Code-switching: A survival communication tool for expats

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Published 7 months ago

If you have been an expat in the same country for a long time, or have been moving to countries that use the same official language, it’s likely that you master at least two languages — your mother tongue and the language that is spoken in your host country — and you easily switch between them.

What is code-switching?

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Bilinguals apply various techniques, consciously or subconsciously, to communicate effeciently and with impact — code-switching is one of them. Code-switching is the process during which a bilingual or multilingual speaker switches between two or more languages during the same conversation. Depending on the individual, code-switching can be applied more or less frequently and in specific or all environments — at home; with friends; with colleagues and superiors. No matter how often you put code-switching into practice and under what circumstances, it is supposed to ease communication and generate a meaningful flow of speech.

Why do we switch codes?

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There are many reasons bilinguals seek refuge in code-switching, and often they slip into the other language unintentionally. For example, our mind may start thinking in one language, but in the process of speaking, a word or two may be thrown into the sentence from the other language; because they better fit the meaning. Usually, these words or phrases are colloquialisms, which we are in the habit of using to express specific ideas.

Our mood defines largely the language that comes naturally to us. In spite the fact that you are in your host country and speak the language fluently, how many times have you caught yourself using your mother tongue when you are upset with another driver on the road for example, or when you experience some trauma or fear? Even when you are distracted by emotions of melancholy and sadness, it’s highly possible that you will prefer to express yourself in one language over another. Also, expats who spend the whole day at work speaking to a language other than their mother tongue, switch to the most familiar language, as soon as they leave the workspace. It’s tiring to use only one language for all occasions when you can hop from one to another.

Sometimes, code-switching gives us a sense of security on certain occasions, when we wish to use a language as a secret code. Imagine that you are among a group of people you don’t know so well and want to express discomfort or a concern. But you only want to be understood by the person you feel most comfortable with, who is also bilingual. In this case, you turn to code-switching.

Language expresses and constructs our identity — through language we fit in a social group and we establish a sense of belonging. Thus, when you are with other people who speak language A, it’s normal to want to act and talk like them and to look for a common ground to create a rapport. You can only build certain relationships by using the same language and bringing out the side of your personality that goes hand in hand with this language. However, sometimes you may want to stand out from the crowd; again, you will find yourself code-switching.

What are the types of code-switching?

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Expats not only tend to switch from one language to another and mix and match vocabularies, but they also switch between different cultures and even identities. Here are some types of code-switching you may relate to.

Intra-sentential code-switching or code-mixing: the speaker switches subconsciously between two codes within a single sentence with no warning or second-thoughts, which may prepare the listeners for the shift. Words from both languages are used in the same sentence.

Inter-sentential code-switching: the speaker switches between languages but not within the boundaries of the same sentence. One sentence is completed in language A, and the following sentence is spoken in language B. This type of code-switching is more common across speakers who are equally fluent in both codes in use.

Extra-sentential code-switching: the speaker finds necessary to say certain words in language B while overall speaking in language A for the meaning’s sake.

What is your personal experience with code-switching? Do you switch codes when living abroad or returning home after having lived abroad for several years? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.