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When languages get mixed up: about the code-switching

Fiore, acrilico, 5 anni

 Bilinguals: experts or lazy? About the code-switching

Language is the basis of communication and its choice depends on several factors. Even in a monolingual context we choose to speak a dialect or the  standard language depending on the situation or on the interlocutor. Within the standard language, we choose the linguistic register that best suits the situation: more familiar, more formal, technical etc.. Bilinguals dispose of all this in (at least) two languages and the choice is made also taking into account the linguistic knowledge of the interlocutor. In fact, a bilingual asks him/herself when starting a conversation if he/she may have recourse to another language or not. So the first decision to be taken by a bilingual is which main language to use, then if he/she can include other languages. This phenomenon, known as code-switching, is very common among bilinguals and has long enjoyed a bad reputation, being considered an act due to pure laziness and lacking of of grammatical correctness. However, linguists, having studied the issue, have reassessed this phenomenon by proving that the latter is not the result of random ungrammatical insertions, but it rather follows very strict language rules and requires a good expertise in both languages (see François Grosjean, "Bilingual: Life and Reality"). There is no question of negligence, it is rather a demonstration of skills in several languages.

How does it happen?

Whether it's a word or a sentence, provided it takes place during a conversation in another language. Anyone who has  good skills in more than one language will know what we are talking about. The temptation to insert a word or even a whole sentence in another language is strong and if you can't do it otherwise the other person won't understand, at this point it becomes difficult to find the right eqivalents.

But why does it happen?

  • Some concepts are better expressed in one language rather than in another. Bilingual sometimes feel they can express a more precise concept using another language than the one selected for the conversation.
  • The content of the conversation deals with aspects better known in a particular language. This may depend on the personal experiences or on external factors (e.g. the technical language being mainly English).
  • Reporting what was said by others in language B can be a good reason to code-switch from language A (language of your conversation), being aware of the fact the your interlocutor knows language B, a process that otherwise would require an effort of translation by the speaker, without guarantee of fully expressing the nuances and/or resulting in an unnatural process.

In addition, there are socio-communcative aspects that can push the speaker to code-switch, in order to give a personal touch to his speech, perhaps showing him/her competence in the other language or even to include someone in the conversation. A community can use the environment language  to communicate, but inserting their own language of origin in order to emphasize the identity and belonging

  • You certainly experienced the situation of a group discussing a topic in language A and switching to language B when aproaching another interlocutor who would not otherwise understand, to enable him/her to take part in the conversation.
  • Or to exclude someone. Bilingual children, for example, possess a powerful weapon to exclude someone from the conversation: Their own bilingualism! We have already seen the possible consequences in the post on the psychological impact of bilingualism (see post on the psychological impacts of bilingualism)

Even in the literature ......

....there are examples of code-switching that lead the readers to immerse themselves in the perspective of multiculturalism and ethnic diversity. Multilingual literature is undergoing a phase of expansion, since it allows the writer to give voice to ethnic minorities, to (re)consider a linguistic minority, but also simply to give his/her work a broader perspective, to widen horizons and to pop up latent reality. Hasn't our Montalbano taught all of us to know and love Sicilian dialect?





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