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Code Switching: The Art and Cost of Language

By Alex Vickers

It’s 2009 and a video of President Barack Obama just went viral. But this video is not one of his Presidential speeches or addresses. No, the video is Obama paying for fast food at a restaurant and when offered change, he declines and tells the cashier “Nah, we straight.” This usage of informal language is by no means what we expect to hear from a such a prominent politician, much less a U.S. President. But what this video does exemplify is that we all indulge in “code-switching” – even the President of the United States.

“Code-switching” is the process of shifting from one linguistic code to another depending on the context and setting. This linguistic code can be a shifting of languages or dialects of speech within the conversation (Morrison, 2017). Just like President Obama was recorded doing, most individuals do this in some way, shape, or form in our daily lives.

What language or dialect an individual chooses to use in a setting is dependent on the social, as well as economic variables of the situation. The “prestige” that is attached to one language, or dialect, can influence what code the person uses in that setting (Gardner-Chloros, 2009: 81). But what are causations in code-switching? Why does this occur? In this article we explore what Academics say influence this phenomenon.

From National Public Radio, Matt Thompson identifies an individual's linguistic and cultural background as one reason. Those raised in a multilingual household may find themselves starting a sentence in one language and completing it in another. He further identifies that when surrounding oneself with people who speak a certain way, it allows a speaker to fit in with surroundings. He gives the example of a high school Spanish teacher who accidentally used slang terminology he picked up from students. The teacher stated to his boss “nah, you flaugin bruh'' when asked where his reports were. But code-switching doesn’t have to be something to fit in, it can also be something someone does to stand out. Thompson references service industry workers who utilize Southern accents to get better tips from their customers (“Five Reasons People Code-Switch,” 2013).

A prominent socio-linguistics researcher, Monica Heller, discusses code-switching in the context of institutionalized monolingualism. Monolingualism is the concept of having one “official” language being used in public institutions (education and government documents / buildings, for example). Heller’s research analyzes how individuals utilize language choices and code-switching to increase their social standing in a homogenized institution, as well as resisting coercion of using a set singular language. Her research on Bill 101, which defined French as the official language of the Province of Quebec, exemplifies this. One of the aspects of the bill requires individuals applying for governmental jobs to demonstrate proficiency in the French language (Heller, 1995:375).

Heller gives the example of a man going to a governmental building to take a French proficiency test as part of a pre-job requirement. When arriving at the test site, the man speaks to the receptionist, asking for directions to the testing room. He asks his question in English, to which the receptionist responds in French. The man, who was there to have his skills on French tested and may not have had full competency in the language, references his rights listed in Bill 101 to be addressed by government officials in English, however the receptionist pretends to not understand it and continues speaking French (Heller, 1995:376).

This example is perfect in demonstrating language being a tool for individuals to demonstrate domination of power. In this scenario, the man is legally protected to be addressed in English and in not providing him information, the receptionist is violating a law. The man is unable to reach the testing room due to an unlevel playing field. This is known as symbolic domination.

“Symbolic domination” is the ability of certain social groups to maintain control over others by establishing their cultural practices as the “norm.” In the U.S., a cultural practice “norm” can be considered that when entering a public building, generally (a majority of) signs and documents posted are in English. Despite the U.S. not having an officially recognized language, we have only begun having the discussion of making public documents more accessible to non-English language speakers through translations. Symbolic domination is seen here by putting one group, the majority, and their needs, over the needs of minority groups. Heller’s discussion on institutionalization of language, especially regarding education, ties back to her centric point of knowledge being a privilege and a cultural product of the dominant groups. If the institution is mono-lingual, it restricts access to knowledge for those not in the majority (Heller, 1995:374).

What was not discussed by Heller and other academics was application of code-switching in the context of social identity, dialects, and economic proponents. We have already made the case that social structure determines the language someone uses, regarding monolingual speakers running an institution. What was left untouched was the topic of race and how many times, members of minority communities cannot use their natural form of speech (informal) in workplaces or places of perceived prestige out of social unacceptance or lack of prestige. Fear of not sounding white. Fear of not sounding straight. Fear of not sounding affluent. These are the kinds of instances of code-switching that research has sadly not been invested in, as most existing research on code-switching is focused on multilingual speakers. Clearly there is more work to be done in this area.

Are there instances where you have been oppressed into not speaking the way you normally do?

"Barack Obama Real Cool." YouTube. YouTube, 13 Jan. 2009. Web. 03 May 2017.

National Center on Cultural And Linguistic Responsiveness. Code Switching: Why It Matters and How to Respond (n.d.): n. page. Code-switching: Why It Matters and How to Respond.

Morrison, C. D. (2017, May 30). Code-switching. Retrieved from

Holmes, J. (2000). An Introduction to Sociolinguistics (2nd ed.). Wellington: Longman.

Thompson, M. (2013, April 13). Five Reasons Why People Code-Switch. Retrieved from

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