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Helen or Hélène?

How bilinguals borrow words from their other language(s)

Post written by François Grosjean.

- "Did you see Helen yesterday?"
- "Oh, do you mean Hélène" (pronounced in French)?
-" Um .... yes ..."

In an earlier post, we noted that when bilinguals are interacting with other bilinguals with whom they share languages, they may well intermingle their languages. They choose a base language and then they bring in the other language when the need arises. One way of doing so is to code-switch, that is to shift completely to the other language for a word, a phrase or sentence, and then revert back to the base language (see here).

Bilinguals can also borrow, that is bring in a word or short expression from the other language and adapt it morphologically, and often phonologically, into the base language. For example, a French-English bilingual in the US might say to another bilingual, "Tu viens bruncher avec nous?" (Are you coming to brunch with us?). Here the word "brunch" has been borrowed from English and integrated into the French sentence.

Another form of borrowing is to take a word in the language being spoken and to add a meaning to it based on a word in the other (guest) language. Thus, the French word "réaliser" is now often used not only with the meaning of "to do or carry out something" but also with the meaning of "to begin to understand something", borrowed from English. This particular loanshift, as it is called, first started with bilinguals and it is now quite common among French speakers who know no English whatsoever.

Bilinguals borrow for many of the same reasons they code-switch: they want to use the right word; the word they need belongs to a domain they normally talk about in their other language (see here); the language they are speaking does not have a word for what they want to say, and so on.

Those who have migrated to a different country have often found themselves faced with having to speak about new realities and new distinctions in their native language. The latter simply does not have the vocabulary needed, and hence borrowing ready-made words is more economical than describing things afresh. As bilingual researcher, Uriel Weinreich, once wrote, few language users are poets!

Spoken borrowings are usually recognized quite easily - if the listeners are bilingual, of course - but sometimes processing issues do occur. For example, if there is a word that is quite similar in the base language, then an ambiguity may arise. Thus, one day, I heard a French-English bilingual child, Olivier, ask his mother, "Maman tu peux me tier mes chaussures". I understood, "Mummy, can you sharpen my shoes?" (the borrowing "tier" was pronounced like the French word "tailler" (to sharpen)), and it took me some time to realize that Olivier was in fact asking his mother to "tie" his shoes! A cognitive conflict had occurred in my mind between the English borrowing and the existing French word.

Another moment of difficulty may come when, by adapting the guest language word into the base language, the speaker changes its configuration considerably. Thus, cognitive scientist Ping Li of Penn State University has shown that English words such as "flight" borrowed into Chinese can be difficult to perceive by Chinese-English bilinguals. This is because when they are adapted into Chinese, consonants are softened or even dropped. Thus "flight" sounds something like "fie" and takes more time to identify.

Finally, let's return to our opening example concerning Helen or Hélène. It concerns what to do with proper names that belong to the other language (first names, family names, names of cities or of landmarks, etc.). Do you bring them into the language you are speaking without adapting them (you code-switch) or do you adapt them into the base language (you borrow)? We have probably all been made aware of the problem in the different renditions we have heard of Tahrir Square in the media, from the totally English pronunciation of "Tahrir" (borrowing) to the totally Arabic pronunciation (code-switch).

There are no clear rules here. Bilinguals don't want to sound too sophisticated by using the "real" pronunciation, especially if there are monolinguals among those listening, but at the same time they want to respect the phonetics of the word and make sure their listeners understand who or what they are talking about. The problem is all the more complex if the two pronunciations (in the base language or in the guest language) refer to different places or people, as in the case of Helen and Hélène (hence the hesitation in the dialogue above). The ultimate strategy becomes: do everything you can to make sure your interlocutor understands you!


Grosjean, F. Code-switching and borrowing. Chapter 5 of Grosjean, F. (2010). Bilingual: Life and Reality. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Ping, L. (1996). Spoken word recognition of code-switched words by Chinese-English bilinguals. Journal of Memory and Language, 35, 757-774.

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