Code-Switching: What It Is and Why We Do It

woman and man talking

Adobe Stock / Mila Supinskaya

Haley Baird Riemer
Haley Baird Riemer57
During your typical week, you probably exist within many different spheres. You might go to work, hang out with friends, have dinner with your parents and spend time with your significant other, often packing several of these into one day. These are all parts of your life, and you flow through them naturally. What you might not be aware of is how you change the ways you talk and exist in all these different contexts. Without realizing it, you are code-switching. 
Code-switching is a term that describes the way in which we alter our speech, language and mannerisms depending on who we're talking to. It sounds like something technical and calculated, but we often do it without even realizing it. Think about it: would you talk to your parents' friends you're meeting for the first time the same way you would with your best friends? Probably not. We all act differently in different social settings, based on cues and norms we've picked up from the world around us. 
So, what exactly does code switching look like, and how is it used?

The two-fold definition of code switching and why it matters

There are two main types of code switching. The first is the practice of switching between or combining two or more languages during a conversation or based on social context. This type of code-switching is used mostly by bilingual and multilingual people, or people who live between multiple different cultures or identity groups. It involves substituting words or phrases from different languages in conversation, according to the social context the person is in. It might be used to express an idea that can be better articulated in another language, or to cater to or fit in with a specific social group or community. It can also happen subconsciously, or as a force of habit, for people who think and speak in multiple languages. 

The second kind of code-switching is much broader and takes a sociolinguistic approach. It describes the ways in which we change our dialects, accents, diction and mannerisms in different contexts. It may be subconscious or more calculated based on the scenario. Say you're in an interview for a job you really want at a company that is highly formal — chances are you will take care to speak clearly and intelligently, or your idea of what this means. Your posture might change, as well as the vocabulary you use. Later that day, you might be on the phone with your family discussing what to have for dinner, and the way you speak and act will shift. We all make these changes depending on our situation, what we want and who we're with. Code-switching is a regular aspect of human interaction and a byproduct of our society. 

5 reasons why we code-switch

There are many different reasons why people use code-switching, some that might be more apparent to you than others. Here are five reasons why we shift the ways we speak and act depending on our context:

1. We want to fit in. 

Whether we realize it or not, we may code-switch around certain groups we want to fit in with or be a part of. Maybe you slip back into an accent or dialect when you visit your hometown, or adopt the slang or speech mannerisms of a new friend group. 
Growing up in the South, I always hated the association that came with southern accents and distanced myself from the South in belief system and personality. When I went to school made up of a majority of people from the North and the West Coast, I found myself adopting their diction, often subconsciously. My default is now "you guys" instead of "y'all" (which I am actively trying to undo for gender-neutral purposes). The way we use language is central to our identities and unique to certain geographic areas, classes, countries, and communities. It helps us identify people, and we use it to our advantage when choosing who to identify with. 
It's important to note that, sometimes, code-switching can be a form of cultural appropriation, depending on the situation. Language and speech are central to some cultures and racial identities, and this is important to be aware of. 

2. We can't help it. 

Sometimes, we code-switch without noticing and for reasons we can't control, such as when we are under distress or overcome with an emotion. Often, this applies more to people who speak more than one language. When caught off guard, frightened or surprised — or maybe for some unknown reason — people can revert back to one language or another, usually their native tongue, or use certain words in other languages to express themselves. 

3. We want something. 

A lot of the time, we code-switch to get something that we want, or to get somewhere we want to be. Think back to the job interview; chances are, you put at least some thought into how you present yourself in situations when the stakes are high. You might use a different accent, depending on where you are, to come off nicer or more hospitable, or to be listened to in a place you aren't from. 
If you're a woman, you might have subconsciously (or consciously) spoken in a higher register when talking on the phone or to waiters or staff if you have previously been received better when you present more "ladylike." Conversely, you might lower your voice when you want to be taken seriously or obeyed. We absorb information throughout our lives about how we are responded to, and how best to get what we want. Often, how we speak is an integral part of that. 

4. We want to communicate in secret. 

Sometimes, people code-switch to talk to someone else in a way in which other people around them can't understand, in order to have a private conversation in a public place. Maybe you and your sister both speak English and Spanish, and you start speaking Spanish while surrounded by majority English-speakers on the subway. 
Generational slang also makes it easy for younger people to communicate using words and phrases that are barely intelligible by their parents or authority figures. A lot of languages and dialects come from subversive practices, some rooted in oppression or social structure, and using language to speak in code is a long-held practice. 

5. We want to express a certain thought or idea. 

Languages are diverse and unique, and sometimes there are words that don't translate perfectly into other languages. A bilingual or multilingual person might switch into another language in an instance like this. Alternatively, there might be a topic of conversation associated with a language or culture that people slip into when talking about that topic. Maybe you're talking to a person who you know will understand a particular idea if you phrase it with certain language. When we use the right words around the right people to express something, we're code-switching.

The importance, and inevitability, of code-switching

These are only a few reasons of why we code-switch; there are many more, and each person uses this practice differently. Some dialects, accents or languages are associated with certain races, ethnicities, classes or regions. This plays a factor in how we use that language in certain groups and social contexts. Sometimes code-switching is used out of necessity and safety, as some identity groups who have experienced oppression are often discriminated against in response to how they speak
That being said, no matter who you are or what communities you belong to, you probably use code-switching on a regular basis. It's part of how we express ourselves. Communication is the foundation of our interactions, and we learn the intricacies of communicating with other people over time and use the diversity of language — spoken or otherwise — to enrich those interactions and make ourselves understood. 

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Haley Riemer is a multimedia writer and performer interested in telling stories that are important to women. She's a recent graduate of Tulane University, and her current hobbies include drinking too much iced coffee and talking about feminist political theory at parties.