Love Language: A Sociolinguistic Study on Bilingual Couples Talk

Yiran Li, Ekeme Ekanem, Mary Youngblood, and Nguyenova Dieu Anh – Shelly

Code-switching, where more than one language is integrated into speech, is extremely common amongst bilingual and multilingual speakers. Unfortunately, code-switching is often viewed by society as lazy or unintelligent, creating a negative stigma around speakers of non-standard language, which are often minority groups. This research analyzes the functions and contexts in which bilingual couples code-switch, focusing on the effects, if any, of their language backgrounds. To study this, we gathered data from 90-Day Fiance, a reality show centered around long-distance relationships. We looked at confrontational discussions to find instances of code-switching, comparing couples with same and different language backgrounds. Our results demonstrate the functionality of code-switching as well as its place within couples speech and confrontation, as couples may use code-switching to express certain feelings or to establish a connection. This study helps not only to end the stigma around code-switching but may also provide insight into communication for couples as a tool to strengthen relationships.

Carolina finds another woman’s underwear in Fernando’s closet. She asks him in Spanish, “Whose are these?” and starts the next sentence in English, “Panties girl”, meaning some other woman’s underwear.


Code-switching is a linguistic phenomenon when a speaker switches from one language to another during a conversation. Specifically, we will focus on bilingual conversation. We will analyze two groups of bilingual couples: those who have similar language backgrounds, and those who have different language backgrounds communicating primarily in English as the dominant and common language between them.

The proposed outcome is that bilingual couples, with similar language backgrounds and English as their second language, are more likely to employ code-switching to convey a mood or perspective, while those with different language backgrounds are more likely to use code-switching as a communication strategy to build common understanding, such as borrowing (Van, 2012; Pietikainen, 2014).


Code-switching has been proposed as a way to establish an identity (Piller, 2002). For example, De Fina (2007) looked at groups of Italian American men to reveal their code-switching patterns. De Fina found that the linguistic behaviors of an individual often influence those around them, so it may be that one partner may be influenced by the code-switching patterns of their partner. This theory was supported by Code switching in Mixed Couples that Code-switching has a specific reason for it. One of the reasons of code according to the findings was politeness. One of the partners would often accommodate to the other by switching the language. Some Code switching happens because of solidarity to establish a closer relationship. Lastly code-switching also shows confirmation (Dumaning 2015). Pietikainen also mentioned that lexical gap might be the reason for code switching. When a partner cannot successfully recall or produce the English word, they will sometimes use their partner’s first language (L1) instead of their L1 to ensure their partner understands (Pietikainen 2014).

Yodanis et al. (2007) studied the effects of bilingualism on couples’ relationships and found that having different native languages did not create more communication problems in couples with the same native languages. This suggests that these couples work harder and more effectively on their communication. The article ELF Couples and Automatic Code-Switching focuses on ELF couples and how code-switching influence their communication. The more common languages the couples shared the more they code-switched during their communication. Pietikainen found out that code-switching is automatic and unconscious and concluded that code-switching is the result of ELF couples’ relaxed atmosphere in their lives (Pietikainen 2014).


The methods used in this experiment were transcription analysis taken from clips of the popular show, 90-Day Fiancé. 90-Day Fiancé is a reality show that features Americans and their partners through their journey through the K-1 visa process (fiancé visa). 90-Day Fiancé follows couples during their first 90 days living together before they will be required to either get married or head back to their home country. We examined several bilingual couples from the show within two groups: different language background and the same language background Carolina and Fernando, Chantel and Pedro, and Devan and Jihoon. Carolina is a L1 Spanish speaker and acquiring English as her L2; her fiancé, Fernando, is a heritage Spanish speaker and also has native proficiency in English. Chantel is an American L1 English speaker and is Spanish as an L2; her partner, Pedro, is a Dominican L1 Spanish speaker, and acquiring English as his L2. Both Chantel and Pedro are acquiring their L2 to be able to communicate with each other, however, their language backgrounds are different, as they were not exposed to learning their L2 until after their relationship began. Devan is an American L1 English speaker and Jihoon is a Korean L1 English speaker who speaks very little English.

The clips analyzed were taken from moments of conflict and confrontation between the couples. For example, we use a clip from featuring Carolina confronting Fernando about a pair of women’s underwear she found in Fernando’s closet. Once a clip was selected, the dialogue was recorded, and the code-switching was marked and translated. Once properly transcribed, the code-switching events were categorized and compared with the results from the other couples (Piller 2002).


We found that Carolina and Fernando were more likely to use code-switching as a way to convey their mood or perspective as well as stylistic purposes (such as comedy), when faced with confrontation. Their similar language backgrounds allow them to navigate communication in both languages while code-switching. Contrastingly, Devan and Jihoon used code-switching sparingly.

Devan:     Ok, get out.

Jihoon:    Yeah, sorry.

Jihoon:    피곤한다 피곤해

           Pigonhanda  pigonhae

           Frustrated  (very) frustrated.

In this exchange between Devan and Jihoon, the code-switching event happens after a long pause (about 2 seconds) after his initial phrase. Devan does not understand this utterance as she does not speak Korean and Jihoon knows this as he says it. It is not a continuation of the conversation he was having with Devan, but more of a mumbled expression to himself.

In Carolina and Fernando’s case, Carolina uses Spanish and English within the same phrases, as shown below.

Carolina: Fernando!

Carolina: What is this?

Fernando: uh?

Carolina: Sube. 

          Come up (the stairs)

Carolina: De quién son esos? Panties girl. De quién son?

          Whose are these?                Whose are (these)?

Fernando: Did you find ‘em in my closet?

Carolina: In your closet.

Fernando: I- That has nothing- That’s nothing from recent. That’s 

old, old. I’m serious.



Read more

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *