What is code-switching? I ear you say. Well, in linguistics when a speaker alternates between two or more languages, or language varieties, in the context of a single conversation, it is labelled as code-switching. This practice is very frequent in multilingual environment when two or more people are conversing with each other. They are obviously fluent in both languages.

Various types of code-switching have been identified.

Intersentential code-switching

It occurs outside the sentence or the clause.


Spanish/English: I put the meat in the fridge last night. ¿qué pasó? (What happened?)

Intra-sentential switching

It occurs within a sentence or clause.


French/English: Ce que tu dois faire is to phone him ASAP. (What you have to do)


Tag-switching is the switching of either a tag phrase or a word or both from one language to another.


English/Italian: He is from brazil, and he was raised this way, lo sai. (you know).

Intra-word switching

It occurs within a word itself.


Spanish/German: Traducierst du das mal bitte. (you translate this time please). In this case the Spanish verb to translate (traducir) is used but is conjugated according to German rules. The German word for translate is Übersetzen and it should have been du übersetz and not traducierst.

Why do people practice code-switching?

what lies behind the act of code-switching?

There are several reasons to switch code in a single conversation.

When talking about a particular topic.

It occurs in conversations which requires a specific language.

When quoting someone.

For example: Y como dijo Shakespeare:” To be or not to be”

(and as Shakespeare said).

As an act of solidarity or gratitude.

To help clarify what is said.

For example, in a conversation between a teacher and a student when the latter does not understand, the teacher code-switches to the mother tongue. The same thing happens when someone speaking in the target language forgets or does not know the meaning of a word.

Example: I went to the supermarket to buy une pomme (an apple), and they didn’t have any.

To identify with a group

People can change the way they express themselves to fit within a group. A teenager won’t use the same language when addressing a teacher as when he/she talks with his/her friends.

To soften or strengthen a command.

In this case code-switching marks emphasis.

Example: A Hispanic mother reprimanding her child: stop right now or else, ¿ me entiendes? (do you understand?)

For lexical need.

When using technical words or terms in another language in a bid to prevent distortions and preserve the exact meaning and value of this word.

When we want to say something in secret.

I remember when we were teenagers, my sister and I were living in Spain, and at a school reunion we were introduced to a guy. As he was leaving, my sister whispered to me in Haitian Creole that he was handsome, and he looked back at us, smiled and whispered, “thank you”. Who would have thought he understood Haitian Creole?

Whatever the reason, code-switching is becoming more common each day, n’est-ce-pas?( isn’t it?)

Do you have any code-switching anecdote? please, share it in the comments.