The Many, Many Layers of Code-Switching

Code-switching is understood as a characteristic of developing multilinguals in any level of language learning. In the broadest sense, it is defined as using linguistic elements of two languages – L1, the native language, and L2, the second – in one utterance. You may have witnessed a bilingual friend use a word or phrase in a different language because they can “think of the word in Spanish, but not in English.” I’m sure many people are familiar with this phenomenon.

However, language is not only about single-word vocabulary. Grammar structures, idioms, tone, and stress patterns are also crucial features of language that multi-language learners must consider. For example, my mom would sometimes switch the object and verb order (“I ate dinner” may turn into, “dinner I ate”) because in her mind, she is translating directly from Korean, in which the object and verb order in sentences are flipped. When they code-switch, multilingual speakers will often generalize the grammar rules of their native language to L2, which can be where a good chunk of their grammar error patterns are originating from.

There is yet another layer to code-switching (Whew!) This layer involves the pragmatics of language, which is governed by cultural norms and expectations.

This layer is also one of the most difficult to explain, because people don’t often consciously think about it. A child will sound different between talking to his friend (loud, boisterous, lingoed) and talking to his teacher (more reserved, respectful, not-so-lingoed.) A receptionist may use Standard American English when receiving guests or taking phone calls in a professional setting (“Hello, this is the Center for Writing Excellence, how can I help you?”) but switch to colloquial language if she sees a close friend walk through the door. My mom speaks in a standard, “city” Korean most of the time, but when she’s on the phone with her sisters or her mom, she switches to the country dialect that she grew up with. All of the above are examples of code-switching.

Native-born speakers are naturals at code-switching depending on the situation. We’ve internalized it enough so that we can code-switch unconsciously. This is a language skill that most children acquire during normal linguistic development. However, multilingual learners, especially older ones, may have more difficulty with juggling all the features of their new language.

I am a native-born Korean; my L1 was Korean. However, since I grew up in America, I’ve always had trouble using Korean in accordance with Korean cultural norms.

Korean culture is highly hierarchical. The way you address an individual depends on age or the number of years worked at a particular job. You must use formal language when addressing any individual older than you, whether it be by a year, five years, or multiple decades. Your “friends” (or the people you can address as your friends) are only those born in the same year you were born in. Anyone older needs to be addressed with a politeness form. Anyone younger, you can address informally.

And the above rules may not pertain in a professional work environment, in which everyone has to address everyone else formally.

And yet again, the above rules can be fudged when people begin to get more familiar with each other.

People can get touchy if not addressed with the proper politeness forms, so sometimes I stumble over my words because I’m too worried about addressing an older person incorrectly. In contrast, there are no politeness forms in English, and we can initiate conversations with ease, regardless of age. They are very disparate languages, not only in vocabulary and sentence structures and stress patterns and tone, but in cultural usage as well. As a result, at times I feel as though I’m an outsider, despite my being raised in the Korean community.

Older learners may be afraid to make mistakes, because, unlike children who won’t be judged for their language errors, we will be. What I feel most helpful speaking Korean is having a language partner who is not judgmental, and who will correct my errors without making me feel put on the spot. I’m sure other multilingual learners face the same challenges and would appreciate an environment in which they can be comfortable, in everyday communication as well as in writing.

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