Code-switching refers to the act of using multiple languages or language varieties in a single situation. It is regularly used by minority groups when switching between interactions within their subculture and interactions with the dominant culture.
A common example of code-switching is when people change how they speak around their friends and around the police. When around the police they will use more formal language to avoid the appearance of being low culture or a threat.
Code-switching can occur between sentences, words, or even individual morphemes (the smallest meaningful constituents of a language). In a broader sense, code-switching can also involve adjusting one’s appearance, behavior, expression, etc.
Before that, let us look at the concept in more detail and consider some examples.
Definition of Code Switching
Ben Rampton defines code-switching as:
“Code-switching is a linguistic phenomenon in which speakers switch back and forth between two or more languages or language varieties in the context of a single conversation or utterance” (Rampton, 1995).
Code-switching should not be confused with plurilingualism, which refers to the ability of an individual to use multiple languages. Code-switching involves bringing that ability into practice in a single situation.
Another related but different concept is language transfer. It refers to the influence of a person’s first language (L1) on their second language (L2) (Cook, 2001). This influence can be either positive or negative; the knowledge of L1 can facilitate or impede the learning of L2.
So, while language transfer refers to the impact of a person’s first language on another language, code-switching refers to the use of multiple languages in a single context. It can be of the following types:
Types of Code Switching
- Intersentential: Intersentential code-switching occurs outside the sentence or clause. In other words, a complete sentence/clause in one language is followed by one in another language. It is also called “extrasentential switching”.
- Intrasentential: Intersentential code-switching occurs within the sentence or clause. A part of the sentence is in one language/language variety and is then followed by one from another language/language variety.
- Tag-level: Tag-level switching brings a tag phrase or a word from one language into another language.
- Intra-word: Intra-word switching occurs within a word, such as at the morpheme level.
Intrasentential switching is usually the primary focus of code-switching studies as it involves the blending of grammar structures from different languages; the other types simply follow the grammar of one language or the other.
Intrasentential switching is of two types: alternational or insertional. The former involves the creation of a new grammar, combining the grammar of both languages. The latter simply inserts elements from one language into the “morphosyntactic frame of the other” (Winford, 2003).
Code Switching Examples
- Among Black Americans: Code-switching is common among Black Americans who will speak in their own language and
- When interacting with police: We often code-switch when speaking with police. For example, we will try very hard to use polite language and avoid the appearance of being a threat.
- The BBC: In past decades, news anchors would be asked to take on RP (received pronunciation) language on camera, requiring them to change how they speak.
- In the classroom: Schools require students to use standard language expressions, and those growing up in minority communities must code-switch. African American children, for example, constantly switch between African-American Vernacular English and standard English.
- Behavioral change: Not just language but code-switching can also extend to behavioral adjustments. For example, how we greet people from our particular community is often different from how we greet those from other groups.
- Everyday usage: In everyday life, multilingual speakers casually switch from one language to another. For example, in India, “Tumhari train ka time kya hai?” (What is the time of your train?) is a common instance of Hinglish, mixing both Hindi & English.
- Close-knit employee groups: In professional settings, people often form groups with those from similar backgrounds. Asian immigrants in an American MNC may have close ties with each other and switch to their native language when conversing.
- Communication: Often code-switching is done by a multilingual person to communicate with a monolingual person. A Spanish-English speaker may say “Hola! How are you?” to talk with someone who only speaks English.
- Business dealings: Code-switching is often done for pragmatic business reasons. The right language, even in something as simple as shopping, can be quite beneficial. Bargaining, for example, is almost impossible without knowing the local language.
- Unconscious Use: Sometimes, code-switching can occur without conscious effort. When multilingual speakers go through an excess of emotion (fear or thrill), they usually slip into the native language unintentionally.
- Expressing solidarity: By speaking in a certain language, one can build rapport with the group. In India, when meeting the locals (like the farmers) politicians usually speak in their native state language to express their solidarity with the listeners.
- At the workplace: Code-switching allows people to “fit in” professional workplaces. This is especially true for minorities, who must use it to avoid getting associated with negative stereotypes. However, such (forced) code-switching can be quite harmful, as we will discuss later.
Reasons for Code Switching
Code-switching can be done for a variety of reasons, such as:
- Better Express Themselves: When people are not able to express themselves adequately in one language, they often switch to another one. This is especially true when speaking in a second language. At times, even if the speaker is fluent in both languages, they may switch to a language that best expresses their thoughts.
- Solidarity & Group Identity: Code-switching is often done to show solidarity with a particular group or express group identification. Switching to a minority language is a common way of expressing solidarity with the group and it builds rapport. Members of a social group also do it to foster relationships.
- Pragmatic Use: Code-switching can be useful in many practical and business situations. In business dealings switching to the right language or even the accent can be immensely helpful in one’s dealings.
- Fitting In: Perhaps the most usual reason for code-switching is to fit in and act more like people around us. This is especially true in schools or workplaces, where our professional trajectories are based on how we act.
- Unconscious Use: In many cases, we unconsciously switch from one language to another. Multilingual speakers just slip into another language or accent without realizing it.
Sociological & Linguistic Perspectives on CS
Sociologists and linguists have developed various theories to explain the rationale behind code-switching.
1. Sociological Perspectives
In sociology, Carol Myers-Scotton’s Markedness Model is quite popular. It argues that language users rationally pick a language that marks their rights & obligations in relation to other speakers (1993).
In the absence of a clear, marked language choice, speakers perform code-switching to explore possible language choices. However, other scholars disagree with this argument that language choice is always rational.
Howard Giles’ Communication Accommodation Theory is also influential. It argues that speakers are likely to speak in the language of other speakers when seeking approval. They can also emphasize the distance between themselves and others by engaging in a language specific to their group.
2. Linguistic Perspectives
One of the most popular linguistic theories related to code-switching is Shana Poplack’s constraint model. It says that there are only two constraints to code-switching.
- The first argues that code-switching cannot occur between a lexical item and bound morphemes.
- The second constraint argues that code-switching can only occur at points where the surface structures of the languages coincide. However, most scholars criticize the constraint model for being quite restrictive; it cannot account for numerous exceptions.
In complete contrast, Jeff MacSwan puts forward a constraint-free theory:
“Nothing constrains code-switching apart from the requirements of the mixed grammars.” (2000).
Such an approach rejects any principle which explicitly refers to code-switching and instead focuses on the unique linguistic contribution of each language.
Code Switching at Workplace
Code-switching often takes place in workplaces; although it serves organizational purposes, it can sometimes be harmful to individuals.
In workplaces, code-switching is not just about language but also behavior, appearance, etc. It essentially involves adjusting oneself to act according to professional standards with the expectation of getting fair treatment in return.
In 2019, Harvard Business Review published an article discussing the reasons behind code-switching. It argues that people, especially minorities, code-switch to downplay “membership in a stigmatized racial group”, which increases their chances of getting hired.
It allows them to avoid negative stereotypes associated with their groups and instead affiliate themselves with the organization. However, HBR points out that code-switching can be harmful: constantly working to avoid stereotypes is depleting and can hinder performance.
It also denies authentic self-expression and can lead to burnout. Therefore, it is necessary for companies to analyze their culture, ensure adequate representation of all groups, and create an inclusive environment.
Code-switching refers to the act of using multiple languages in a single situation.
In a broader sense, it also refers to how we adjust our behavior and act differently depending on context. It is done for various reasons like articulating oneself precisely, expressing solidarity, etc.
While it is a part of everyday life for most multilingual speakers, code-switching can also be harmful at times, such as when it is enforced upon minorities to fit in. Therefore, organizations must strive to create inclusive environments.
Cook, V. (2001). Second language learning and language teaching. Arnold.
Courtney L. McCluney, Kathrina Robotham, Serenity Lee, Richard Smith, and Myles Durkee (2019). “The Costs of Code-Switching”. Harvard Business Review
MacSwan, Jeff (2000). “The architecture of the bilingual language faculty: Evidence from codeswitching”. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 3 (1).
Myers-Scotton, Carol (1993). Social Motivations for Codeswitching: Evidence from Africa. Clarendon.
Rampton, B. (1995). Crossing: Language and ethnicity among adolescents. Longman Publishing.
Winford, Donald (2003). “Code Switching: Linguistic Aspects.” An Introduction to Contact Linguistics. Blackwell Publication.