What Is Code Switching?
“Code switching” is a linguistics term that basically means switching back and forth between two or more languages in the course of a conversation. It can also refer to the ability to switch languages or dialects quickly from one conversation to the next depending on the situation or conversation partner. For example, a child who has an English-speaking mother and a Japanese-speaking father may speak only English with the mother and only Japanese with the father even though they all speak both languages and are all participating in the same conversation.
There are a few different ways that code switching can occur in a conversation. It can happen from one sentence to the next, within a sentence from phrase to phrase, or one word at a time. Intersentential switching is switching from one language to another for whole sentences at a time. For example, if you’re telling a story in language A about something that was said in language B, you might quote someone in language B because they were speaking in that language.
- My mother hugged me and whispered, “Cuìdate, mi hija.” (Take care of yourself, my daughter.)
Intersentential code switching might also be used to emphasize a particular sentence, or to more accurately convey meaning when sufficient words oridioms do not exist in the other language. Intrasentential switching is switching languages in the middle of a sentence. This can mean changing languages for a phrase or for just one word (which is also called “tag-switching”).
- Yo comprè los groceries para la cena. (I bought the groceries for dinner.)
- I like you porque eres muy amable. (I like you because you are very nice.)
Who Code Switches?
Although the term originally referred only to a linguistic phenomenon amongmultilingual conversationalists, the reality is that almost everyone engages in code switching every day. Because we all deal with different kinds of people with whom we have different levels of relationships in contexts of all sorts all the time, we are all constantly switching from one register (level of formality) to another. With your boss, you use one kind of English, with your friends, another, and with your children, another still. Although they are all the same language, higher and lower registers employ different idioms, a greater or lesser amount of slang, varied spelling and pronunciation, and even different syntax. Thus, an email to your best friend would look very different from a cover letter to a potential employer.
Code Switching with Formality
When young children learn multiple languages simultaneously, they also learn to compartmentalize them so that they use the appropriate language with everyone they talk to. That’s why a bilingual child like the one discussed earlier would speak his mother’s native language to her and his father’s native language to him. Well, as native speakers of a language, we do the same thing with different levels of formality. We know what is appropriate to write in a personal e-mail versus what is appropriate in a doctoral dissertation. You probably learned these things in school through basic reinforcement and punishment. When you used the correct tone on a paper, you got a good grade. When you used the kind of grammar in writing that you used in everyday speaking, your paper was returned to you with all kinds of corrections. In this way, you learned a type of code switching.
Other types of writing and speaking have always been taught more directly as things like business letters, poetry and research papers each have their own correct format that must be followed. However, some schools are now beginning to teach different registers and appropriate times to use them more directly as well through comparative analysis. Students practice “translating” from informal to formal speech – from slang to academic English – and vice versa.
Teachers make poster charts comparing how to say various phrases formally and informally. And test scores are improving as students learn not what is “right” and “wrong,” but what is appropriate in a given situation. It may not be what linguists had in mind when they coined the term, but as we’ve learned more about dialects and thought more about register, it’s become apparent that switching between them is very similar to switching between languages.