How Code Switching Works

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


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  • Coffey, Heather. "Code-switching." Learn NC. (July 18, 2015)
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