Code Switching

Have you ever heard people seamlessly switch from one language to another mid-way through a conversation? Perhaps it was a random word here and there or even whole sentences. Or have you ever seen a TV advert in another country and noticed random English words and phrases popping up here and there? Well, there’s a term for that: code-switching!

Code Switching Code Switching

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Table of contents

    With plenty of examples along the way, we're going to take a look at what code-switching is, why people do it, and some of the various types of code-switching that have been identified. Then, we will discuss the differences between code-switching and code-mixing.

    Code-switching definition

    Code-switching is the process of alternating between one linguistic code and another. The term was coined by the American linguist Einar Haugen.

    A linguistic code could be a language (e.g. French), a dialect (e.g. Geordie), an accent (e.g. Received Pronunciation), or a register (e.g. formal or informal).

    Code-switching is most commonly used in bilingual or multilingual communities and involves using the vocabulary, grammar, and accents from a number of languages and dialects. When code-switching, individuals decide which language features to use based on their social setting.

    Code Switching, pile of dictionaries in different languages, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Bilingual and multilingual people are often able to code-switch between languages during a single exchange.

    Although code-switching can be done on purpose, it often happens subconsciously, and many people aren’t even aware they’re doing it!

    Reasons for code-switching in language

    According to sociolinguist Janet Holmes (2000), there are several reasons why people code-switch.¹

    To create a sense of belonging

    One of the most common reasons people code-switch is to create a sense of identity and belonging among individuals and social groups. Adopting our speech to sound more like the people around us can make us feel like a part of the community and more comfortable in the social or cultural environment. Matching our speech can also make others feel more welcome.

    If a Scottish person were to meet another Scot on their travels, they might both feel their Scottish accent and use of Scottish dialect getting a little more prominent.

    For successful communication

    Another key reason people code-switch is to allow for successful communication and to ensure others understand them.

    The word 'Wi-Fi' (/waɪ-faɪ/) is pronounced ‘wee-fee’ (/wiː-fiː/) in several countries worldwide. A person who is aware of this may change their pronunciation when travelling in certain countries, i.e., by switching from one linguistic code to another to ensure they’re understood.

    To fill lexical gaps

    People may switch to another language when there is no word for what they want to say in the language they are speaking. Most languages cannot be directly translated, and there are often words that exist in one language with no translation in another language.

    The French word Flâner means to wander aimlessly with no final destination. There is no direct translation for Flâner in English, so a French person speaking English may code-switch and use it rather than explain its meaning in English.

    Sometimes ideas and concepts are better expressed in one language over another because of the amount of vocabulary available. In this case, individuals may choose to code-switch and use another language to express their ideas better.

    To exclude others

    When two people are having a conversation and are perhaps saying things they shouldn’t, they may code-switch and talk in another shared language to hide what they are saying.

    A Spanish couple living in England might speak in Spanish when they don’t want anyone else to know what they are saying.

    Some people think this is quite rude and, in an increasingly globalised world, chances are that someone else close by can also speak the language - so what’s being said might not be that secret!

    To change register

    Although we usually discuss code-switching in terms of bilingualism and multilingualism, we can also use it to describe an individual's change in language style and register within a language.

    Register refers to the way people use language differently depending on their social setting. For example, someone might use more formal language in a professional environment.

    Think about how you talk to your friends compared to how you would speak to a headteacher or a boss, for example. You would likely code-switch from an informal register to a more formal register.

    Because it’s natural

    As we previously mentioned, code-switching usually happens subconsciously, and many people will inadvertently switch between languages, dialects, accents, and registers without realising they’re doing so.

    Cursing is a good example of this - the saying goes that when you stub your toe, you’ll find out exactly how many languages you know!

    Different types of code-switching

    There are three main types of code-switching: Inter-sentential, Intra-sentential, and Extra-sentential (also known as 'Tag switching'). Let’s look at each one in more detail.

    Inter-sentential code-switching

    Inter-sentential code-switching happens either at the beginning or end of a sentence and is most common with fluent bilingual speakers.

    Are we going to Chez Jule’s pour dîner? (English + French)

    Translation: Are we going to Jule’s place for dinner?

    Intra-sentential code-switching

    Intra-sentential code-switching happens in the middle of a sentence. The code-switch happens fluently (meaning there are no hesitations or interruptions) and the speaker is often unaware they have done it.

    mendapatkan burger dengan saya? (Indonesian Bahasa + English + Indonesian Bahasa)

    Translation: Get a burger with me?

    Extra-sentential (tag) code-switching

    Extra-sentential code-switching refers to inserting a word or tag phrase from one language into another. Tag phrases are usually tag questions (you’re British, aren’t you?) or conjunctions (because, so, but).

    bugün cuma, isn’t it? (Turkish + English)

    Translation: It’s Friday, isn’t it?

    Three women talking. One woman asks 'how are you?' and another woman replies 'oui très bien, and you?Fig. 2 - There are many different reasons for code-switching, as well as many different ways in which code-switching can happen.

    Examples of code-switching

    Examples of code-switching include the following:

    • Switching between languages in a multilingual conversation. For example, switching between English and Spanish with a Spanish-speaking friend.
    • Switching between a regional dialect and a standard dialect when speaking in different settings. For example, from AAVE to Standard American English.
    • Switching between registers in a conversation. For example, a teacher switching from a formal register to a casual one when talking to their family members outside of school.

    Here are some more detailed examples of code-switching.

    Roger Hewitt’s White Talk Black Talk (1986)

    The researcher Roget Hewitt analysed speech patterns amongst white and black children in London. In one conversation between inter-racial friends, he found that both boys would often communicate using Jamaican Patois, with the white boy code-switching between standard English and Jamaican Patois. Hewitt suggests this is to show a sense of friendship.

    'White boy: Oh, Royston, ya goin' football on Saturday?

    Black boy: Mi na go football! Who for?

    White boy: Check some gyal later.

    Black boy: Na. Mi na wan check gyal now.

    White boy: Rassclaht! Fink ya bent' (Hewitt, 1986).²

    Can you think of any other reasons why code-switching would happen in this context?

    Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You (2018)

    Written and directed by Boots Riley, Sorry to Bother You is a film that tells the story of an African-American man who changes his voice to sound 'more white’ at work (he works in a call centre so no one can see him!). He does so to overcome the bias that African American Vernacular English (AAVE) faces in professional environments.

    When he code-switches from AAVE to Standard American English, he finds that he is able to sell a lot more.

    The film sends a powerful message about the reality of code-switching and how some people feel the need to code-switch to be taken seriously (often because of their race).

    Difference between code-switching and code-mixing

    You may be wondering if code-mixing is the same as code-switching. Well, the answer is yes and no.

    Many linguists, theorists, and educators use the terms interchangeably and don’t recognise any differences between the two. However, some linguists say there is a slight difference between the two terms, stating that code-switching is done with a purpose by more fluent bilingual or multilingual speakers. In contrast, code-mixing happens out of necessity by less fluent speakers.

    For example, Someone who can speak English fluently may choose to code-switch to fill a lexical gap, whereas a less-fluent English speaker has no choice but to code-mix, as they don’t yet know the English vocabulary to say what they want to say.

    Code-Switching - Key Takeaways

    • Code-switching is the process of alternating between one linguistic code to another.

    • Code-switching is most commonly used in bilingual or multilingual communities and involves the use of vocabulary, grammar, and accents from different languages and dialects.

    • Code-switching can also refer to the use of different registers (formal or informal) within a language.

    • Some of the main reasons people code-switch are: to create a sense of identity and belonging, to fill lexical gaps, to exclude others from the conversation, and because it happens subconsciously.

    • The three types of code-switching are Inter-sentential, Intra-sentential, and Extra-sentential (also known as 'Tag switching').


    References

    1. J. Holmes. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, 2000.
    2. R. Hewitt. White Talk Black Talk: Inter-racial Friendship and Communication amongst Adolescents, 1986.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Code Switching

    What is code-switching?

    Code-switching is the process of alternating between one linguistic code to another. The term 'linguistic code' includes languages, dialects, accents, and registers. 

    What are code-mixing and code-switching?

    Many linguists use the terms 'code-mixing' and 'code-switching' interchangeably; however, some linguists do recognise a difference between the two. They state that code-switching is done with a purpose usually by more fluent bilingual or multilingual speakers and code-mixing happens out of necessity by less fluent speakers.

    What is an example of code-switching?

    An example of code-switching includes switching between languages in a multilingual conversation. For example: Are we going to Chez Jule’s pour dîner? (English + French)

    What are the types of code-switching?

    There are three main types of code-switching: Inter-sentential (at the beginning or end of a sentence), Intra-sentential (in the middle of a sentence), and Extra-sentential (tag phrases from one language inserted into another, e.g., tag questions).

    Why is code-switching important?

    Code-switching can help people learn and explore languages, fill lexical gaps, create a sense of unity and belonging between people, and reduce language barriers.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    The following sentence is an example of which type of code-switching?‘bugün cuma, isn’t it?’ (Turkish + English)

    The following sentence is an example of which type of code-switching?‘Are we going to Chez Jule’s pour dîner?’ (English + French)

    Is code-switching a natural or abnormal phenomenon?

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