Code Switching

February 7, 2017

Code Switching is most commonly known as “the practice of alternating between two or more languages” within a conversation. Those who are bilingual have to access a situation to determine which language is appropriate within that specific context.


Recently, this term has been used in a more broad sense. It is now more widely defined as, “the ability to adjust one’s speech, one’s mannerisms, to different audiences”. Many of us change the way that act dependent on the situation that we are in and the people that we are with. The way that you may interact with your boss at work is very different from the way that you present yourself out on a Saturday night with friends. These are both distinctly you, they are merely different facets of yourself.


As Gene Demby of NPR writes, “So you’re at work one day and you’re talking to your colleagues in that professional, polite, kind of buttoned-up voice that people use when they’re doing professional work stuff”


Your mom or your friend or your partner calls on the phone and you answer. And without thinking, you start talking to them in an entirely different voice - still distinctly your voice, but a certain kind of your voice less suited for the office. You drop the g’s at the end of your verbs. Your previously undetectable accent - your easy Southern drawl or your sing-songy Caribbean lilt or your Spanish-inflected vowels or your New Yawker -- is suddenly turned way, way up. You rush your mom or whomever off the phone in some less formal syntax (‘Yo, I’mma holler at you later,’), hang up and get back to work”


“Then you look up and see your co-workers looking at you and wondering who the hell you’d morphed into for the last few minutes. That right there? That’s what it means to code-switch.”


Karla D. Scott reports from her study on Black women code-switching during interviews when a switch took place there was an “identification of a culturally specific way of talking and interacting was need in order to determine when one way of speaking was selected over another.” These women, upon reflection of their answers, consistently stated looking to the content of the question that was asked to them as a clue how to “act” in their answer.


Code-switching, Scott discovered, can include changes in grammar, phonetic, specific phrases/slang/diction, as well as following the specific societal “guidelines” set out for the role that the individual is fulfilling at that moment in time.

People code-switch for a variety of reasons. As Eric Deggans of NPR writes, it is “equal parts fitting in and making sure you’re understood.” This can be done for a variety of purposes: to make friends, to get a specific point across, or to get something that you want.




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