other end may not know this and may therefore be surprised by the change of language. She may inquire what the reason is without being guaranteed that an answer will be forthcoming if the person is still there.

Status raising is an important reason for a change of language. Professor Carol Myers Scotton of Michigan State University, and her colleague, William Ury, reported on some fascinating cases in the Luhya region of Kenya. In one of them, a passenger on a bus in Nairobi and a conductor (fare collector) were conversing in Swahili. The passenger said that he wanted to go to the post office, and the conductor replied that it would cost him fifty cents. The passenger gave him a shilling and the conductor told him to wait for his change. As the bus neared the post office, the passenger became worried and asked for his change again. The conductor simply replied that he would receive it. No longer convinced, the passenger changed over to English and said, "I am nearing my destination." and the conductor replied in English, "Do you think I could run away with your change?".

According to the authors, the passenger's change over to English was a bid for authority, changing his role from one of equal status with the conductor to a higher status (English is the language of the educated elite in Kenya). This was a way of making sure that he would obtain his change before he got off. But the conductor countered the shift in status by replying in English, thereby reestablishing equality.

Another reason for non accommodation is simply to show off one's knowledge of a language or to get practice using one's weaker language. The latter may occur when the first interlocutor is not very fluent in language X and instead of speaking language Y with the other interlocutor, their optimal language of communication, he or she insists that it be language X. This happened to me just recently. A student came into my office and asked me in hesitant French, and a strong American accent, if she could speak to me. Mindful of the importance of establishing clear communication between us, I suggested we speak English. She continued in French and I reiterated my offer in English. She then told me that she had come over to learn French and wanted to speak it.

In such situations, friends can discuss why one of them refused to speak language X, but when the two are mere acquaintances, there may be no explanation offered, and once the (usually shortened) interaction is over, one of them will probably walk away wondering why the other did not reply in the appropriate language.


"Language Choice" in Chapter 3 of Grosjean, F. (1982). Life with Two Languages: An Introduction to Bilingualism. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Myers Scotton, C. and Ury, W. (1977). Bilingual strategies: The social functions of code-switching. Linguistics, 193, 5-20.

"Life as a bilingual" posts by content area:
François Grosjean's website: