Code-Switching: The Weird And Wonderful Side Of Bilingual Communication

From finding the perfect expression to showing where you come from: Here’s why bilingual people are constantly switching between languages.
Alternancia de código comunicación bilingüe representado por una imagen de 2 personas hablando

In Berlin, a city whose inhabitants come from 184 countries, I hear many different languages every day: from the Arabic-speaking kids I see in the mornings on their way to school to the Italian waiters chit-chatting under my window just before I fall asleep at night. I speak Swedish, English and German, so for the most part, these other languages feel more like background noise, or ambient music in a bar.

Until, that is, a word or phrase I recognize suddenly pops into an otherwise random stream of sounds. A mother scolding her child in Turkish suddenly says, in German, Und das kannst du einfach nicht machen, verstehst du? (“You simply can’t do that, understand?”). On the subway, a couple of Finnish twentysomethings insert a “I gotta make up my mind!” into their Finnish conversation. A Swabian colleague calls her mom, and suddenly speaks in a language that definitely isn’t the German I learned when I moved here from Sweden. What do these people all have in common? They’re all practicing the fine art of code-switching.

What Is Code-Switching?

The classic definition of code-switching is changing seamlessly between two languages within a single conversation. It’s common in bilingual societies and within bilingual communities, such as Spanish-speakers in North America. Bilinguals equally proficient in both languages often code-switch, like this account of my Puerto Rican co-worker’s night out: “La comida estaba bien delicious, we enjoyed it a lot! Pasamos una noche super nice!” People like myself, however, who speak one language a lot better than the other, switch less frequently. In a broader definition of the term, code-switching also includes switching from formal to informal speech, and switching between dialects and standard language.

Code-switching requires that one speaks both languages really well. This makes it different from borrowing words, where you don’t actually have to know the language from which the loan word comes. You could even say that borrowing words, like schadenfreude or smorgasord, happens because of a lack of words in someone’s own language, whereas code-switching is a choice made by someone with a wide variety of words and expressions to choose from. Plus, they do it for a reason (or even for several different reasons).

It might not seem so obvious (as code-switching often feels like an automatic process), but there are actually some rather concrete reasons for why we code-switch — from channeling our most primitive feelings to our inherently shallow need to “show-off.”

Your Heart Speaks Your Mother Tongue

Often, our first language represents certain values, like safety, childhood and even our more “primitive” feelings. So when we live in a society that speaks a different language, we rely on our first language to help us express certain feelings like being shocked, angry or scared. I, for instance, have inherited terrible road rage from my mother, and that road rage is definitely Swedish (which is good, because if I would scream these kinds of obscenities in a language that Berliners understand, I’d probably be writing this from prison). Also, when you speak in your second language to your partner or friend, and get tired, angry, or just can’t deal with something anymore, you automatically switch to your native language (assuming, of course, that they understand that language too).

That being said, the heart doesn’t always prefer the native language. Sometimes, delicate matters feel easier to handle when not said in your first language; it creates some distance. In high school, my friends and I were all very immersed in English through TV, movies and music, and we would seamlessly switch from Swedish to English, especially when we talked about our feelings or subjects which require a certain amount of emotional courage. English is hardly a secret language among Swedish high school students, so it had nothing to do with concealing the deepest matters of our hearts; it just feels a bit less scary to say certain things in English. And I don’t think I’m the only Swede who would say “I love you” to all of her friends, but reserve the Swedish equivalent jag älskar dig only for a very select few.

The Word Is Not Enough

A common reason we code-switch on word level is the feeling that there is that one word which succinctly pinpoints what it is you want to say. Unfortunately, it’s in the language you’re not currently speaking. Instead of scanning the back of your brain (or rather to be accurate, the left side) for a fitting translation, you say veröffentlicht instead of having to choose between published or released, or che awkward instead of the less precise che disagio. Maybe the word in the language you’re currently speaking is not specific enough, or maybe it’s not general enough, and that’s why you code-switch. This specific expression helps us to convey a thought or a feeling. Untranslatable words play a role, but also perfectly translatable expressions can feel way more accurate in the other language.

For Swedes, the English language enjoys a special status, the use of English words in everyday conversations being something of a novelty. In fact, a friend of mine once told me that he likes to throw in complete English sentences when he speaks Swedish, just to seem a bit more urban and cosmopolitan. One such phrase is the English “making sense,” oft-used for its simplicity (and because we lack a better, more succinct expression in Swedish).

An illustration of an elephant and a giraffe communicate with each other in a tongue-in-cheek demonstration of code-switching.
Illustrations by Sveta Sobolev.

The Topic Decides The Language

Talking about specific topics and subjects require the use of specific language. Anyone who’s ever been on the internet recognizes the special status that English has. From “mansplaining” to “open source movement,” it’s hard not to use English for certain topics, even when there are perfectly good alternatives in your own language.

When you live abroad, words and phrases from the national language are bound to slip into other languages, especially when talking about really fun things such as taxes, regulations or housing. Here in Berlin, for instance, everyone knows about the infamous Bürgeramt, which would translate as “citizen center,” or Meldebescheinigung, which would be “registration card.” But there’s no way I would use the English words when speaking in English to another immigrant in Germany. And when we say, “You have to go to the Amt,” it’s also because Amt has a semantic meaning in addition to “authority” — it also means that you’re getting ready to deal with German bureaucracy.

Connecting a topic to a specific language can also be quite personal. Experiences you’ve had in one language are often tied to that specific language. For example, a friend once told me that, even though she is Swedish, she has a hard time talking about the experience of giving birth in a language other than German (because she had her baby in Germany). It can also be that taboo words or sexual expressions feel too sordid or have negative connotations in one’s own language; sometimes it’s just more comfortable to talk about these things in another language.

Showing Off Or Showing Kinship

Switching languages is a very social phenomenon. In switching, you can show that you know more than one language, which might give you status points in many contexts. A guy from classy Milan, for example, might say “Vorrei un vino local,” or a boss of a German company can throw in lots of English words to show that she’s been around the world and knows what she’s doing. Code-switching can also be about expressing solidarity within a group: Mixing a minority language into a majority language, or switching from the formal language you usually speak to the sociolect of your heritage. We also switch to fit in. We often conceal our dialects at work, but if you don’t speak it to your mom when she calls, she’ll call you a wanna-be and wonder who you’ve become. We do this unconsciously because we are social creatures, and we want to be understood.

Let’s Keep Code-Switching!

“Aren’t you good enough at German?” “Why are you speaking English all the time, what’s wrong with Swedish?” “Just take those extra seconds and find the proper word in Italian!” — all common critiques the frequent code-switcher might hear. And yes, clearly there is value in speaking without switching, in wanting to speak fluently in a single language, in showing that you are capable of keeping your languages separate.

Personally, I think that a bit of laziness, and a lack of proficiency, plays a significant role in why I code-switch. Sometimes it just takes too long to find the right expression, or I feel like I might not be able to finish the sentence (for grammar reasons), so I switch mid-sentence. But in the end, what’s wrong with that?

Of course you shouldn’t switch into a language that one of your conversation partners doesn’t understand. However, I think most of us accept the need to switch back and forth between native languages; we get that it’s a natural part of being bilingual, and even part of our identity. So mach weiter, and keep on switching!

This article was originally published on November 8, 2016. It has been updated.

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