Code Switching: What is it and why do we do it?

Singlish, more than English or any of our mother tongues, has become the language Singaporeans use everyday. Whether we’re in the classroom, hanging out with friends or at home with family, Singlish is used in every facet of our lives. However, when we’re placed in a situation where it is necessary to present ourselves in a professional manner, we suppress our lahs and lehs, and switch to a more ‘appropriate’ way of speaking.

This practice of alternating between two or more languages is also known as code switching.

Why code switch? And when?

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Code switching is a perfectly natural phenomenon. People use it to adapt to different situations and social groups. You might notice this for yourself too. For example, I speak in Mandarin when ordering from my favourite zi char stall (a Chinese food stall that sells a wide selection of common and affordable dishes), English in the workplace, or maybe a little bit of both with my family and friends.

But why do we do that? Oftentimes, code switching occurs both consciously and unconsciously, when people want to act or talk more like those around them. The auntie at my favourite zi char stall probably prefers speaking in Mandarin, so making the switch to Mandarin only seems natural.

It is a basic human instinct for us to seek acceptance from the people around us. In order to achieve this, we often present slightly different versions of ourselves, by making slight alterations to our behaviour, speech pattern, or even appearance. Code switching is merely one of the tools we employ to make that happen.

Is code switching pretentious?

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According to an essay titled “Code Switching” in Sociocultural Linguistics, code switching is defined as “the practice of selecting or altering linguistic elements so as to contextualise talk in interaction.” This means that code switching is not limited to just languages and dialects, but also to other forms of linguistic elements, such as body language and mannerisms, accents and even tone.

I used to think that Singaporeans who spent some time abroad and in the process shed their Singaporean accent were pretentious and did not embrace their identity and culture. In fact, just before leaving to study abroad in the UK, I made a promise to myself that I would maintain my unique way of speaking, regardless of what people thought of me. But such was easier said than done. People did in fact, have a hard time understanding me, particularly the way I pronounced certain words, my diction, my talking speed, just to name a few. I quickly learnt that for me to effectively communicate with people who have no clue as to what Singlish is, I had to make several adjustments.

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The truth is, code switching is no indication that you don’t embrace your cultural identity, or that you want to pretend to be someone else. While that might be true in some cases, code switching is an integral part of society, and helps to serve the role of language in society — something that connects people to their groups of friends, and their communities. In fact, code switching is an indication that we do embrace our cultures and diversity in language, and that we want to respond in a way that can be best understood.

Written by Chrystal Hooi



Blog, guide and insights on all things translation and language.

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