Code-switching: what is it and who does it? | Stillman Translations
Code-switching: what is it and who does it?

Code-switching is common in multilingual contexts and used for communication and identity expression. Check out our blog for information.

Code-switching is a common practice in multilingual and multicultural contexts, and it is often used as a strategy for communication and identity expression. 

More often than not, when there is more than one language spoken in the same room, we start borrowing words from one to the other. Sometimes, even between dialects. Saying “Hey y’all” or “Word” could be code-switching between two identity groups. Sometimes, when it’s recurrent, we don’t even realize because we’ve incorporated it into our language. So much it becomes a part of it. Like anglicisms.  

But there’s more to it than this. Let’s dig deeper.  

What is code switching?  

Code-switching is the practice of alternating between two or more languages or language varieties in a single conversation or exchange. This can involve switching between languages at the level of words, phrases, or even entire sentences, and may occur for a variety of reasons, such as to convey social or cultural identity, to signal a change in topic, or to express a certain emotion or attitude. 

It can also serve as a way for speakers to negotiate their social and cultural identities, and to navigate complex linguistic and social situations. 

It’s a complex linguistic social phenomenon. Which explains why it involves different languages, dialects, registers, or styles. And why its root can vary greatly: from linguistic needs to the assertion of one’s social identity.

Code-switching; multilingual; multicultural
Photo by Denisse Leon on Unsplash

Borrowed words vs code switching 

Borrowing words, when it becomes something structural and formally contained in our language, is not exactly code switching anymore. When a borrowing is really recent, we call it “code-switching,” and when it’s so old people have forgotten that it was borrowed, we call it an “etymology”. Actual “borrowing” is somewhere that’s halfway in between. 

English, as explained by the podcast specialized in language Lingthusiasm, has a reputation for being very good at borrowing words from other languages. It usually happens when people try to refer to something that they don’t have a word for yet. Often because it refers to something foreign to themselves.  

It’s not really borrowing, as they well remark, since it’s not something that is given back. What’s more, as the language appropriates it, the word often shifts its pronunciation to fit into the way that language is spoken. 

But let’s focus again on code switching.

Are there types of code switching?  

There are different types of code-switching, such as situational code-switching, which occurs in response to changes in the social or linguistic context, and metaphorical code-switching, which involves the use of language from one domain to describe or explain something in another domain. 

Since it plays an important role in the construction and negotiation of social and cultural identities, we’ll dive deeper into each: 

  1. Situational code-switching: This type of code-switching occurs in response to changes in the social or linguistic context. For example, a speaker may switch from one language to another when they are speaking with someone who does not understand their first language, or when they are speaking with someone from a different cultural background. 
  1. Metaphorical code-switching: This type of code-switching involves the use of language from one domain to describe or explain something in another domain. For example, a speaker may use sports terminology to describe a work project, or use medical terminology to describe a personal relationship. 
  1. Inter-sentential code-switching: This type of code-switching involves switching between languages or language varieties at the level of sentences or larger units of discourse. For example, a speaker may use one language to introduce a topic, and then switch to another language to provide more detail. 
  2. Tag switching: This type of code-switching involves adding a word or phrase from another language to the end of a sentence or utterance. For example, a speaker may end a sentence in English with a phrase in Spanish. 

Code-switching, of course,  varies in frequency and intensity depending on the context and the individuals involved in the interaction. But is this good, bad or neutral?

Is code switching a problem or a skill? 

The use of code-switching can be a source of controversy in some contexts, and some people may complain about it. For example, some individuals may view code-switching as a sign of insufficient language proficiency or as a lack of respect for the dominant language or culture. Additionally, there may be concerns that code-switching can create communication barriers, particularly if the interlocutors are not familiar with the same languages or language varieties. 

What mostly concerns researchers and people in general is that code switching many times perpetuates itself in minority groups. Meaning, minorities feel forced to code switch in order to integrate themselves in the social fabric. For example: in spaces where there are negative stereotypes of black people, there is a tendency to selectively code-switch between standard English and African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) with peers.  

On the other hand, some individuals view code-switching as a valuable linguistic resource that can facilitate communication and help bridge cultural and linguistic divides.  

Overall, the use of code-switching is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon, and opinions about it can vary depending on the context and the individuals involved in the interaction. Luckily, our language experts can tell you all about it and help you out at any stage of your brand’s communication. 

If you would like to learn more topics about communication, you can read “Why diverse business organizations make better business