Switching gears: revising code-switching, n.

Switching gears: revising code-switching, n.

A few days ago, I had the following online conversation with a friend who wanted to invite me to speak in a linguistic anthropology class he was teaching:

Friend: Hello hello! Bet mo ba mag-guest sa class ko? We’re talking about the politics of language standardization and may mention ng dictionaries. Naisip ko they can prepare questions and we can have a short Q&A with you. If you have time and bet mo.

Me: Today ba? Sayang I would say yes kaya lang nasa labas kami.

Friend: Hindi today, for our meeting next Friday!

Me: Oh OK. Kung next Friday pwede naman ako.

This exchange may be confusing or downright unintelligible to many English speakers, but it is just a typical example of how I usually communicate with people I know from my home country.  It is also a perfect illustration of a linguistic behaviour whose entry in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has just been fully revised in its September 2020 update:

code-switching, n. The action of shifting between two or more languages, or between dialects or registers of a language, within a discourse, especially in response to a change in social context.

This update also includes new entries for code switch, a noun referring to an act or the action of code switching, or to a word or phrase representing code switching, as well as for the related verbal form code switch and adjectival form code-switching.

I was born and raised in the Philippines, a nation in Southeast Asia with thousands of islands and dozens of different languages and dialects. Just like many other Filipinos, I am bilingual—I grew up speaking Filipino, the national language of the Philippines, along with English, a former colonial language that is still widely used in the country as both an intra- and international lingua franca. Filipinos coming from areas with one or more of their own regional languages speak those languages in addition to English and Filipino, and in the case of the Filipino-Chinese, one or more Chinese dialects are also thrown into the mix. In such a multilingual environment, I and most everyone else around me are constantly making choices between all the languages and dialects we have in our linguistic repertoire.

However, as naturally as code-switching may come to Filipinos and countless other people living in a world where multilingualism is the rule rather than the exception, it is also a form of communication that is highly stigmatized. Society tends to put a high value on the purity of language, and so any kind of language mixing is usually perceived as a sign of language decay. In many instances, people who code switch are seen as uneducated, intellectually inferior, and incapable of speaking properly in either of the languages they are using. For this reason, code-switching is often discouraged, if not prohibited, especially in places such as the workplace or the classroom. I remember as a student being fined a few cents for every Filipino word that came out of my mouth in English class.

Yet there is a group of people who do not view code-switching in such a negative light, and these people are linguists. Indeed, it is a linguist whom the OED records as having written the earliest known use of the term code-switching in print—Lucy Shepard Freeland, who used it in her 1951 monograph on the language of the Sierra Miwok people of California. Linguists needed to have a name for this linguistic phenomenon that can reveal so much about the inner workings of human language and cognition.

The study of code-switching has been approached in many different ways. Some linguists choose to focus on the formal properties of code-switching, analyzing its lexical, phonological, morphological, and semantic characteristics, as well as its linguistic manifestations, which can vary from the insertion of individual words to the alternation of languages in longer stretches of discourse, and occur within the same sentence or in different sentences. Structural approaches to code-switching have shown that code-switched communication is not random or anomalous as most people assume it to be, but is systematic, rule-governed, and indicative of competence in each of the alternated languages. Effective code-switching requires a level of proficiency in both language systems, and just like monolinguals know how to form utterances that ‘sound good’ in their language, code-switching bilinguals know when and how to switch, and can differentiate well-formed patterns of code-switching from ill-formed ones.

Other linguists are more interested in the social dimension of code-switching. They study the different kinds of people who code-switch—from simultaneous bilinguals who learned one or more languages from childhood, to second-generation bilinguals who learned a heritage language from family members, to second-language speakers who learned a language by exposure, to foreign-language learners who acquired another language through formal instruction—and the reasons why they code-switch—whether to express an ethnic identity, to signal belonging to or solidarity with a certain group, or to a serve a particular communicative purpose. However, sociolinguistic analyses of code-switching also point out that this behaviour does not always have to have a specific motive. For bilinguals like me, code-switching is just another means of expression, and many times, I do it just because I can, and often I am not even aware that I am doing it.

Psycholinguists who investigate code-switching use language-switching experiments in laboratory settings in order to examine the cognitive mechanisms of bilingualism. Several psycholinguistic studies have shown the benefits of code-switching to bilingual language processing, and the positive effect of multilingualism on cognitive ability.

The considerable volume of scholarly work on code-switching has greatly improved our understanding of this linguistic phenomenon and has helped dispel a lot of the myths surrounding it. The Internet and the cross-cultural and multilingual interactions it facilitates are also contributing to reducing the prejudice against hybrid forms of speech and writing. As society becomes more and more appreciative of diversity and multiculturalism, formerly disparaged code-switching language varieties such as Singlish, Hinglish, and Spanglish are now being embraced as signifiers of culture and identity, and are increasingly being used to create literature, music, and other forms of art.

As a lexicographer specializing in words from varieties of English spoken around the world, I am also interested in code-switching and its role in the development of new words in contact varieties of English. Several scholars agree that rather than being easily distinguishable from each other, code-switching and lexical borrowing exist on a continuum, and it is often my job on the OED to decide whether an extract from a text is just an instance of code-switching by a bilingual writer or authentic evidence of early use of a new borrowing into English. For example, the following is the first quotation for the Philippine English word kilig, an adjective used to describe a person exhilarated by an exciting or romantic experience:

These jazz joints become mayaman…because they employ real galing na mga bands that make me kilig to the skin and send shivers down my spine.

This quotation dates to 1981, and the use of kilig here may seem like a nonce borrowing by a code-switching Filipino author, especially since it occurs with various other Filipino insertions. However, the OED considers this an acceptable quotation written in Philippine English, especially since overwhelming later evidence proves kilig to be a frequently used word in this variety that has developed other senses and its own compounds, thereby demonstrating that its use in the 1981 quotation was not a one-off occurrence.

Recently, I have been noticing a shift in the use of the term code-switching. There have been a number of news articles and opinion pieces in the last few years commenting on changes in behaviour that members of a minority group consciously make when interacting with members of a majority group, calling such a behavioural adjustment code-switching. This use of code-switching is particularly frequent in discussions of race relations in the United States, where African Americans often find themselves needing to modify not only their speech, but also their appearance and manner, in order to successfully navigate interracial interactions. This indicates that code-switching is expanding its meaning beyond the linguistic, and if this usage continues to gain currency, the OED may soon need to revisit this entry in a future update.

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.