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Code-Switching: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Victoria Leo

Victoria teaches college, authors books, has a therapy practice and masters degrees in anthropology and psychology.

When you mix words and phrases from two languages or dialects, or mix standard and specialized vocabulary, you are __code-switching__. You can code-switch to emphasize membership in a social, economic, regional, ethnic or religious group, for example.

What Did He Just Say?

Have you ever watched a Bollywood movie? Whether old-style musicals with lots of singing and dancing, or modern-style dramas, these movies can be startling to a new viewer who isn't prepared to hear a stream of Hindi interspersed with words and phrases in English. When I visited India, I heard ordinary Indians speaking this same mix of a local language plus English, one example of a phenomenon known as code-switching. Scientists studying languages refer to individual languages, as well as dialects, jargon and regionalisms, as different codes. Code-switching is a normal linguistic function for people who speak multiple languages, or multiple dialects, regionalisms and jargons. Many ethnic writers use code-switching in their work, especially in fiction.

Code-switching occurs primarily in one of two ways: within a sentence ('Vamanos, you silly chicos.') or between sentences ('If y'all want me to, I usta could build furniture. I might be able to again.'). In the first example, the speaker inserted Spanish words into an English sentence. In the second example, the person answered in Southern dialect - 'y'all' and 'usta could' and then reverted to standard American English in the second sentence. It is possible, but uncommon, to insert a second language's grammatical structures into an individual word. This most frequently happens by adding an English-style plural ending to a foreign word that is already plural. When you learn about all the other forms of code-switching within a single language, like specialized vocabulary and variants that convey income disparity, among others, they also exist in the two most popular forms of within a sentence and between sentences.

Why do people code-switch? Simple reasons include tiredness, being overcome by emotions, or the need for specialized vocabulary. An English speaker whose native language is Vietnamese might drop some Vietnamese into her conversation at work immediately after a phone call in which she discovers that a loved one has died.

Some code-switching involves specialized vocabulary. A Buddhist will code-switch when conversing with another Buddhist, sprinkling sentences with 'bodhisattva' or 'samsara,' but will use inexact but standard American English words like 'saint' and 'human existence' when talking to non-Buddhists. An IT expert will use technical vocabulary at work and explain new products using ordinary English when talking to family members. People may also use code-switching to obscure information that they don't want casual listeners to understand.

Do You Understand All the Meanings I Just Sent You?

Most code-switching does not stem from these simple causes. Code-switching allows people to communicate ideas without speaking those ideas out loud, a process known as sending a meta-message (a message about a message). If you say, 'I hate you,' while you smile or wink, the body language is a meta-message that changes the meaning of the words.

Most commonly, meta-messaging conveys the message that you are or want to be considered part of a group--or the opposite message of wanting to be outside the group. Many Americans speak an ancestral language with grandparents or tradition-minded coreligionists to convey their membership in the ethnic, religious or social group, but they could also send this meta-message by interspersing English with words and phrases from the ancestral language. African-American doctors might speak standard American English at work, to convey the meta-message that they want to be perceived as competent, highly-educated professionals. They might also code-switch with Black English words, phrases or grammatical structures when talking to another African-American, to send two messages: the professional competence of a physician added to the meta-message of a shared cultural and ethnic heritage.

A high-income professional talking to a person of a lower socioeconomic class might speak in impeccably-accurate American English, and intersperse more complex words, or might use wealth-oriented specialty dialect, like ROI and value index, when discussing ordinary topics that don't require that dialect. All of these send the 'I am wealthier and more powerful than you' message to the listener.

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