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.    
Code switching: Advertisement for a product called Arizona

Example of an advertisement that calls for code switching

Code switching: Advertisement for a product called Arizona

Definition – What is Code Switching?

Code switching is

  • a linguistic term used to describe the use of multiple languages, dialects, or registers in a conversation or text
  • a sociological term used to describe how people from different discourse communities (aka cultures, subcultures, community of practice) adopt shared mannerisms, body language, slang, syntax, and diction of a discourse community to express their allegiance, their membership to the community and its ways and values
    • “a strategy for black people to successfully navigate interracial interactions” (McCluney et. al 2019).

The term code switching as used in linguistics is fairly synonymous with the term rhetorical reasoning as used in rhetoric. In the rhetorical tradition, rhetors adopt a voice, tone, persona, point of view after engaging in rhetorical analysis of the communication situation.

Code switching is so natural to us as humans that we are often unaware that we are doing it; it’s a form of tacit knowledge.

Key Concepts: Audience; Communities of Practice; Jargon; Rhetorical Reasoning


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, status, and ethnicity.

See Barack Obama – Code Switcher for a succinct rhetorical analysis of this clip from the perspective of code switching:

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

Always resourceful, eager to communicate, we code switch as necessary.

Writers, speakers, knowledge workers . . . code switch

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

Code Switching & Rhetoric

Code switching is a rhetorical process:

People may switch codes

  • because they hope to change the tone, the register, of a text
  • because they hope to appeal to ethos
    • they assume their audience will be more receptive to their claims and observations if they show how their identity, their values, their language practices, are the same as the audiences’.

Code Switching & Sociology

In sociology, investigators explore how code switching serves as a strategy for navigating interracial interactions.

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.