Polylanguaging – the use of features associated with different languages – even when a speaker knows very little of those languages.

Languages do not exist. At least, that’s what Jorgensen et al assert in their article. According to them, languages as we know them are simply bundles of features which we associate as belonging together. In light of the fact that languages are only bundles of features, code-switching does not exist per se; it is simply the use of features which are commonly associated with another ‘language’. However, I will continue to use the common terminology as it is difficult to avoid without over-complicating the discussion.

Data Collection

To collect data, I started with an interview with a colleague, Q, about her language use in the home using the interview template which we had created (see the introductory blog post) as my foundations before expanding on certain points which were particularly pertinent to this topic. I also spent a period of time observing language use in the home of H and collected photos of some items which I found in the home environment.

What I found fascinated me. Although this post is primarily based on code switching and polylanguaging, I have included some points relating to the topics of other weeks which were particularly interesting.


Q is a university student in her early 20s. For her, home is where she lives with her family in North Bondi. According to her self-assessment, she is fluent in Mandarin, Cantonese and English. However, she mainly speaks Mandarin at home. The two languages spoken in her home are Mandarin and Cantonese. English is reserved for university and workplace. The reason for this is that Mandarin is the common language of all the members of her family. Her mother does not know English while her sister is not so fluent in Cantonese.

Q stated that she feels uncomfortable speaking in a language which she knows others do not understand. Since everyone speaks Mandarin to a high degree of fluency, there is little need to code-switch in her home. This contrasts with her behaviour outside the home where she will switch languages in order to accommodate the people around her, whether she is addressing them or not. This accords with the idea that there is a norm not to speak in a language which you know others do not know.

02 Polylanguaging

An example of code-switching in print material in the home: a recipe written in (traditional) Chinese and English.

Conversely, if Q hears a language being spoken then she feels more comfortable speaking that language. She stated that she would speak Chinese in Hurstville, but the opposite would not be true in her home suburb. When we compare the languages spoken in these two areas, it is apparent that Chinese is much more wide-spread in Hurstville than in North Bondi.

03 ABS

2011 ABS Census data: Chinese is much more commonly spoken in Hurstville than North Bondi.

For Q, language is an integral part of her identity. I found it interesting that although she is an Australian citizen, the fact that she predominantly speaks Chinese meant that she did not identify as Australian. This might be a result of the fact that the de facto language of Australia is English and therefore speaking any other language is perceived as being not Australian.

04 Polylanguaging in advertising material in the home - English with Japanese and Romaji.jpg

Polylanguaging in advertising material in the home. English with Japanese (romaji).

H is also in her early 20s and a university student. Home for her is where she lives with her parent in South Sydney. She is fluent in English and spoken Mandarin and has recently begun learning Japanese. When conversing with her parent, it is equally common that she speaks entirely in English as well as entirely in Mandarin or even mixing the two. The choice of language does not seem to follow a pattern but is dictated by both her language skills and convenience.

Developments in communication technology have meant that messaging has gained widespread popularity. Communication can occur between people all over the world without the need to even leave one’s bedroom. Between friends, it is usually a private method of communication and the languages used are decided amongst them. Between strangers, it may be decided by an administrator and may be public.

Some examples of polylanguaging were found in her messages. As previously mentioned, H has just begun learning Japanese. However, even prior to her decision to learn the formal aspects of the grammar and vocabulary, she was already engaging in polylanguaging. As Jorgensen et al note, one does not need to know a language in much depth to be able to engage in polylanguaging. Indeed, it is often something as small as borrowing a common word in another language. Some examples of polylanguaging included the use of kaomoji (顔文字), which are full face emoticons, such as

a wave

and slang such as

short for warai (笑い)– to laugh.

Although kaomoji are arguably becoming integrated into English, they have their roots in Japanese culture. Japanese net slang is quite obviously a feature of Japanese. One explanation for the use of features associated with another language, particularly one which one has no claim of fluency, is that it is an expression of interest in a culture. By borrowing these features in everyday speech, H is expressing a connection to the culture through its language.

Another feature of polylanguaging is that it can be used to create novel forms of expression. For example, puns can be created by code switching in the middle of a word:

domo arigathanks
lit. thanks very much

For those that can understand the expression (an ‘in-group’), it is amusing because it is a novel way to say something that may otherwise be very ordinary.

Summary of Findings

  • Language use in the home is highly dependant on the needs and abilities of other people, the same as it is elsewhere
  • Norm of not speaking in a language which other people in your group do not understand, regardless of whether you are speaking to them or not
  • Language plays a key role in identity
  • The use of multiple languages may be a matter of convenience or a means of targeting specific audiences
  • Language can be used to express connection with a culture
  • Polylanguaging can lead to novel ways of expression



Blommaert, J. & Rampton, B. (2011). Language and Superdiversity, UNESCO.

Jørgensen, J. N., Karrebæk, M. S., Madsen, L. M. & Møller, J. S. (2011). Polylanguaging in Superdiversity, UNESCO.