Aló, Aló, Aló…..

Badger policeman


Mr. Grumpy at Tumbit has got all hot and bothered about Spanglish.  He thinks expats shouldn´t actually speak like expats and has two levels of grumpiness :

  1.  Expats speaking in Spanish but resorting to English words they´re unsure about in Spanish.
  2. Expats talking to English friends and substituting “every third” English word for a Spanish one.

My advice to Mr. Grumpy is to throw caution to the wind because this kind of “wrong” speech has a name and it´s not Confusion, Forgetfulness or Ostentation.  It´s “code-switching” and it´s completely natural.  Anyone who lives with – or more precisely, lives in – more than one language does it.  It´s only linguistically-deprived monolinguals, poor dull souls, who don´t, and even they still have to deal with all the other minefields afflicting language, like register, accent and context.

In these IT days, we hear quite a lot about codes.  WordPress even go as far as to argue that “code” is poetry.  I might take that up in another post, but in the meantime I want to stress that the kind of code we´re talking about when we think of Spanglish is linguistic code – ie. language and all that it entails, which is a great deal.  (Switching does not mean beating grammar into a reluctant schoolboy with twigs of birchwood, but changing from one language to another).


Birch for punishment


In fact, code-switching is how languages get invented!  When we read in the dictionary that a particular word “ comes from the Latin” (or Greek, Arabic or Sanskrit), it means that certain strange, unintelligible words from far off places have eventually become our very own native words over a period of hundreds or thousands of years.  Linguistic expression is necessarily predicated on a state of being –  who, what, where, why, when, how and whether one is – and is an organic,  living thing to which all speakers contribute all the time.  It´s not something mastodontic which exists over and above us and could go on without us.  No, we are the ones who make it!

And it doesn´t only happen with vocabulary.  I always hated the classical cases and declensions that my Latin teacher, Mrs. McLay, tried unsuccessfully to beat into my adolescent brain.  Apparently the Romans did too and by reprehensible vices like sloth and mental fogginess invented prepositions, thus contributing to  simplifying classical Latin into the vulgar Latin that ordinary folk could actually speak.

As an English and Spanish speaker I, for one, am thrilled about losing all that nominative, accusative, genitive and vocative stuff!  (Sorry Germans et. al., even if often we still, as you do, at the end of our sentences our prepositions put).

The main point about code-switching is that it is anti-translation.


Because translation is slow, inhibiting fluency, and is thus better suited to the soporific and laborious work of scribing legal contracts. (Trust me, I know, snoooore……).  Code-switching applies to us because the spoken language has to be economical and quick.  If almendros pops into your mind quicker than almond trees then almendros it is,  because speech is not about the muscles of your mouth or linguistic correctness but the new neural pathways creating themselves in your brain and making you bilingual!

The fact is that language is not a question of Tufty the Squirrel walking safely up one side of the street and down the other.  No, it´s about him darting beady-eyed and dangerously back and forth across the road.  Anything can happen and usually does, Spanglish even.  However, this code-switching flow of articulated sound and meaning, for trade, love, ritual and lately, ideas, only becomes a  “problem” when a certain piece of territory is linked to a certain language in order to create a certain nation state with  physical boundaries.  It may be a mark of civilisation to have One State, One Language, keeping all illegal utterances out, but to achieve this, linguistic expression has to be policed.  And what is policing, but policy?


Tufty the Squirrel


This is what Mr. Grumpy is doing when he yearns for an either/or paradigm. When he states he only ever begins a conversation in Spanish that he “can be sure of finishing,” he´s policing his own linguistic output and testing his translation capabilities.  To my mind, not allowing yourself to grab at all the wonderful, poetic, chaotic speech resources you have at the tip of your tongue is like imposing a form of corporal punishment on yourself, like the birch!

So don´t police or translate your speech,  because if you ARE an expat, it´s no crime to speak like one!



  1. If you really want to speak gibberish Spanglish, try Fromolostiano (; you can search through all the dictionary entries recorded in Fromlostian at, and it’s all “by the face”. Warning: knowing English helps some, but being proficient in barroom Spanish is a must.

    • I’m busy wondering if Mr Hubby – the linguist – is able to speak and understand ‘Weegie’ like his Mrs ?

      • Mr. Grumpy, many a Glaswegian has been on the verge on hospitalisation on discovering that the Glasgow lad they had been conversing with for half an hour was actually a perfidious Spaniard! I´m sure some of them never quite got over it. Nae furriner, Señor Gruñón, speaks English or weegie like ma man! (I bet he evens follows Billy Connolly better than your good self – in fact sometimes he picks him out better than me)! My husbandito has his faults but not speaking parfait English isn´t one of them!

    • Who said I wanted to speak gibberish?

    • Just saw this! Hilarious.

      • Hilarious yourself, ¡pequeña! Your style is so cute and adorable I can´t see how you could find a crusty old besom like myself funny!

  2. I’m a big fan of bilingualism, and have my own post touting it and also bashing Mr. Grumpy here:
    (What would we write about without Mr. Grumpy?)

    Still, some of what is being described here isn’t code-switching, which presupposes a familiarity with the syntax and grammar of both languages, but rather “pidgin”, a linguistic term inspired by the English-Chinese hybrid which is a pastiche of two languages and lacks any coherent grammar and form. I’m going to join Mr. Grumpy on this issue (trolls of the web unite!) and say that there are good, fun, creative usages of Spanglish (Bardem: “friendo”) and then horrendous kinds (see “Spanish” words: “footing”, “el rufo”, “puenting”). I mean, madre mía, nothing is more obnoxious than trying to follow someone in a conversation as they switch back and forth inconsistently between two languages, without rima or razón, and often without fidelity to the correct accent of one or the other; or use the English word when a perfectly good (or better) word exists (“marketing”) in the other language. Also, in my experience expats, who often are not actually bilingual, are the worst at playing with code-switching (though their bilingual kids my be great at it). And while bilingual noun substitution can be fun and convenient, it can also be seen as lazy and confusing. (Why not exercise your brain and try to recall the proper translation?) So why put grammar teachers and editors out of work? There’s enough unemployment these days as it is. To conclude, using my native Texan, we should all learn to speak good!

    Of course, the final word on these matters goes to whoever can spin the most entertaining visual on it, which goes to the Open University whose “History of the English Language in 10 minutes” 1-minute chapter on “Global Language or, Whose language is it anyway” takes the cake (gana la tarta):

    • Lots of stuff on here Not Hemingway, though first off I´d argue that Mr. Grumpy´s estate agent was indeed code-switching and not speaking pidgin. I´d also argue that pidgin or criollo have structure since they´re spoken by groups of people sharing fields of reference rather than a single, lost tourist (for example) though this can lead to functional illiteracy in two languages. Spanglish in the United States has structure too although it goes beyond code-switching to actually create neologisms, some of which are not very nice (Oops, value judgement) but that case is particularly unique. I agree that of course Valencià is Català. You´re right that few people are actually “true” bilinguals, partly because it´s not something that can be measured very easily. And finally I have to ask, “Catalan Empire?” First I´ve heard of such a thing but do enlighten me, please! Thanks a lot for adding such a comprehensive comment.

      • Okay, you’ve won me over. There’s a politics to griping about Creole, and I’d rather be embracing than exclusive side on that. But I _heart_ the gripers. Re: “Catalan Empire”, you’ll note I never put those two words together, and I retract “empire”. Better to use the more correct “kingdom”, as I was referring to the Aragonese crown which at one point unified Valencia and Catalonia.

        Ah, Spanglish in the U.S. -Sigh-. There’s an endless gripe session for me and my wife whenever you want to start it. I refrained from saying what she thinks of Spanglish in Florida, much less Texas.

        • I did note the Texas reference! Spanglish is a really huge kettle of fish we can or can/not get into if you want. I will warn you I´m one of the few Anglos (of the Scottish variety) with a qualification in things Chicano so beware….but it is a fascinating subject.

  3. The art of communication involves one party getting something across correctly to another party, surely? Educated at a very strict Grammar School, I resent the way that our mother tongue is so often murdered – but if people can communicate without fully mastering even one language, then how can I complain? I use Spanish words scattered liberally in my blog – because those are the words of which I think first in any given context as I’m writing. Mil disculpas!

    • I´d always argue for everybody mastering one language, at least. Ignorance is ignorance, even in (or especially in) the case of speaking and writing skills. I do think language has to be taught and not just picked up as you mosey on through life but in the case of more than one language it´s difficult to achieve a similar level of skill in both. For that you need to start very young.

      • I agree with both of you.
        – Or at least I would if understood any of what you linguists were babbling on about.

        • Hee hee! Actually I am babbling since I´d never call myself a linguist, primarily since I´m not one. My hubby is though and I had to do some reading on the old lingo to be a hispanist, but I´m more of a culture typy-person and language comes under that.

          • Mo, it sounds like we’re working from the same motivation and toolkit. My wife is the linguist in our household, and me the culture typy-person. So when I gripe about looseness with language, its really me channel her precision, since I’m actually pretty poor with grammar.

            Maybe I’ll write an entry: Art of Communication ≠ Language. I bought my father-in-law a wonderful travel communication book, which had no words in it. It was just a bunch of photos of things one would need when traveling. He is now able to communicate quite effectively, dare I say artfully, in numerous countries without ever learning a language: point at picture in book and look at local with expectant, inquisitive face. Genius!

            • That´s quite a new take on what my hubby calls “portable language skills”! What if you lose the book? Instant rabbit hole to oblivion?

    • Poisonally, I think that language issues are ultimately a question of critical mass, like with nuclear explosions. Something gives and suddenly something new is created – a language, a dialect, a jargon of some kind, and, of course, something else is destroyed. Sometimes I even wonder if it happens with bees. All of a sudden some buzz a different way, many follow and finally you have a whole new bee lingo! So I think you should listen to them burdies of yours, Debbie, they might be in a translinguistic state (which will probably imply application for yet another licence).

  4. Most of the times switching is made just for fun, joking with friends and not trying to show “how clever” you are. Another thing I’d like to add and that has not been said: don’t you think that knowing several laguages enables you to learn new ones more easily and quickly? I’m completely convinced! I’m bilingual in galician and spanish… and in many occasions galician turns out to be very useful when trying to work out the meaning of some expressions and idioms, or for example, when studying invesion of the subject and auxiliary verv in english, I realized that the adverbials that made it happen are actually the same that in galician invert the object pronoun and the verb!! This in spanish doesn’t happen! Could this be a faint reminiscence of our celtic common past? What to you believe?

  5. Talk away Mo ! I don’t even know (or care) what a Monoglot is.

    I can see I’m outnumbered by all the linguists here, I just prefer to know which language I’m actually talking in most of the time.

    As a far from fluent speaker hearing a new word for the first time it helps to know whether I am actually hearing Valencian or Castillian (and in the case of Thesaurus-weilding Monoglots) English

    • To be honest we´ve been a bit unfair. Dealing with three langauges really is a hefty load, especially since Valencià and Spanish share so much and it would be hard, I´m sure, to know where a new word fits.

      • Chillax Mo,
        I appreciate that being honest makes me an easy target. What I could have mentioned in my blog which may have allowed a speck of sympathy is the fact that I studied German language & Literature for 7 years and as such have spent almost all my time in Spain trying very hard to clear out the rubbish and make room for a new language.
        With mixed success.

        • Well, that makes you a linguist too! Anybody who can even begin to speak German has a Beautiful Mind in my opinon. All those cases, brrrrr! I think your German studies would help you a lot with taking these two new languages on board (Castillian and Valencian). As for sympathy, the more I find out about you the more I like you! OK, that´s enough gushing for one day, except to say the story of your dog Lenny had me weeping over my keyboard.

  6. Spanglish will always be a large part of my bilingual/bicultural relationship, no matter how much it bothers Mr. Grumpy. (Mr. Grumpy kinda sounds like something I’d call a tetchy child, hahaha. I say this with respect to him, because I like his blog, by the way.)

    I mean, am I going to call delicious, delicious salchichón casero “sausage”? No. It’s not like a nasty processed sausage you buy in the supermarket, so no. Also, when I think of “ham,” I don’t think of jamón

    I understand that it’s a bit annoying when people try to sound cool by doing this. I mean, words like piedra have a direct equivalent translation in English, so I don’t see the need for Spanish in that case. I think that it has more to do with meaning, and if the other person understands Spanish and would better understand what you want to say–do it!

    • Mr. Grumpy´s blog is brill! He always makes me laugh. My linguist hubby always says that speech or conversation is about “negotiated” meaning in which each side sort of trims their speech to fit the characteristics of the other person (that last bit´s me, hubby would never say trim, especially if there´s a big fancy word that means the same). So I agree that “piedra” was pushing it a bit and that people do try to show off their linguistic knowledge, me included (on a good day).

  7. As a monoglot, I think Mr Grumpy’s comments are absurd. I can manage a small amount of ‘tourist French’, enough to buy things or ask directions. If I want to buy something I don’t know the word for, I say ‘I don’t know the word’, then ‘we say XXXXX’, and try to describe what I want in mime and very broken French. When the shopkeeper works out what I want, I ask what the word for it is, and if I remember it next time, then I’ve increased my vocabulary. In an era of international packaging, sometimes people know the name of an object in another language by what’s printed on the box.
    If I didn’t try to buy things I didn’t know the word for, I would have starved when on holiday! If you can make yourself understood, that’s all that matters – life isn’t a language exam!
    This year I’ll be passing through Belgium and spending some time in Spain. Can I speak Flemish? No. Can I speak Spanish? No. Will I get by? Yes. There’s bound to be misunderstandings and confusion, but things will work themselves out, and I might have some funny stories to tell. Would Mr Grumpy prefer if I didn’t visit countries whose languages I didn’t speak?

    • I take your points Norrie and I have to say you´re only a monoglot because you live in the country in which you were born and speak its language. If you lived in France you´d become bilingual. Mr. Grumpy – I feel quite bad talking about him behind his back as it were – lives in Valencia and has to deal with Spanish, Valencià and English. Trilingualism is tough.

  8. Helen Marie Cassidy says:

    Oh, yes. Switching is fun. Do you want a bocadillo of chorizo? Have you had your merienda yet? Would you like a baguette filled with spicy Spanish sausage or have you already partaken of afternoon tea just isn’t lo mismo.

    • No, it isn´t lo mismo. And of course, part of the problem arises when you try to translate one concept into the “target language” when it has no equivalent. To be fair to Mr. Grumpy (where are you Dan, I thought you´d be defending yourself?) he´s in Valencia with three languages! I´m sure that forces you to put a bit of order in your house.

  9. Ok, Mo !
    – Yo Entiendo most of what you are saying, but the issue becomes muy dificil when you chuck a third, regional idioma into the mezcla.

    • Oh there you are! Thank goodness. See, you´re code-switching yourself and very expertly if you don´t mind me saying so! I do sympathise with you having three languages on your doorstep. I hope your Spanish classes are going well, though you´ll have to stick at them since it took me 30 years to be able to say “I speak Spanish”. Even today I found myself trying to wangle some way of saying a particular thing more or less properly. I might not be a good example since everybody has different strengths and weaknesses and you might move much faster than me by Actually Living Here or by inherent ability. I should add that people code-switch quite happily (as well as fall into bed with the wrong person) when inebriated but perhaps that approach wouldn´t cheer up Mrs. Grumpy at all!

  10. We love doing this at home…code switching makes for some hilarious jokes that can’t be made in either language alone. No wonder Mr. Grumpy is grumpy, he’s missing out on some fun. 🙂

    • I know! And he´s got such a good sense of humour! I do concede that switching languages can mean you end up speaking fluent gibberish in two languages but we won´t tell him that.

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