When Bilinguals Borrow from One Language to Another (2023)

When bilinguals interact with other bilinguals who know the same languages, they may well intermingle their languages through code-switching or borrowing. Code-switching—the shift from one language to another for a word, phrase or sentence—has been the object of much research (see here). This has not been the case for borrowing, where a word or short expression from one language is integrated linguistically into the other (see here). Professor Shana Poplack of the University of Ottawa has just published a much-awaited book entitled, Borrowing: Loanwords in the Speech Community and in the Grammar (see here). She has kindly accepted to answer a few of our questions and we thank her wholeheartedly.

You are known throughout the world for your pioneering work on code-switching. And now you have published this book on borrowing. Can you tell us the reasons behind it?

I came to borrowing as a result of many years of studying code-switching. The latter involves juxtaposing sequences of one language with sequences of another, as in this sentence, “Quand il marchait là, il marchait over dead bodies,” spontaneously produced by one of the participants in our studies. Code-switching is conspicuous, salient and endlessly fascinating. Yet, despite intense scholarly scrutiny, it remains controversial. Analysis of bilingual behavior on the ground suggests that this is a consequence of failing to recognize borrowing in all its manifestations. Speakers, on the other hand, make a fundamental distinction between borrowing of all types and code-switching (CS) (as your own early experimental work suggested).

In contrast to CS, borrowing, as in “Je groovais comme si j’étais à un show de rap” (‘I was grooving like I was at a rap concert’), has been treated as a poor relation. By virtue of its major property, integration, it often passes unnoticed. This is a shame because systematic analysis of borrowing in the 13 language pairs my team and I studied showed that the linguistic and social processes involved are at least as complex and startling as those underlying CS. So I had to write a book about them!

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How frequent is borrowing in bilingual discourse as opposed to code-switching?

Ironically enough, given the neglect it has suffered, borrowing turns out to be the major manifestation of language mixing by far. In the French-English materials we studied, it outweighs CS by a factor of 20. In many bilingual data sets, that’s all there is. I regularly send my graduate students out to collect samples of CS from communities they describe as rife with mixing, and nine times out of ten they return with nothing but examples of lexical borrowing.

Are some bilinguals code-switchers and others borrowers? If so, what accounts for being one or the other?

Definitely, and for good reason. The ability to access a sequence like “over dead bodies” necessarily requires knowledge of English. The ability to juxtapose it with a French sequence so as to result in a sentence that is well-formed in both languages simultaneously requires (even greater) knowledge of both languages. And indeed, our research has shown, not surprisingly, that CS is the province of the most proficient bilinguals.

(Video) Language Contact and Lexical Borrowing

A borrower, on the other hand, doesn’t need to know the other, donor, language at all. English speakers, for example, utter words borrowed from Italian, Spanish, French and Japanese every time they say “espresso,” “arroyo,” “diamond,” or “tsunami” respectively, whether they know it or not. We studied bilinguals who engage in these strategies, as well as spontaneous (“nonce”) borrowing of novel words, and found no correlation. Copious code-switchers are not necessarily copious borrowers. Rather these strategies, and the speakers who favor them, are independent.

When a bilingual borrows a new word from the other (donor) language, it is termed a nonce borrowing. Can you tell us about the linguistic operations that take place when she produces such a word in the other (recipient) language?

When English speakers use old established loanwords like “terrace,” “boil,” or “court,” they are often unaware that they were originally French. This is because these words have been refashioned according to English grammar, taking English plural markers (“terraces”), English verb endings (“boiling”), and entering into English word orders (“criminal court”). Such integration of donor-language material to the morphology, syntax and optionally, the sound system of the recipient language is the major mechanism underlying borrowing.

The actual linguistic operations involved are those of the recipient, and can, therefore, vary wildly from one language to the next, depending on the specific grammatical properties of each. These may include assigning a gender if the recipient language features that category (“la drop”) or applying complex vowel harmony rules (“nà-a-hallucinate”). These characteristics are amply evident in the loanword stock of all languages.

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Our studies of nonce borrowing on the ground show that speakers also appeal to them when incorporating other-language words spontaneously: they treat novel borrowings exactly like their established loanwords (by imbuing them with the grammar of the recipient language) and distinguish both from their CS, which retain the grammar of the donor language.

When do nonce borrowings become established loans (which you term loanwords), what linguistic transformations, if any, have they gone through to get to that endpoint?

Thank you for asking that question! I’m actually in a position to answer it, based on analysis of bilingual speech data spanning an unprecedented century and a half. One of our most startling discoveries is that nonce borrowings are not transformed into loanwords gradually, as scholars have long believed. Instead, bilinguals decide whether to borrow (as opposed to CS) right off the bat. If they opt for the former (which by the way, they almost always do), they imbue the word with the full complement of recipient-language grammar. Remarkably, they engage in these complex operations at their very first mention of the other-language word!

It’s the social integration of borrowed items that is gradual. As the word diffuses across the community, it stands a greater chance of becoming a bonafide or established loanword. Still, in the grand scheme of things, this almost never happens; another surprising finding of our research.

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As bilinguals, we produce many nonce borrowings but they are ephemeral and very few make it into the language as established loans. Why do some obtain this distinction?

That’s the $64,000 question! We discovered that the overwhelming majority of borrowed words disappears after the first mention. We don’t know which will persist or why. All we can say is that the received wisdom—that words designating cultural items like “hamburger” or “yoga” get borrowed, while core words like “mom” do not—definitively doesn’t hold. Of course, all languages feature plenty of such words (“pizza”, “jihad”, “origami”, etc.). But their numbers pale in comparison to the body of loanwords that don’t designate such things.

The words that persist over time and go on to achieve the status of established loanwords often turn out to be the least expected. Why do we need to borrow words like “friend”, “weird” or “game”, as the Quebec francophones we have studied have done, when there are perfectly good French words for them? We don’t! Need is not the motivating factor in borrowing. Rather, words are borrowed through implicit community compacts and become part of the community norms.

These norms may differ from one community to the next, even when the same languages are involved. This is why you hear “parking”, “shopping” and “weekend” in France, while in Canada, “stationnement,"magasinage,” and “fin de semaine” are de rigueur (a French loanword in English). Canadians prefer “chum” to “ami” and “cute” to “mignon.” When it comes to language mixing strategies, the community rules.

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What is borrowing in bilingualism? ›

In borrowing, the child speaks one language, and alters vocabulary from another to fit the primary language. This is frequently done when a bilingual speaker lacks the exact word for the concept he or she wants to express in the language being used at the time.

What do you call words borrowed from another language? ›

Loanwords are words adopted by the speakers of one language from a different language (the source language). A loanword can also be called a borrowing. The abstract noun borrowing refers to the process of speakers adopting words from a source language into their native language.

Why do language borrow from one another? ›

Languages borrow primarily to communicate; borrowing, therefore, occurs out of necessity or need where a language does not have a readily available word for something. Other reasons for borrowing include prestige and foreign influence.

What do you mean by borrowing in English Language Support your answer with appropriate example? ›

A borrowing is something such as a word or an idea that someone has taken from another language or from another person's work and used in their own language or work. The names are direct borrowings from the Chinese.

What is borrowing also known as? ›

in the History of English. Loanwords are words adopted by the speakers of one language from a different language (the source language). A loanword can also be called a borrowing.

What is a borrowing word example? ›

War – This comes from the Old French “werre”. Leg and Skin – Both words come from Old Norse and replaced “shank” and “hide” upon their arrival. Although the words still exist in English, they are used only for animals once slaughtered.

Is a phrase borrowed from another language and translated literally word for word? ›

In linguistics, a calque (/kælk/) or loan translation is a word or phrase borrowed from another language by literal word-for-word or root-for-root translation.

Is English a borrowed language? ›

The rich blend of loanwords that makes up the English language as we know it today is comprised of at least 80% borrowed, loaned, and kept words. English was once considered the common tongue of peasants, while Latin and French were spoken in church and in court.

Do all languages borrow from other languages? ›

All languages contain loanwords. Some languages, such as English, have more of them, other languages, such as German or Icelandic, have few, and other again, such as Swedish, have a moderate level of loans.

What language borrows the most? ›

As for English, although it's powerhouse now, it's also the biggest borrower of words among the languages the Max Planck Institute studied. Forty-two percent of English words are loanwords, which may explain why it's such a hairy beast for adults to learn.

What happens when a language comes into contact with another language? ›

Language shift

The result of the contact of two languages can be the replacement of one by the other. This is most common when one language has a higher social position (prestige). This sometimes leads to language endangerment or extinction.

What are the 4 types of borrowing? ›

Types of borrowing
  • Payday loans. Payday loans. ...
  • Plastic cards. ...
  • Loans. ...
  • Hire purchase and conditional sale. ...
  • Bank overdrafts. ...
  • Mortgages and secured loans. ...
  • Mail order catalogues. ...
  • Pawnbrokers.

What are the three types of borrowing? ›

How Do Loans Work?
  • A secured loan uses an asset you own as collateral; the lender can take the asset if you don't repay the loan.
  • An unsecured loan requires no collateral. ...
  • An installment loan or term loan is repaid with fixed payments over a set period.
13 Oct 2021

What is the meaning of borrowing in translation? ›

1. Borrowing. This means taking words straight into another language.

What are the two types of borrowing? ›

Types of loans
  • Secured loans.
  • Unsecured loans.

What are the types of borrowing in linguistics? ›

Lexical borrowing is the main process and can be divided as follows: morphological (the signifier is borrowed), semantic (the signified is borrowed) and morphosemantic (both signifier and signified are borrowed).

What are the two most common types of borrowing? ›

Secured And Unsecured Loans

The loan amount and interest rates depend on the value of the offered asset, along with your credit score and income. Interest rates are generally lower because the collateral offers a lower risk to the lender.

Is a word-for-word translation from one language to another? ›

Literal translation is what happens when something is translated word-for-word from one language to another. It does not pay much attention to the meaning of a text as a whole. Such direct translation often results in unintelligible sentences and poor grammatical structures.

What language did English borrow the most from? ›

The majority of words borrowed into English across diverse time periods have French and Latin roots.

What is the longest word in English? ›

14 of the Longest Words in English
  1. 1 Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis (forty-five letters): ...
  2. 2 Pseudopseudohypoparathyroidism (thirty letters): ...
  3. 3 Floccinaucinihilipilification (twenty-nine letters): ...
  4. 4 Antidisestablishmentarianism (twenty-eight letters):

What 3 languages is English made of? ›

English is genealogically West Germanic, closest related to the Low Saxon and Frisian languages; however, its vocabulary is also distinctively influenced by dialects of French (about 29% of modern English words) and Latin (also about 29%), plus some grammar and a small amount of core vocabulary influenced by Old Norse ...

Why is English called a good borrower of language? ›

The English language has been described by David Crystal as an "insatiable borrower." More than 120 other languages have served as sources for the contemporary vocabulary of English. Present-day English is also a major donor language--the leading source of borrowings for many other languages.

Do all languages come from one source? ›

Q: What is the root of all languages? Many languages have an Indo-European origin. However, there are some languages, like Chinese and Japanese, that come from different roots. Thus, all languages do not go back to the same root, but many of them do.

What language is most universal? ›

1. English (1,132 million speakers) According to Ethnologue, English is the largest language in the world for both native and non-native speaker. Like Latin or Greek at the time, English is the universal language of today.

What happens if you learn two languages at the same time? ›

Learning two languages at the same time will stretch your mind. It can be difficult at the beginning to frequently switch back and forth between two languages will challenge your brain and feel overwhelmed. However, this improves your language learning skills and supports future language learning faster and easier.

What is it called when you combine two languages? ›

A mixed language is a language that arises among a bilingual group combining aspects of two or more languages but not clearly deriving primarily from any single language.

What happens when someone learns a new language? ›

In native English speakers, however, the sounds activate distinct areas. More generally, learning a new language improves brain function, providing better memory, more mental flexibility and creativity, and can even delay the onset of dementia.

What are the five C's of borrowing? ›

What are the 5 Cs of credit? Lenders score your loan application by these 5 Cs—Capacity, Capital, Collateral, Conditions and Character. Learn what they are so you can improve your eligibility when you present yourself to lenders.

What are the 3 main methods of borrowing in the short term? ›

The main sources of short-term financing are (1) trade credit, (2) commercial bank loans, (3) commercial paper, a specific type of promissory note, and (4) secured loans.

What is the principle of borrowing? ›

In the context of borrowing, principal is the initial size of a loan—it can also be the amount still owed on a loan. If you take out a $50,000 mortgage, for example, the principal is $50,000. If you pay off $30,000, the principal balance now consists of the remaining $20,000.

What are the factors of borrowing? ›

Factors To Consider When Borrowing
  • Loan Amount.
  • Aggregate L oan Amount.
  • Annual Loan Limit.
  • Repayment Period.
  • Minimum Monthly Payment Amounts.
  • Borrowers Rights and Responsibilities.

What is the first form of borrow? ›

Borrow verb forms
InfinitivePresent ParticiplePast Tense

What are the features of borrowing? ›

  • Time to maturity. Time to maturity describes the length of the loan contract. ...
  • Repayment Schedule. Payments may be required at the end of the contract or at set intervals, usually on a monthly or semi-annual basis. ...
  • Interest. Interest is the cost of borrowing money. ...
  • Security.

What is the importance of borrowing? ›

Another one of the advantages of borrowing money is that, depending on your debt situation, you can actually improve your credit in the process of taking a loan from a bank. If you take out a long term loan from a bank and make all of your payments on time, your credit score will improve over the life of the loan.

Whats the definition of borrowing? ›

bor·​row. : to take or receive temporarily. specifically : to receive (money) with the intention of returning the same plus interest. borrower noun.

What does borrowing mean in translation? ›


Borrowing is where words or expressions are taken directly from the source text and carried over into the target language. This technique is often used when there is no target language equivalent, such as food or clothing, and can help to preserve the cultural context of the source text.

What is borrowing and its types? ›

The term borrowing can be explained as the process of adoption of words from a source language. Borrowing is thus the result of cultural contact between two distinct language groups. To illustrate, when German tribes became familiar with the Latin culture, they adopted numerous words from the Latin language.

What is the first rule of borrowing? ›

1. Lend what you can afford to lose. “The No. 1 rule of thumb if you're lending to friend, family or foe is to make sure it's money you can afford to lend,” says Thomas Farley, an etiquette expert and author of the “Mealtime with Mister Manners” column on Today.com.


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