Code Switching

Code switching is more than the use of multiple languages or dialects in a text: it's a strategy for navigating interracial interactions. Review definitions of code switching from linguistics, sociology, and rhetoric. Understand the role of code switching and related terms (register, voice, tone, persona) in human communications.

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Definition – What is Code Switching?

Code switching refers to the practice of alternating between different languages or dialects within a conversation, often to navigate social and linguistic norms across different cultural or group boundaries. Code switching can function as a stylistic move, enable the writer or speaker to express themselves in a personal style of writing.

Code switching is so natural to us as humans that we are often unaware that we are doing it. Or, code switching can occur intentionally. Following rhetorical analysis and rhetorical reasoning, a writer or speaker may code switch when they think doing so will advance their purpose — their aim of discourse.

Key Concepts: Audience – Audience Awareness; Communities of Practice; Jargon; Rhetorical Analysis; Rhetorical Reasoning; Tacit Knowledge

Code Switching Exercise

In the video example below, President Obama code shifts as he greets coaches and players from Team USA in the Olympics. As you watch the quick clip, notice how President Obama adjusts how he greets people based on their role (player or coach) and race. Then check out Ben Orlowski’s rhetorical analysis of President Obama’s code-switching behaviors.


Why Does Code Switching Matter?

[Code Switching] is a large part of a public figures’ publicity arsenal. Being able to switch mannerisms, linguistic traits, and other factors of a depiction of self is incredibly important in the formulation of a diverse and accepting group of constituents. Being able to maintain all the code switching when prompted is also necessary for maintaining those groups, because being able to appear like you know exactly what they’re experiencing shows commitment and understanding.

Ben Orlowski, Barack Obama – Code Switcher. Sociolinguistic Artifacts. 5/8/2017

When Do Speakers and Writers Code Switch?

Writers, speakers, knowledge workers . . . code switch

  • when they are in bilingual environments or in social groups with diverse people
  • when they hope to appeal to ethos and assume their audience will be more receptive to their claims and observations if they show how their identity, values, and language practices are similar and sympathetic to those of the intended audience
  • when they hope to shift their voice, tone, persona and the register of their communications
  • when they work at the borders of professions and academic disciplines—aka interdisciplinary work

Bilingual speakers may switch codes

  • when their vocabulary in one language is too limited—i.e., when they need to shift languages to have the words necessary to express their thoughts and feelings

McCluney, Courtney, Katrina Robotham, Serenity Lee, Richard Smith, and Myles Durkee 11/15/2019. The Cost of Code Switching. Harvard Business Review

Thompson, Matt. Five Reasons Why People Code-Switch. Code Switch. NPR, 4/13/2013.

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