How Code Switching Works

Gloria Pritchett (played by Sofia Vergara) gives her husband Jay (Ed O'Neill) a piece of her mind on ABC TV's 'Modern Family.'
Gloria Pritchett (played by Sofia Vergara) gives her husband Jay (Ed O'Neill) a piece of her mind on ABC TV's 'Modern Family.'
Peter 'Hopper' Stone/ABC via Getty Images

When "Modern Family" Colombian bombshell Gloria Pritchett tells off her older husband Jay in a mixture of Spanish and English — "Privacy in esta casa!" — you're watching code switching in action.

Code switching generally refers to the practice of moving back and forth between two languages while conversing. The typical code switcher is a bilingual person who substitutes a word or phrase from one language while speaking mostly in the other. But anyone can code switch. Many an American who speaks only English has uttered phrases such as, "Adios, my friend," or "C'est la vie," during conversation, both of which are also examples of code switching [source: Greene].

Dialing up or down an accent, or speaking in the vernacular, are forms of code switching, too. A native Georgian who has lived much of her life in Ohio may suddenly begin to pepper her speech with "y'all" and adopt a thick drawl upon returning home for a visit. Similarly, a person from Appalachia may greet work colleagues with a friendly "How are you?" Yet if someone calls from his native region, he may answer the phone, "Howdy-do! How're you'uns a-doin'?"

With regard to bilingualism, many people believe that those who code switch by swapping a word or phrase for one in another language are speaking this way because they don't know their second language all that well, or else they are careless or lazy. But several studies show code switching is actually more often done by highly fluent speakers and is a means of using all of the linguistic tools at their disposal [source: Fought].

We're all constantly changing the way we express ourselves; how and why we do so depends on everything from culture to language to self-identification and the people we happen to be around.

While code switching is a linguistic term, recently it's come to have a bigger meaning in some circles. It's not just a matter of using a different language (or phrasing) depending on your conversational partner. Some people use it to define switching between two modes of any behavior depending on whom you're around. For instance, author Marlon James wrote in The New York Times about code switching his clothes (leaving the Bronx in a baggy pants and oversized T-shirt and changing into skinny jeans and a tight shirt when he got to Manhattan) for fear of his family finding out he was gay.

With this in mind, let's see how code switching first began.

The History of Code Switching

A sign written in Spanglish declares that climate change is real at the 'Forward on Climate' rally held on Feb. 17, 2013 in Los Angeles.
A sign written in Spanglish declares that climate change is real at the 'Forward on Climate' rally held on Feb. 17, 2013 in Los Angeles.
David McNew/Getty Images

Code switching has likely gone on for centuries — probably ever since the first group of people who spoke one language moved into an area inhabited by people who spoke another tongue [source: Fought]. But while it's gone on forever, it wasn't studied or discussed much in the U.S. until relatively recently. The impetus appears to have been the emergence into the spotlight of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), also called Ebonics.

In 1977, some parents of students attending Martin Luther King Elementary School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, sued the school district board in U.S. district court because, they said, their kids weren't being taught standard English [source: Coffey]. Their kids were being raised at home speaking AAVE, the parents noted, and if they didn't learn to read and write standard English, their kids would end up functionally illiterate.

The parents weren't asking that their children be taught in AAVE, or that AAVE be taught in schools, as some people mistakenly characterized the suit. It was simply a request that their children be given assistance in learning to read standard English. The district court subsequently ruled in 1979 that the Ann Arbor School District Board must help all kids overcome language barriers that make it impossible for them to participate equally in school [source: The University of Michigan Library]. This case helped establish AAVE as a legitimate language and drew sociolinguists' attention to AAVE and other related linguistic issues, such as code switching.

Attention to code switching was further boosted by the resurgence of Spanglish, the commingling of the Spanish and English languages. While Spanglish has been spoken in pockets of America for centuries, since Spanish-speakers arrived to the continent well before the pilgrims, the more recent influx of Mexican immigrants that began in the 1990s caused Spanglish to become more widespread [source: Rothman and Rell]. And, with 54 million Hispanics in the U.S. as of 2013 — 17 percent of the population — it's here to stay [source: United States Census Bureau]. So the study of code switching will likely continue to expand and evolve, just like code switching itself.

Why Do People Code Switch?

We know code switching is not a new phenomenon. And we know educated, fluent speakers code switch; it's not something that pops out of the mouths of people who aren't fluent in a given language. So why do people do it? For many, it's inadvertent. Take the example of Stuart Horwitz, a native English-speaker fluent in French, and his husband, Xavier Saint-Luc, a Frenchman fluent in English. Horwitz and Saint-Luc always converse with each other in French. But Horwitz says when he's angry with Saint-Luc, he automatically starts yelling in English.

"English is a more emotional language for me, since it's my native language," he says. "And I don't have to think when I express myself. It also seems more powerful to express my anger in English."

Laughs Saint-Luc,"When he starts talking English, I know it's bad!"

Saint-Luc also notes that when conversing with Horwitz in French, he uses the English word for items that have strong connotations of America for him. "When we're [staying at our home] in the U.S., I often buy sunflowers," he says, "and I have to ask the clerk for 'sunflowers.' So whenever we're speaking in French and talking about the sunflowers, I use the English word for them, not the French."

More proactively, some people code switch to fit in with a group, morphing their speech to sound more like those around them. An example of this would be the Georgian native previously mentioned, who started saying "y'all" on her visit back home. Others code switch in the hopes it will make people like them or look kindly upon them. Many service-industry employees say they'll adopt a Southern accent because they typically receive better tips when they do. Customers are also generally friendlier to them when they sprinkle "y'alls" throughout their speech [source: Thompson].

While some people code switch to fit in, others toss in foreign words or phrases to show others they know a second language. Or to sound cool. Certain words or phrases simply sound better in another language or better express your emotion; for instance, "C'est la vie!" ("That's life!") [source: Nortier]. And some people code switch because they want to say something they hope no one but the person they're talking to will understand. But beware: My English-speaking friend and I once slipped into our high-school-level Spanish to describe a hot guy who entered the room — and he answered us back in that language. Oops.

Code Switching in Action

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of code switching is that there are certain grammatical rules that must be followed to properly code switch — and everyone who code switches knows what they are without being taught. For example, let's say you're speaking English with a Spanish-speaking friend and you'd like to tell him that you want a verde (green) motorcycle. According to English grammatical rules, you'd say, "I want a verde motorcycle." But this wouldn't be proper code switching, since in Spanish the adjective comes after the noun — and when you code switch an adjective, you must place it wherever it would go in its native tongue. Thus, a proper code switch would be, "I want a motorcycle verde." Conversely, if you were speaking Spanish together and code switching to English, you'd say, "Yo quiero un green motocicleta," not, "Yo quiero un motocicleta green." People fluent in both Spanish and English would spit out the proper code-switched sentence unconsciously [source: Heredia and Brown].

Also, the speaker would not switch language between a word and its endings unless the word could be pronounced in the language of its ending. So you could not say runeando ("running") moving between English and Spanish but you could say flipeando ("flipping") because "flip" could be a Spanish word [source Cook].

Other code-switching rules dictate when you can code switch. This "rule" is more loose, but you wouldn't, say, code switch every other word in a sentence. Here are several examples of code switching in various languages [sources: Nortier, Cook, Gonzalez]

  • "Ik kocht the last copy." I bought the last copy. (Dutch/English)
  • "Simera piga sto shopping center gia na psaksw ena birthday present gia thn Maria." Today I went to the shopping center because I wanted to buy a birthday present for Maria. (Greek/English)
  • "But I wanted to fight her con los puños, you know." But I wanted to fight her with my fists, you know. (English/Spanish)
  • "So I was all, 'I don't got no pencil, but you might could give me yours.'" I told him I didn't have a pencil, then I asked if I could borrow his. (AAVE, standard English)

Now that you know all about code switching, see how long it takes before you notice yourself or another person doing it. Hint: It probably won't be but a minute or two.

Author's Note: How Code Switching Works

I haven't code switched, at least not to my knowledge. But I remember my mother talking about how my Bohemian great-grandfather, new to America, code switched from Bohemian to English when he came upon a word without a Bohemian equivalent, such as "sidewalk." (This was in the early 1900s, mind you; today the Czech word for sidewalk is chodník.)

Related Articles

More Great Links


  • Chow, Kat. "Six Moments of Code-Switching in Popular Culture." NPR. April 12, 2013. (July 18, 2015)
  • Coffey, Heather. "Code-switching." Learn NC. (July 18, 2015)
  • Cook, Vivian. "Codeswitching by Second Language Users." NTL World. (July 18, 2015)
  • Davis, C. "Appalachian code switching." The Homesick Appalachian. Feb. 4, 2015. (July 24, 2015)
  • Fought, Carmen. "Watch Your Language." PBS. (July 24, 2015)
  • Gonzalez, Jennifer. "Know Your Terms: Code Switching." Cult of Pedagogy. June 19, 2014. (July 26, 2015)
  • Greene, Robert Lane. The Economist. "How black to be?" April 10, 2013. (July 18, 2015)
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  • Nortier, Jacomine. "Code-switching Is Much More than Careless Mixing: Multilinguals Know the Rules!" Multilingual Living. May 19, 2011. (July 22, 2015)
  • Rothman, Jason and Amy Beth Rell. "A linguistic analysis of Spanglish: relating language to identity." Equinox Publishing. Vol. 1.3. 2005. (July 25, 2015)
  • Saint-Luc, Xavier. Personal interview. July 23, 2015. Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.
  • The University of Michigan Library. "Significant Cases." (July 25, 2015)
  • Thompson, Matt. "Five Reasons Why People Code-Switch." NPR. April 13, 2013. (July 18, 2015)
  • United States Census Bureau. "Facts for Features: Hispanic Heritage Month 2014: Sept. 15-Oct. 15." Sept. 8, 2014. (July 25, 2015)
  • Voxy. "Is Code-Switching the Same as Lack of Fluency?" April 3, 2012. (July 26, 2015)