Professor Audra I. Mockaitis

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On Language, Culture and Bilingualism

bilinguaI have had the fortune of teaching cross-cultural management in international business courses in a university context for two decades. As a native of the USA, I was raised speaking two languages – Lithuanian and English, in two relatively separate language communities, and studied several other languages in my youth and adulthood. The topics of language and culture are of great interest and relevance to me, and this interest has only increased after having my daughter, whom I raise as a bicultural bilingual.

Code-switching is the process of switching between two languages with relative ease, usually within a single conversation, or sentence. I have done this all of my life with my Lithuanian-American bilingual friends, and continue to do so with native English speakers of Lithuanian heritage in Australia (and I admit that I even do so with my daughter). It is a natural process that sometimes occurs instinctively, and always depends on to whom I am speaking, but I am always fully aware that I am doing it. For someone who is not fully bilingual in the two languages, code-switching may give the impression that the speakers are more comfortable with one or the other language, but this is not always the case. I am equally comfortable with speaking the two languages, however, the reason for doing so often lies in the context (for example whether or not there is a shared context with the speaker, or whether there is an unconscious desire to try to establish such shared meaning).

Cultural code-switching also occurs, when individuals change their behaviors in accordance with the norms of another culture. Although it depends on situational factors, the extent of disparity between cultures, familiarity with cultural norms and cultural values, psychological comfort and other factors [1], switching between cultures is common for individuals who are raised as biculturals. Our cultural values only fully take shape in our later adolescent and early adulthood years, yet children have a sense about cultural norms already from an early age.

As a community language school principal, I have been able to observe children’s behaviors in different situations. As one example, bilingual children may address Lithuanian-speaking adults and English-speaking adults (and children) in different ways, such as with formal forms of address despite insistence from some adults that they use informal forms – first names [2]. Although this is solely anecdotal, as it is not possible for me to actually measure the children’s comprehension of cultural norms, it has led me to think about some of the factors that affect bilingualism and the relationship between culture and language in bilingual families.

The relationship between language and culture is undisputed in the literature.  I hold a strong view that language is a primary mechanism for transferring cultural values and norms. We can certainly learn (about) another culture, but without knowledge of the language, I do not think it is possible to fully understand cultural context, nuance and norms of behavior. The more fluency a child has in a language, the easier the transfer of the culture associated with the language will be. Is it possible for a person to be bilingual but not bicultural? Yes.

Active bilinguals use the two languages regularly in their everyday lives [3]. There are varying degrees of bilingualism. Passive bilingualism or receptive bilingualism means that a person does not actively use the second language, but may understand it. This can occur in children who begin speaking a language at home, but then gradually (or suddenly) refuse to speak it as they gain more exposure to the mainstream language.  There are many reasons as to why this may occur, however, this does not mean that the language is lost, although some scholars do claim that passive bilinguals are at risk of losing the language. Children may hear the language at home but not produce it themselves; these children are less likely to speak the language to their own children, while active bilingual children from mixed language families are more likely to establish friendships with other active bilinguals and preserve the language themselves [4].

Scholars have empirically found that consistency in language use by parents is key to language acquisition and retention – it depends on parental effort and motivation. Children who seldom hear the language or whose parents do not use it at home will not use the language actively [5]. This is often difficult in households where only one parent speaks the minority language, because the child is aware that she or he can revert to the dominant language. Parents often lament that their child has decided not to speak the language, and thus they themselves revert to speaking English in the home. However, even if the language is not actively used by a child, consistent exposure (e.g., parental effort) to it ensures that it is retained and can be revived when the child is motivated to use the language [6].

Language and culture are transferred through socialization – from parent to child, within the language community, via consistent exposure. It is thus up to the parent – not the child – to preserve them. Children do not make informed decisions about language and culture use. But their linguistic and cultural environments are determined and shaped by the values, attitudes, beliefs (and behaviors) of the people who make up their environment.

Thus, do not worry about code-switching, mixing languages, accents or even total fluency in the language. The important thing to focus on by parents is to ensure that the child hears the language in a consistent manner on a regular basis.

Click here for some insight and advice about bilingualism in children by renowned psycholinguist François Grosjean.


[1] Molinsky, A. (2007). Cultural code-switching: The psychological challenges of adapting behavior in foreign cultural interactions. The Academy of Management Review, 32 (2): 622-640.

[2] In fact, in a cross-national study on forms of address, Lithuanian adults indicated the lowest preference among 22 countries for using first names to address someone in an authority position. See: Harzing, A.W., Mockaitis, A.I. et al. (2010). What’s in a Name? Cross Country Differences in Preferred Ways of Address for University Teachers. AIB Insights, 10 (3): 3-8.

[3] Grosjean, F. (2001). Life with Two Languages: An Introduction to Bilingualism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[4] De Houwer, A. (1999). Environmental factors in early bilingual development: the role of parental beliefs and attitudes.In G. Extra & L.Verhoeven, eds., Bilingualism and Migration. Berlin, Germany: Mouton de Gruyter, 75-95

[5] Ibid.

[6] Kasuya, H. (1998). Determinants of language choice in bilingual children: The role of input. International Journal of Bilingualism, 2 (3): 327-346.

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