Switch It Up: Code-Switching as an L1 English Speaker

If you study linguistics even in passing, you’ll come across the phenomenon of code-switching: when a language speaker switches between one or more languages, dialects, or registers in their speech, as often as in mid-sentence. It’s incredibly common among multilingual people; I’d hazard to say that it’s almost inevitable when two or more languages collide, whether in society at large or in one person’s brain.

Until far too recently, people commonly regarded code-switching and code-mixing as “impure” or “incorrect” speech. However, this attitude is being challenged in the linguistics world, and scholars and language teachers are beginning to see code-switching as a valid, vivid form of communication and self-expression.

Code-switching among English learners or simultaneous bilinguals/multilinguals is quite well-documented, but there are far fewer studies of code-switching among L1 English speakers learning another language.

I’m mainly interested in this because of my personal experiences as a language learner. As a Mandarin learner living in China, I frequently code-switched — in fact, I code-switched in different ways depending on whom I was talking to. When I spoke to other L1 English speakers who were learning Mandarin, I spoke primarily in English peppered with Mandarin phrases. For instance, you might hear me or my friends say something like: “Ugh, my students were so 调皮 (tiaopi — naughty) today…where should we go out tonight?” “I dunno, I’m pretty 无所谓 (wu suo wei — indifferent). Let’s grab a 面包车 (mianbaoche — minivan/minibus) and go to that 耳丝 (ersi — rice noodles) place downtown.” “Awesome, 走吧! (zou ba — let’s go, or just go in the imperative)”

In my particular experience (which I acknowledge some Western expats might not share), using Mandarin words while speaking English was primarily a way to signal a form of cultural competence. It was a way of demonstrating your proficiency in Mandarin as an English speaker and your knowledge of Chinese culture. However, as I mentioned earlier, I mostly spoke this way with other English speakers, not with Mandarin speakers; my cultural posturing, conscious or unconscious, was directed at other expats.

When I spoke with L1 Mandarin speakers, it was the opposite; I mostly spoke Mandarin, but threw in an English word here and there, or switched entirely to English when I reached the limits of my language skills. Here, my code-switching was less to demonstrate how devastatingly clever and culturally integrated I am, and more a practicality. Every day I ran into words and expressions that never came up in my textbooks or classes. Sometimes the Mandarin translation of a word was a tad clunky. At first I felt bad for doing it — using English as a crutch — but I was relieved when I would hear my Chinese coworkers code-switching constantly. “你收到了我 email 吗?” (did you get my email?) “我还没做完了那个 quarterly report.” (I haven’t finished the quarterly report yet).

I put two characters in bold in my last example: 那个 (nage, though pronounced in some areas as neige, pronounced nay-guh*). 那个literally means “that [measure word]” (in Mandarin, a measure word is similar to the English “a loaf of bread” or “a glass of water”; 个 is the most general, catch-all measure word — there are many others used for specific classes of things, like long and thin things, flat objects, clothing, pairs of items, et cetera). 那个 has come to function a lot like “like” in American English, in that it has a specific grammatical function, but is frequently used as a filler word. In particular, I noticed that native Mandarin speakers and Mandarin learners tend to use 那个 before an English word. In my own speech and in my coworkers’ speech, using 那个 both signaled that you were about to switch to English, and/or that you were searching for the correct word in either Mandarin or English. The more you said 那个, the more elusive the word was.

The words I observed people code-switching the most tended to be related to technology, business, and pop culture, especially if there was no direct translation into Mandarin, or if the Mandarin translation sounded too formal or stilted. Email, WeChat, Facebook, OMG, Private Equity. Of course, my observations are colored by the Chinese friends I made in Shanghai and London: young, tech-savvy professionals and students who had been positively steeped in both Chinese and American popular culture. I observed and took part in far less (and quite different) code-switching in rural Yunnan Province.

As is true for code-switchers in any language, I wouldn’t code-switch unless I was sure that my conversation partner would understand the second language in my speech. Unless I knew that a fellow expat spoke Mandarin, I’d stick to plain English. Unless I knew that a Chinese person knew some English and was my social equal, I would try to speak only Mandarin. My general rule of thumb was not to code-switch until my conversation partner demonstrated or at least indicated that they understood both Mandarin and English.

When I was studying Mandarin in school, I was constantly discouraged from this sort of code-switching: mixing up your English and your Mandarin, contaminating them, revealing that you don’t know a word. I was supposed to employ circumlocution, and then write the elusive word ten times, not say 那个 three times and just say it in English before abruptly switching back to Mandarin. It took me a long time to embrace code-switching in my everyday speech. Now, I’m glad that I have, and I think that it’s enriched my vocabulary and taught me a lot about both languages. Nothing in English rolls off the tongue like 无所谓. Email is less of a mouthful than 电子邮件. More broadly, switching between two languages has helped me learn to think on my feet and employ multiple ways of conceptualizing the world around me and expressing myself.

It’s also helped me feel more confident as a Mandarin speaker; contrary to the popular wisdom I heard when I was still in school, knowing that I could just throw in an English word here and there while speaking Mandarin didn’t make me complacent or lazy as a language learner — on the contrary, it lessened my language anxiety and spurred me to speak more; I could always get corrected or consult my dictionary after I’d said what I wanted to say. I feel confident saying that my Mandarin improved immensely after I allowed myself to code-switch more.

In the future (maybe in that weird alternate universe where I go nuts and decide to get a PhD), I’d love to do an in-depth study of code-switching by L1 English speakers, especially those who learn a second language later in life. I wonder if the sort of dual code-switching I experienced and absorbed during my time in China happens to other language learners. I also wonder if the social rules for code-switching, known almost instinctively by simultaneous multilinguals and English learners, are different for L1 English speakers. I also wonder how common my experience in which code-switching improved my language skills really is among language learners, and if and how teachers can make code-switching an effective tool in language classrooms.



*Yup, it’s pronounced similar to the word you’re thinking of. It’s pretty awkward when you first learn it.


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