What is code switching?
By Hebe Adventures

Code switching corresponds to the passage from one language to another in the same speech. It is very common among bilingual people.

What are the reasons for using it?

Have you ever heard of code switching! Berlin, a city where more than 184 nationalities live together, foreign languages are an integral part of the soundscape. Whether it's the children we meet in the morning when they go to school and who call out to each other in Arabic, or the Italian waiters who chat during their break, every day has its share of linguistic surprises in store in this city.

What is code switching?

The classic definition of code switching is the subtle passage from one language to another in the same conversation. This practice is common in bilingual societies and communities, such as among Hispanics living in the United States. Outside of these contexts, it is mainly perfectly bilingual people who use it.

On the other hand, people who have learned several languages but only master one of them to perfection (usually their mother tongue), switch more rarely from one to the other. This will not necessarily prevent them from resorting to what is called code switching, since there is a broader definition of this expression including the passage from formal language to informal language or from dialect to standard language. .

The practice of code switching requires an excellent level in the languages used, which differentiates it from a simple imprint of a word that would compensate for a memory lapse or an absence of vocabulary. In this case, it is not necessary to have a perfect knowledge of the language from which a word or an expression is being stolen. This kind of linguistic borrowing can sometimes simply come from the fact that a word does not exist in its own language. We could cite the words Schadenfreude (in German, the act of rejoicing in the misfortune of others) or abbiocco (in Italian, the state of drowsiness following an overly heavy meal), which some people use without necessarily mastering German or 'Italian.

Contrary to this, code switching is a choice coming from someone who has a rich vocabulary and a wide range of idiomatic expressions at their disposal. However, it seems that there are good reasons for this choice.

If code switching can at first sight be perceived as an unconscious mechanism, this practice is not arbitrary. It actually results from several factors, from the desire to express the most buried feelings, to the very human need to be noticed.

Code switching: mother tongue, language of feelings

Often, our mother tongue is linked to certain values, to a feeling of security, to childhood, and even to “primitive” feelings. Someone who goes to live abroad will often use this first language to express emotions such as surprise, anger or fear. More generally, when a person is tired, nervous or at the end of their tether, they will tend to switch back to their mother tongue as soon as the opportunity arises, especially in front of relatives.

However, the heart does not necessarily prefer to express itself in its mother tongue. It is sometimes precisely easier to approach delicate topics in a language which is not one's own in order to put a certain distance.

Say it all in one word

During a conversation, one can also prefer a foreign word to its translation, quite simply because it seems to correspond exactly to what one wishes to express. Drawing on the vocabulary of another language avoids having to search the maze of the brain in search of an equivalent term. For example, using the German word “Selbstvertrauen” will bring together in one concise word all the nuances of “self-confidence”, “confidence” and “self-esteem”; opting for English and saying “that was so creepy” will be more direct and stronger than “that was creepy”.

Untranslatable words occupy a special place in this case. It can also be terms existing in one's own language, but which one considers to be either too precise, or too vague, or even simply less able to express one's thoughts. The Swedes, for example, frequently use the expression “making sense” (to make sense, to be logical) because it is simple and succinct, but above all because we don't have a better one!

Code switching: each subject has its own language

Some subjects sometimes require a specific language. Anyone surfing the web is aware of the special place that English occupies in the digital sphere. In France, despite the efforts of the French Academy, English terms are still commonly used for everything related to new technologies. The language of Shakespeare has indeed naturally imposed itself to describe the computer world (Internet, e-mail), but also certain social phenomena even if there are often alternatives in other languages.

Another scenario of code switching

People who live abroad and naturally integrate terms from the language of their adopted country into their everyday vocabulary. A typical case is that of the marvelous world of administration. In Berlin, for example, most foreigners, including those who do not speak German, know how to quote the unpopular Bürgeramt, which designates the town hall (Amt, for those close to them) and its famous Meldebescheinigung, (certificate of registration in the register of the city). It would never occur to me to use equivalent words in another language, even in a conversation in English.

The link between a specific theme and an idiom can also arise from a very personal feeling, especially when an experience is intimately linked to a particular language.

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