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Social and Conversational Aspects of Code-Switching


In this chapter, I will examine the social and conversational attributes of code-switching, the alternating use of two or more languages within the same conversation. Bilinguals most often switch languages in ordinary conversations when they are in the company of other bilinguals. Code-switching is perhaps the most obvious indication of one’s bilingual abilities, since very few bilinguals keep their two languages completely separate (Gardner-Chloros, 2009; see also Chapter 1). But monolinguals often have negative attitudes toward codeswitching and think that it represents a deficient knowledge of language and a grammarless hodgepodge. Bilinguals themselves may feel embarrassed about their code-switching and attribute it to careless or lazy language habits. Pejorative names such as “Spanglish” or “Tex-Mex” (mixture of Spanish and English by bilingual speakers in the American Southwest) and “Franglais” (mixture of French and English in parts of French-speaking Canada) reflect these negative attitudes.

However, a great deal of research in the last several decades has shown that contrary to popular assumptions, code-switching is rather orderly, triggered by social and situational contexts, and used as a conversational resource by bilingual speakers (e.g., Auer, 1998; Callahan, 2004; Chanseawrassamee & Shin, 2009; Gardner-Chloros, 2009; Gumperz, 1982; Isurin, Winford, & de Bot, 2009; Milroy & Muysken, 1995; Myers-Scotton, 1993a, 1993b; Zentella, 1997). A large amount of evidence indicates that code-switching requires unusually high grammatical sensitivity and that individuals who code-switch do not lack syntactic knowledge (Gumperz & Cook-Gumperz, 2005). Readers interested in the grammatical theories of code-switching are referred to key literature on the topic (see Belazi, Rubin, & Toribio (1994) for the Functional Head Constraint; Di Sciullo, Muysken, & Singh (1986) for the Government Constraint; MacSwan

(2006) for the Minimalist Program; Myers-Scotton (1993b) for the Matrix Language Frame Model; Poplack (1980, 1981) for the Equivalence Constraint and the Free Morpheme Constraint).

But in this chapter, I shall focus on the social and conversational aspects of code-switching. Drawing on a diverse array of examples from both formal and informal conversations, popular music, and computer-mediated communication, I will show how bilinguals use code-switching as a communicative resource. We will see that “prescriptive ‘rules’ such as speaking only one language at a time are deliberately and playfully broken” in popular music (Gardner-Chloros, 2009: 29) and in online communication (Danet & Herring, 2007). We will also see how bilinguals utilize code-switching to convey a variety of social meanings including toning down a statement that might otherwise sound too strong, interjecting to grab the floor in the conversation, and expressing solidarity with members of the same ethnic group. In all these discussions, we will see that bilinguals’ ability to mix two or more languages emerges as a valuable linguistic resource.

We will also examine attitudes toward code-switching in the classroom. Code-switching is generally frowned upon by language teachers who believe that it detracts from students’ learning of the target language (see also Levine, 2011; Raschka, Sercombe, & Huang, 2009; Turnbull & Dailey-O’Cain, 2009). In many classrooms, students are instructed to speak only in the target language without resorting to their native languages, which are viewed as an unnecessary crutch that gets in the way of proper second language development. The same holds true for immigrant children in majority language schools who are told to speak only in the language of the school. The argument goes, if immigrant students come to school lacking the language of school, they should be provided with as many opportunities to speak in that language as possible. Children’s native languages are seen to have no place in the curriculum, and students are expected to leave their home languages behind as they come into the school.

Even in bilingual two-way immersion, there is an emphasis on keeping the two languages completely separate. In a study of a second-grade two-way Spanish-English immersion program in California, Palmer (2009) notes that code-switching during class time is generally viewed as an error and that children are reminded to stay with the “correct” language at any given time. The expectation is that students make a clean mental break from one language as they move to another with no mixing in between. But as we will see in this chapter, insisting on artificially separating two languages has little research basis. As Cummins (2008) points out, there already exists extensive empirical evidence for interdependence across languages. Cummins and many other scholars argue that second language acquisition can be greatly facilitated by allowing students to use their first languages to make sense of second language structures.

Similarly, a great deal of research shows that literacy skills transfer between languages—that is, students apply reading and writing skills they have acquired in one language to learning to read and write in another language (Bialystok et al., 2005; Lanauze & Snow, 1989). The two languages in a bilingual’s linguistic repertoire are a lot more intertwined than what is commonly envisioned as two separate compartments in the brain (Cummins, 1996). Instructional assumptions that insist on a strict separation of two languages simply do not reflect the linguistic realities of bilingual students. We will examine the important roles of the first language and of code-switching in the classroom and discuss what it means to teach and learn in a “multilingual classroom community of practice” (Levine, 2011: 168).

But first, let us examine the nature of bilingual conversations.

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