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Friday, September 30th, 2011

Code-Switching in My Multilingual Family

code-switching/ istockphoto

“Mommy,” my son stated, “for lunch, uno quesadilla con queso istiyorum.” In our family, this sentence that combines English, Spanish and Turkish not only makes sense, but it is also a normal exchange. I grew up speaking English and Spanish and have a fair command of Turkish. My husband’s native language is Turkish, and he is comfortable communicating in English, German and French. Our son is fluent in English and Turkish, knows a little Spanish and French, and is currently studying Mandarin and German at school. Even though we usually speak English or Turkish at home, other languages tend to find their way into our conversations.

Linguists refer to this use of two or more languages concurrently in a conversation as code-switching. It is generally used when all participants in a conversation have a firm grasp of or are fluent in the languages involved. Thought to be a natural outgrowth of multilingual usage, code-switching is considered to be distinct from other linguistic practices, including pidgin, Creole, language transfer, and language borrowing. In addition to the use of language, code-switching also involves switching between dialects, styles of speech, gestures, body language and vocal registers.

Experts feel that there are many reasons that people use code switching, either consciously or unconsciously. These include hiding a person’s level of fluency, covering up memory lapses in a particular language, indicating a change from an informal to formal situation such as switching from one’s native language to a second language, exerting control over a situation, identifying with a particular group, or easing interpersonal relationships.

Personally, I often find myself switching languages mid-sentence when I forget a particular word in one language. I automatically switch languages in order to find an appropriate word. At times, I use phrases in another language because there is no equivalent way to express a word, phrase or emotion in my native English. Many multilingual speakers find that there are concepts that are more easily expressed in one language that lose an important part of the meaning when described in a different language.

As I switch from English to other languages, I notice that my body language unconsciously changes with the language. My hand gestures and even the way I carry myself changes to reflect motions commonly used in the second language—a fairly common occurrence when code-switching. If one is fluent or very comfortable in another language, there is an unconscious shift in intonation and gestures as well as language.

In rural South Texas, I grew up switching from English to Spanish as needed, often speaking a mix of the languages we referred to as Tex-Mex or Spanglish. To me, it seems normal to change languages while speaking. However, linguistic experts recommend avoiding code switching with very young children who are still struggling to learn the basics of the languages spoken around them. The reason is to ensure that children learn to speak languages correctly before they begin code switching. However, as they grow and have a stronger grasp of the languages, they will learn to effortlessly change languages as needed; code switching will not confuse them. Some linguists believe that the ability to code-switch with two or more languages is actually a sign of the mastery of the languages used.

Although I often unconsciously use code switching, I also use it intentionally. If guests are over who only speak Turkish, I use code-switching so that they do not feel left out of conversations I have with my son, even if what we are talking about does not directly concern them. Even if my son and I use code switching with English and Turkish, I make sure we use enough Turkish so that our guests have an idea of what we are discussing and are not left wondering what is going on around them.

I often employ code switching when I ‘lose’ a word or phrase in the language I am using. There are times that I cannot remember a particular word when speaking in Turkish, and I automatically switch to either English or Spanish. I then switch back to Turkish, and if I still cannot find the correct word, I can describe it in Turkish to get the point across. Likewise, I sometimes find myself switching to Turkish when speaking in English when I forget a word. My monolingual friends seem to feel my ‘losing’ words is an amusing quirk that I have picked up over the years.

For our family, code switching is a part of our life. It is something organic and fluid to us. However, not all families are comfortable with switching languages, and some prefer to use one language at home, or only use languages in their correct forms. There is no right or wrong. Each family’s language approach should be based on family dynamics and needs.

© 2011 – 2013, Kathy Hamilton. All rights reserved.

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A displaced Texan by choice, Kathy moved to Istanbul in 1998. Her multilingual family speaks English, Spanish and Turkish and she and her husband are currently learning Mandarin and German as they follow along behind their 10-year old son’s progress in school. Kathy writes for one of the national newspapers in Turkey, and her work has been featured in Hali, Modern Carpets & Textiles, Time Out Istanbul, Rahal Turkey, Turk of America, Taste Anatolia and National Geographic. Personal essays are included in the non-fiction anthologies Tales From the Expat Harem; Mexico: A Love Story; A Woman’s World Again and award-winning Call Me Okaasan: Tales in Multicultural Mothering. She has also served as a consultant for the PBS series Rudy Maxa’s World, the Oprah Winfrey Show and the History Chanel’s Cities of the Underworld series. She dreams of one day having enough spare time to learn Italian.

Leave us a comment!

  1. CommentsSandra   |  Friday, 14 October 2011 at 9:37 am

    I loved this article! My daughter, who is 23 months, code switches too, mixing Japanese and English words together, e.g., “chotto big” (a little big). Sometimes, when she says something in Japanese and her father (who does not speak Japanese very well) gives her a little bit of a puzzled look or hesitates for even a moment, she repeats the words in English and has a look of great satisfaction when he finally understands. I love it!

  2. CommentsFranchesca   |  Wednesday, 17 October 2012 at 10:53 pm

    LOL! I code switch between Mandarin and Spanish (English is my mother tongue.) I am not fluent in Mandarin, but I do have an ok grasp on vocabulary. Whenever I get stumped on the Mandarin word, my brain ALWAYS flips to Spanish. I thought this was just one of my weird quirks. Good to know it happens to a lot of people.

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