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'Bilingualism in the Community' stands received wisdom about language contact on its head

Catherine Travis, Evolution

Date: 26 February 2018

Are bilinguals mixing up their languages when they switch between them? Labels such as Spanglish, Chinglish or Franglais suggest that languages in contact lose their integrity.

But in a new book, Bilingualism in the Community, authors Rena Torres Cacoullos and Catherine Travis debunk this belief, based on analyses of variation patterns found in hundreds of thousands of bilinguals’ own words in both languages, and in monolingual benchmarks.

“Through studying actual language use in a bilingual community, we see that bilinguals are adept at keeping their two languages separate, while switching between them. The languages are connected, but not conflated,” Rena Torres Cacoullos says.

The focus of the study is the oldest bilingual community in the United States– northern New Mexico, where Spanish and English have been spoken for over 150 years. People here speak what one bilingual describes as a “language sandwich”. What does this metaphor mean? As Catherine Travis explains, “ingredients from both languages are combined, but they are not blended — rather, they are stacked on top of each other, each internally intact”.

Launched at the annual meeting of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language (CoEDL) on Tuesday 6 February, the book was hailed as groundbreaking by Professor Kate Burridge, and described as showcasing the cutting edge research coming out of CoEDL by Centre Director, Professor Nicholas Evans.

Bilingualism in the Community: Code-switching and Grammars in Contact is published by Cambridge University Press, and will appear in bookstores in March 2018.

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