Mode Shift Manifestations: Same Person, Different Language

Recently, a Japanese colleague, whom I’ll call Professor Y, communicated with me in English for the first time in our entire working relationship of 20 years. The reason was clear: we were planning an event with various other people and one of them did not understand Japanese. This was a perfectly normal situation, and Professor Y’s English was natural, striking a nice tone of friendly professionality. Nevertheless, it was super-weird.

Francois Grosjean, a well-known researcher of bilingualism, describes three positions along a “language mode” continuum available to a bilingual speaker, based on the degree of activation of the two languages. In position 1, a bilingual speaker is basically in a monolingual mode; in position 2, they are in an intermediate mode; and in position 3, they’re in a full bilingual mode, moving between the two languages. There are a lot of factors affecting the language mode. Obviously, each interlocutors’ proficiency in each of the languages plays a role, as well as how they feel about mixing languages when speaking. The situation also matters, like whether monolinguals are present or how formal the occasion is. Despite both of us being highly proficient bilinguals, Professor Y and I had been firmly in position 1, essentially monolingual to each other, in a conventional Japanese administrative style of communication.

Many people — but not all — describe feeling different when speaking various languages. Applied linguist Aneta Pavlenko asked 1,039 bilinguals and multilinguals, comprising speakers of 75 first languages, “Do you feel like a different person sometimes when you speak your different languages?” Almost two-thirds, 65%, responded affirmatively, while 26% answered “no.” The remainder gave unclear responses or did not respond. Other researchers have published similar findings.

“Kate in English” is not the same as “Kate in Japanese,” but both are equally comfortable ways of being for me. With Professor Y, I was seized by something else: a disconcerting feeling triggered by the interpersonal shift in language, not by any feeling engendered by the language itself. After all, I speak English and Japanese daily with people ranging from those I know very well to complete strangers and feel no peculiarity in either language with any type of social distance.

We clothe ourselves in language. Among Pavlenko’s respondents, one native Spanish speaker commented, “I feel I can hide my emotions and myself a lot better in English. In Spanish I feel a lot more ‘naked.’” In related research, another applied linguist, Jean-Marc Dewaele, similarly quotes an informant: “Speaking my [first language] is like being in my own skin — a completely natural and comfortable feeling. Using my [second language] is perhaps like wearing gorgeous clothes and evening make-up — a not completely natural state of affairs but one which allows me to shine and appear ‘beautiful.’” Yes. It was as if I had met Professor Y at the beach with each of us wearing bathing suits. It was normal to be suitably “dressed in English” for the occasion, but it was an unsettling shift from what we normally “wore” when together.

I asked some bilingual informants about their experiences shifting languages with someone after another language had been established as the language of the relationship. Several patterns emerged. One person told me they had the experience but felt nothing in particular. Two had not had the experience but for different reasons: one told me she had no experience communicating in two languages with a bilingual, falling squarely in Grosjean’s position 1. On the other hand, another informant told me that she always code-switched with other bilinguals, position 3.

Striking the appropriate tone of formality when making the switch was a common theme. Some Japanese people who had shifted to English described feeling nonplussed about how to manage to convey the proper degree of respect that had been hitherto expressed through keigo honorifics. Conversely, another Japanese informant mentioned a situation in which switching from an English-based relationship to a Japanese one was difficult because formality assessments were difficult mid-relationship.

In these situations, the shift in language was occasioned by the presence of monolinguals or a new workplace with different language conventions — changes in external conditions. But one informant shared an experience in which a deliberate decision was made to change languages. She and another Japanese woman had a relationship based in Japanese, but after observing her speak in English to other people, the other woman suggested they speak in English, which they have done ever since. The trigger for the shift was internal, centered on a conscious desire for a new mode of communication. While the other informants had sought, haltingly, to replicate established conversational norms in a different language, these two actively pursued new norms through the new language.

For some, on the other hand, the shift to English may be experienced as a loss of intimacy. One informant noted that when she spoke in English to a Japanese friend she had always spoken to in Japanese, the friend commented that she seemed more distant in English. The shift to another language may also reveal some surprises: the same informant mentioned that when she and a Japanese woman spoke in English for the first time, she was struck by the woman’s unexpected regional accent, adding yet another facet to their communication.

The event Professor Y and I were involved in ended, and we are now back to speaking exclusively Japanese to each other. Perhaps we’ll speak together in English once again in another 20 years. In the meantime, I’ll clothe myself in Japanese, and that’s fine, too.

Kate Elwood

Elwood is a professor of English at Waseda University’s School of Commerce.