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Language Sciences Colloquium – Johns & Steuck

May 3, 2019 @ 4:00 pm - 5:00 pm

The Ease of Codeswitching: Testing processing cost through the prosodic structure of bilingual speech

Michael A. Johns and Jonathan Steuck

Pennsylvania State

A fundamental question of sociolinguistic approaches to codeswitching (CS), defined as the fluid alternation between languages, is where CS is permitted within an utterance (e.g. Poplack 1980). Psycholinguistic approaches, however, often focus on the cognitive cost of switching, with the underlying assumption that CS is difficult (e.g. Bultena et al. 2015). In the present study, we capitalize on the prosodically-based transcription of the New Mexico Spanish-English Bilingual (NMSEB) corpus (Torres Cacoullos & Travis 2018) to investigate whether CS is difficult in spontaneous speech.  One proposed general constraint on language production is the Easy First Bias: easier (shorter, more accessible/frequent) elements tend to occur before more difficult ones (MacDonald 2013). If CS is costly, the Easy First Bias would predict that CS should occur later in a production episode. Alternatively, if more cognitively demanding elements tend to occur later in production, CS occurring later in production could provide speakers with a mechanism to reduce the cognitive burden (Silva-Corvalán 1994:6, 2001:272) encountered towards the end of a production episode.

To assess hypothesized CS cost, we examined 226 instances of CS in prosodic sentences (Chafe 1994:139-140) with the CS occurring across Intonation Units (IUs; Du Bois et al. 1993). For each IU within a PS, a binary variable was coded (0 = no CS, 1 = yes CS) and generalized linear mixed-effects regression was conducted to determine if the propensity to CS was more likely later rather than earlier in the PS. Indeed, the models suggest that the propensity to CS is greater later in the PS (Z = 5.79, p < 0.001). But does such a delay necessarily indicate cost? To address this question, speech rate was coded for each IU as the number of syllables divided by the duration of the IU (syllables/second). Unilingual IUs in bilingual PS that were not the site of across-IU CS were compared to an equivalent sample of IUs in unilingual English (N=160) and unilingual Spanish (N=175) PS. Mixed-effects models showed that speech rate was significantly faster for unilingual IUs in bilingual prosodic sentences compared to those in unilingual ones. Speech rate was then compared before and after across-IU CS by switch direction (English to Spanish, Spanish to English). Mixed-effects models showed that speech rate significantly increases after CS for both switch directions, with no significant difference between them.

The results of the present study thus suggest that while CS tends to occur later in production units, operationalized here as the prosodic sentence, this delayed production is not associated with any additional cognitive difficulty; on the contrary, the prosodic variation patterns provide evidence that CS facilitates bilingual production.



Bultena, S., Dijkstra, T., & Van Hell, J. G. (2015). Language switch costs in sentence comprehension depend on language dominance: Evidence from self-paced reading. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 18(03), 453-469.

Chafe, W. (1994). Discourse, consciousness, and time: The flow and displacement of conscious experience in speaking and writing. University of Chicago Press. 139-140.

Du Bois, J. W., S. Schuetze-Coburn, S., Cumming, S., & Paolino, D. (1993). Outline of discourse transcription. In J. Edwards & M. Lampert (Eds.), Talking data: Transcription and coding in discourse. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 45-89.

MacDonald, M. C. (2013). How language production shapes language form and comprehension. Frontiers in Psychology, 4:226.

Poplack, S. (1980). Sometimes I’ll start a sentence in Spanish y termino en español: toward a typology of code-switching. Linguistics, 18(7-8), 581-618.

Silva-Corvalán, C. (1994). Language Contact and Change: Spanish in Los Angeles. Oxford University Press, New York, NY.

Torres Cacoullos, R., & Travis, C. E. (2018). Bilingualism in the Community: Codeswitching and grammars in contact. Cambridge University Press.


May 3, 2019
4:00 pm - 5:00 pm
Event Category:


201 Van Hise