If language choice and speech activities are not linked in any fixed way, then what explains code-switching? John Gumperz (1982), whose pioneering work on discourse strategies has been highly influential in sociolinguistic research, argues that code-switching is a communicative option available to the bilingual speaker in much the same way that switching between styles or dialects is an option for the monolingual speaker. By building up a contrast in languages, code-switching conveys the speaker’s momentary attitudes, communicative intents, and emotions to other participants in the conversation.

Under the heading of “conversational code-switching,” Gumperz describes the strategies bilinguals use to choose their language. He argues that codeswitching is “an element in a socially agreed matrix of contextualization cues and conventions used by speakers to alert addressees, in the course of ongoing interaction, to the social and situational context of the conversation” (Gumperz, 1982: 132). Basically, contextualization cues are communicative devices like intonation, gesture, speech tempo, and volume, which people use to communicate metaphoric information about how they intend their words to be understood by others in the conversation (Gumperz, 1982: 61). Thus, a statement uttered in anger might be said in a louder voice, in a faster tempo, and accompanied by violent gestures. All of these contextualization cues help communicate the speaker’s angry feelings to other participants in the conversation. Gumperz’s argument is that code-switching works very much like these contextualization cues.

Gumperz derives the conversational meaning of code-switching through a turn-by-turn sequential analysis, in which the language choice in one utterance is compared against the language choice in the preceding utterance. Following this approach, Gumperz (1982: 75-84) lists the following discourse functions of code-switching:

  • (a) quotations (reported speech)
  • (b) addressee specification
  • (c) interjections
  • (d) reiteration
  • (e) message qualification
  • (f) personalization vs. objectivization.

An illustration of how code-switching contextualizes quotations (reported speech) is found in Romaine’s (1995: 162) example of a young Papua New Guinean girl narrating a story in a cartoon she has just seen on video. While the girl retold the story in Tok Pisin, she reported the speech of one of the characters in English: Lapun man ia kam na tok, “OH YU POOR PUSIKET,” na em go insait [The old man came and said, “Oh, you poor pussycat,” and then he went inside]. Romaine notes that the girl’s switch to English here is socially appropriate because the cartoon characters are white and the setting is obviously not Papua New Guinea. It would, therefore, have been highly unlikely that the man in the cartoon would know Tok Pisin, which explains why the girl used English to quote him directly.

An example of code-switching used for reiteration can be found in my own study of Korean American bilingual first-graders. Extract (2) comes from a conversation between two girls working on a classroom activity (Shin, 2005: 19). Korean is in italics.

Extract (2)

  • 1 Yooni: CAN I USE YOUR ERASER?/
  • 2 Grace: (1.5)
  • 3 Yooni: Na ERASER sse-to-toy?/

I eraser use-even-okay

  • (Is it okay if I use your eraser?)
  • 4 Grace: Ne iss-cyanha keki ey/

You have not there LOC

(You have it over there.)

In line 1, Yooni asks to borrow Grace’s eraser even though she has her own. As Grace does not respond (as shown by the 1.5-second silence), Yooni rephrases her request in Korean in line 3. Yooni may have interpreted Grace’s lack of response as a sign of misunderstanding or rejection of her request. Had Yooni been a monolingual English speaker, she may have repeated her request in English in a louder voice, maybe even pointing her finger at the eraser for further clarification. But as a bilingual, Yooni has the option of switching languages, in addition to these other contextualization cues (e.g., speaking in a louder voice and using gesture) to communicate her meaning. In this way, codeswitching serves as an additional conversational tool for bilingual speakers.

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