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Linguistic Code-Switching: What it Is and Why it Happens

On an average day, you might get up, go to work or school, come home, spend time with family and friends, and then go to bed. It sounds pretty typical, doesn’t it? But you might be code-switching all day without even realizing it.

So, what is code-switching in language, and why is it so effective and important in our day-to-day life?


Two Definitions

Alternating or Combining Languages

The definition of code-switching is two-fold. The first definition refers to the specific linguistic action of alternating or combining two or more languages. Unlike loanwords, which become permanent words in a language, code-switching revolves around interchangeably using words and phrases from different languages as they suit the situation.



Linguistic code-switching is mostly used within bilingual and multilingual communities, and there are many reasons to use this method, such as the need to fit in with a group, as a force of habit, or to convey thoughts and concepts that might be easier to explain in a specific language.

Of course, speakers can’t just plug in whatever words they choose and ignore grammatical rules. When code-switching, it might seem casual and easy to an outside observer. In reality, there are many underlying, unconscious factors to code-switching that must be applied to make it understandable and natural.


Using Different Dialects, Accents, and Mannerisms

The second definition of code-switching comes from a sociolinguistic perspective, where the term is much broader. Under this umbrella, code-switching describes the use of different dialects, accents, language combinations, and mannerisms within social groups in order to project a particular identity. With this definition, code-switching is used by everyone as they change their language style based on who they’re talking to, what they’re talking about, where they are, and much more.

This type of code-switching occurs in social groups, primarily based on age, class, geographic location, upbringing, and ethnicity. All of these characteristics play crucial roles in how and when people code-switch.


Why do we code-switch?

For the most part, we code-switch to identify with a particular social group—and most of the time, we don’t even realize we’re doing it. Code-switching happens subtly, and in more situations than with only bilingual speakers.

Consider how you speak around your co-workers. More than likely, your speech subconsciously becomes measured and professional. In contrast, when you’re around friends, your speech transitions into a casual tone, as you feel more comfortable in this social setting or cultural context.

These code-switches become more noticeable based on the social setting. When visiting your home town, you might put much more emphasis into the regional dialect as an unconscious way to fit in.

Code-switching is incredibly important in many social groups. For example, in an article with NPR, Eric Deggans reminisces about how saying the word “guys” in his social group growing up was tantamount to an insult. In African American Vernacular English, this term is rarely, if ever, used. Because it was rarely used, Deggans was accused of being influenced by other social circles outside of his own, and that his use of the word “guys” came across as an insult. He writes that he learned very quickly how to code-switch based on his social group.

Code-switching is a powerful psychological tool, as well. When an individual uses a group’s dialect or accent, the audience is more receptive to the content. As a result, politicians have been known to code-switch to a casual tone around certain groups, with varying degrees of success.

Much of this political code-switching has been criticized by pundits as pandering to crowds with fake affectations. While some of this might include calculated, disingenuous moves, most of it is simply a natural reaction to being around different groups.


Code-Switching in a Multicultural World

From a linguistic standpoint, code-switching continues to fascinate researchers, as they try to pinpoint the grammatical structure of interchangeably using multiple languages in the same sentence.

Sociolinguistically, code-switching is an essential skill to develop in an ever-evolving multicultural world. Adeptly moving from one social group to the next and changing aspects of speech allows us to progress in our professional and personal life while avoiding potentially awkward situations and finding common ground through language.

To learn more about linguistic practices and other language information, explore the rest of our blog.

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