Code-switching and multilingual speech?

«OMG – det er AWESOME!»

It will come as no surprise to anyone that people across Scandinavia (and the wider world) pepper their conversations with words and phrases from English. After all, English is the modern lingua franca, the linguistic medium of globalization, and – as we know –  globalization increasingly touches every aspect of our lives.

Words and phrases

English words may enter people’s speech with the technology they describe, be it your iPhone, the latest podcast, or a spot of guilty Facebook stalking. In Scandinavia, the custom of subtitling, rather than dubbing, English-language movies and TV series also provides ample scope for dropping in the occasional English word or phrase. When you go outside and see the first frost of the morning, you might well think nå kommer vinteren, but it wouldn’t be unusual to hear someone say, with a knowing look, “winter is coming…” The sheer amount of English on film and television also helps to explain its symbolic value; quite simply, using the occasional English word or phrase is often a quick and easy way for someone to sound – or at least try to sound! – in tune with the modern world.

The venerable members of European language academies tear their hair out when words get borrowed from English, a phenomenon they believe muddies the purity of their own national languages. Yet using the occasional English word or phrase is, in fact, the thin end of the wedge when it comes to language mixing. In Western countries, we tend to think it normal and proper for everyone to have a single mother tongue. Of course, our politicians might encourage students to learn other languages, but the assumption is that everyone will have one first language – the one commonly seen as being closest to a person’s heart, so to speak.

For the majority of the world’s population, however, things could not be more different. From India to Ecuador, from Port Moresby to Timbuctoo, there is nothing more normal than growing up speaking two or more languages. Moreover, left to their own devices, many of the speakers who grow up in this way will naturally switch languages mid-sentence without batting an eyelid. This is code-switching.

Sometimes I start a sentence in English Y TERMINO EN ESPANOL.

As a term, code-switching sounds very technical, largely because it comes from the field of communication technology. In reality, however, people throughout the world tend to use more colourful and intuitive ‘portmanteau’ words to describe the mix of languages they naturally speak. In the USA, the use of Spanglish, or Tex-Mex (if you’re from Texas), is commonplace in areas with high Latino populations. In India, Tuti-Futi describes a typical Hindi-English mix (though Hinglish now seems to be the preferred term). Wenglish can be heard in the foothills of Snowdonia, and the byways of Bangor. The list goes on and on.

Of course, not all language combinations have off-the-peg labels, and code-switching by no means requires English to be part of the mix. Paris is, for example, one of the most multilingual cities on the planet, which means that French is frequently mixed with well-known languages such as Chinese, and lesser-known languages such as Tsaangi (from Gabon).

But what does code-switching sound like in practice, and why do people code-switch in the first place? Here is an extract from an interview with a man from Gibraltar, a British colony on the southern tip of Spain, where almost all the locals grew up speaking both Spanish and English:

A point is that normally in Gibraltar whenever we get into a serious conversation or where there’s some sort of authority involved, we tend to change to English.  This interview is formal, so I’m speaking in English. As soon as he switches this machine off, I’ll speak to him in Spanish. *Que en verdad no hablo normalmente así: yo sí algo hablaría en español y despúes I would put in some words in English pa’ que tú me enteres, te enteres que no hablo todo el tiempo en español.  Es una situación bastante rara porque if I was in school hablaría en español con todos mis amigos and if I then had to ask a question to the teacher, I would say it in English. If my father was having to tell me off, I would speak in English – he would speak in English, and I would speak to him in Spanish, but I would say ‘please’ in English. I wouldn’t say por favor, I would say ‘please please Dad’ come on…

[…*To be honest, I don’t normally speak like this; I would say something in Spanish and then afterwards ‘I would put in some English’ so you know, you know that I don’t speak in English all the time.  It’s quite a strange situation because ‘if I was in school’ I would speak in Spanish with all my friends ‘and if I then had to ask a question to the teacher, I would say it in English’.]

Just as a speaker’s dialect marks her as being from Molde or Bergen or Bodø, this extract of speech would be instantly recognizable to anyone from Gibraltar. In each case, the speech variety forms part of a local identity: the way that people from a given place come to recognize, and value, their shared background.

How, what, why?!

Of course, that doesn’t answer how people came to speak like this in the first place. What the speaker says in the extract gives us a clue to that. As we can see, in Gibraltar, English is the formal (High) language – the one you use with teachers, and people in authority. Spanish is, by contrast, the language of the street. This isn’t really surprising given English is the official language of this British colony, which, through its geographical position, has also absorbed a great deal of linguistic influence from Spain. But linguistic boundaries like the ones the speaker describes seldom remain water-tight, and code-switching often occurs when these boundaries break down.

To most monolinguals, this sort of mixing provokes a range of reactions, many not always positive. Some find it frustrating as they might only be able to understand half of what is being said. Others say it sounds indecisive, or random, as if people who code-switch can’t make up their mind which language they want to speak. In fact, linguists have found that code-switching is not only highly expressive, it also has its own grammatical rules.

Highly structured, highly expressive

In the extract above, you will notice that switches often come at the end of clauses: “if I was in school SWITCH hablaría en español con todos mis amigos SWITCH”. This is very common in bilingual speech, regardless of the languages we are dealing with. It would sound very strange indeed to someone from Gibraltar if the switch points were changed around to this: “if I estaba en school hablaría in English con todos my amigos”. In monolinguals terms, this is like trying to imitate an accent and getting it really wrong.

You will also notice that the speaker describes how his father would switch to English to tell him off. What his father is doing is drawing on the associations of English as the language of authority. This is a very useful and immediate way of signalling you mean business; monolinguals don’t have this resource and have to rely on tone of voice alone. But this is just the tip of the iceberg: there are many other reasons why someone might switch languages in conversation. 

But can they stick to just one language?  

This is, of course, the most common question monolinguals ask when they hear code-switching. Teachers and politicians, in particular, fret that bilingual speech means someone can’t stick to one language. Why are these professions affected in particular?

Politicians are by definition servants of the state, and representatives of its people. An implicit part of their job is to foster a common sense of identity. As we have seen, language is a huge part of identity, and so speaking more than one language from birth can, unfortunately, be seen as a threat to a common identity. Teachers often worry about bilingual speech because they assume it reflects a lack of competence in one or more of the languages.

Is this true? It is certainly the case that people who grow up code-switching will naturally feel most comfortable when they feel free to use both of their languages. Linguists have known for some time that bilinguals are not two monolinguals in one: the contours of their social lives affect their speech preferences.

A Chinese-Norwegian bilingual child may find it difficult to explain to a Norwegian friend in Norwegian what sort of food she eats at home, just as she would also find it difficult to explain her social sciences homework to her parents in Chinese. In the vast majority of cases, though, bilinguals can and do stick to one language or the other. This can be a bit more taxing, just as it is more taxing for many Norwegians to speak bokmål or nynorsk rather than their own dialect.

Although this might seem like a strange comparison, the study that began the whole field of code-switching examined dialect-switching between Norwegians! That, at least, should help us to challenge the idea that language mixing is a strange, alien thing that a small group of foreigners, or migrants, do. We all do it. The world does it. Det er AWESOME!

Global visions - forfatter Daniel Weston

DANIEL WESTON er førsteamanuensis i engelsk sosiolingvistikk ved det humanistiske fakultet, institutt for språk og litteratur, NTNU. Han har tidligere undervist ved flere universiteter i England. Westons interesseområder er engelsk dialektutvikling, språkhistorie, kode-veksling og anvendt språkvitenskap. Han har skrevet mange artikler om disse teamene.

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