Remember when the word du jour was gaslighting? For a good year there, barely a day went by where you didn’t hear it used in the media or by a disgruntled colleague. Gaslighting was by no means a brand new word, but for the first time, it made its way into the cultural lexicon. There is something so gratifying about hearing a word that perfectly describes exactly how you are feeling — suddenly it can feel like your emotions have validity. They had validity before, but there’s something about a clear label that feels so secure.
Recently I began to see a new turn of phrase pop up everywhere I looked: code-switching. As I am not what one would call “hip,” I frequently have to Google slang I hear on social media (I don’t think teenagers created nearly as many new terms when I was younger, but that’s besides the point). It turns out, code-switching isn’t just some trendy term being used online, it’s a real phenomenon that needs to be acknowledged.
What is Code-Switching?
Code-switching can come in many forms, but the basic meaning is “the alternating or mixed use of two or more languages, especially within the same discourse.” That definition only looks at code-switching from a linguistic point of view. You’ll see linguistic code-switching happen in families, schools, or other communities where members speak multiple languages. If you’ve never belonged to such a community, you’re likely to have seen it in films and television. Frequently in media, code-switching is used to show heritage or culture. You may be watching a film about the French Revolution with an entirely British cast working with an English script, but throughout they’ll sprinkle French phrases and words.
So far, code-switching sounds pretty harmless — and it can be. It’s understandable that you won’t be cursing in front of your grandma at the dinner table like you may when speaking to your boyfriend. Where it becomes problematic is when you look at code-switching from a sociolinguistics angle. Code-switching can also be used to modify “one’s behavior, appearance, etc., to adapt to different sociocultural norms.” Code-switching in order to fit into sociocultural norms could mean speaking in a language or dialect that is more socially approved. Other examples include, how one dresses, styles their hair, or what they eat can also fall under this description of “modifying behavior.” Have you ever hidden a tattoo before a job interview? What about taking off your wedding ring? Are there words you use at home that you would never use in the office? Chances are, you’ve code-switched a few times in your life.
Why People Code-Switch
Generally code-switching is an advantageous skill that can be used to fit in to certain social and professional environments. In many ways, both men and women can utilize their adaptive language skills to bond with others, increase trust, and appear more educated or authoritative. Perhaps you want to sound more like a local while traveling, or you want your boss to feel you’re more relatable — there are many scenarios in everyday life where we code-switch.
While code-switching can be a very advantageous skill, the necessity of it can come from a very damaging place. People who appear to be from ethnic communities or have ethnic names may utilize code-switching to mask their heritage. Because we live in a country where Anglo-Saxon culture is dominant, people of color can feel pressured to speak in a way that conforms.
The pressure to conform can be stressful, alienating, and damaging. According to Chandra D.L. Waring, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Race and Ethnic Studies, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, who studies code-switching, found that the participants in a study who code-switched could feel they were “caught in the act,” if they were witnessed speaking differently in certain scenarios. One participant in the study told Waring that he is, “perpetually self-conscious about code-switching out of fear that someone would witness his behavior and question his authenticity.”
Why Are We Talking About Code-Switching?
So why are we talking about code-switching all of a sudden? While there are still cultural divides happening in our country today, many people are fighting to make our society more inclusive than it has ever been before. Being aware of all the ways in which cultural and racial bias affect the day-to-day lives of people of color, those who live beneath the poverty line, and underrepresented groups such as the LGBTQ+ community, is an important step towards progress.
Using code-switching to your advantage can feel empowering, however the motivation can be rooted in fear or insecurity. Hopefully the more the act of code-switching becomes a part of our conversations, we can work together to relieve the pressure each one of us feels to conform to certain dialect, dress, and lifestyle standards.