The Sociolinguistic Dimension of Code Switching

Examination Thesis, 2008

60 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Terminology and definitions
2.1 Monolingualism
2.2 Bilingualism
2.3 Multilingualism

3. Code switching
3.1 Language contact phenomena
3.2 General distinction between code switching and borrowing
3.3 Definition of Code switching
3.4 Types of code switching

4. The Sociolinguistic dimension of code switching
4.1 Joshua Fishman’s domain analysis
4.1.1. Language choice in a multilingual community
4.1.2 Factors determining language choice
4.1.3 What is a domain?
4.2 Code switching at an interactional level
4.2.1 The discourse functions of code switching (Blom & Gumperz) The 'we-code' and 'they-code' Situational and metaphorical code switching Conversational code switching Code switching as a contextualization cue
4.2.2 Code switching within conversational analysis (Peter Auer) Discourse –related code switching Participant and preference –related code switching
4.3 Socio-psychological motivations for code switching
4.3.1 Speech accommodation theory (SAT) What does accommodation mean? Switching for convergence Switching for divergence
4.3.2 The markedness model (MM) Rights and Obligations set (RO) Unmarked choices Marked choices and the negotiation principle Code switching as an unmarked choice Marked choices in code switching Code switching as an exploratory and neutral choice

5. Comparison and evaluation of the competing models
5.1 Similarities between the approaches
5.2 The general distinction between macro –level and micro-level perspectives
5.3. Contributions and limitations to the competing models
5.3.1 Reception and influence of Fishman’s domain analysis
5.3.2 The reception and meaning of Gumperz works for ongoing approaches
5.3.3 Contrasting Conversation analysis, Speech Accommodation Theory and the Markedness Model

6. Summary and conclusion

7. Literature

1. Introduction

According to the World Atlas of Language Structure there are nearly seven thousand languages spoken throughout the world and more than half of the worlds’ population is estimated to be bilingual and engages in code switching. Due to such statistics it becomes obvious that nowadays the alternation between two languages is rather the norm than exception in many communities. However, the fact that bilingualism is so widespread is not the only reason why there has been and still is such an interest in this phenomenon as a research topic. The question arises why the study of language behaviour over and over remains an interesting subject in linguistic research.

A probable answer might be that language with all its features is not a static but a dynamic concept and has always been subject to political, social as well as economic changes throughout human history. Accordingly, a phenomenon such as bilingualism is above all the result of historical progresses. But not only languages underlie everlasting changes, it is also the perception of different languages and the attitudes towards them that have changed. The fact that individuals are capable of speaking more than one language has nowadays been widely accepted and is even promoted since bilingualism has proved to be rather an advantage than a drawback.

Code switching, the alternative use of two languages within the same conversation, remains one of the central issues in bilingualism research. For a long time, code switching has been considered as a lack of linguistic competence since it was taken as evidence that bilinguals are not able to acquire two languages or keep them apart properly. Thus, it was regarded as result of not knowing at least one of the languages very well. Consequently, there was a lack of interest in studying this phenomenon until the 1970ies. Since then linguists began to deal with the subject in considerable detail. Nowadays it is the common belief that code switching is grammatically structured and systematic and therefore can no longer be regarded as deficient language behaviour.

The purpose of this essay is to explore the question why bilingual speakers engage in code switching based on selected theories. In the course of research code switching has been studied from different perspectives. On the one hand, code switching has been dealt with from a grammatical perspective. Approaches under this perspective aim at identifying grammatical constraints that underlie code switching. However, although a grammatical point remains important it fails to answer the question of why switching occurs. An exclusively grammatical perspective is therefore not sufficient to describe the reasons for an effect of a switch. Therefore I want to deal with code switching from a sociolinguistic point of view which looks beyond the formal aspects and concentrates on the social, pragmatic and cultural functions that code switching may have.

The starting point in the sociolinguistic study of code switching is to recognize that the choice of a particular language is not a random behaviour and may even be predictable. Being aware of this fact, the central question comes up why bilinguals use different language varieties in the same utterance. Does a switch between languages carry any specific social meaning at all? Based on this question, sociolinguistic research further explores the question in which situations code switching is probable and which functions it may serve for the individual speaker.

The second chapter begins with a description and definition of the terms monolingualism, bilingualism and multilingualism which are relevant for understanding code switching since this phenomenon cannot be regarded as an isolated phenomenon. Code switching is a central part of the bilingual discourse.

The third chapter deals with a detailed description and definition of the term code switching. First of all, code switching is categorized and classified as a language contact phenomenon. Moreover, defining code switching includes distinguishing the term from other language contact phenomena such as borrowing. The chapter further continues with the definition of code switching. In order to demonstrate how the perception of code switching has changed throughout the course of research history, several definitions will be considered which reveal the different viewpoints on the subject. Finally, this chapter is closed with a distinction between three different types of code switching that may occur in bilingual speech.

The following part gives an overview of selected sociolinguistic theories which are an attempt to explain the circumstances under which code switching occurs and the motivations speakers have when choosing another language within the same conversation. In general, one can roughly distinguish between macro level approaches and micro level approaches in sociolinguistics. Macro-level approaches take situational factors and above all societal norms and structures into account when explaining individual speech behaviour. This approach explores language choices at a community level.

Joshua Fishman’s domain analysis serves an appropriate example of an approach applying a macro-level perspective. It has set an important milestone in sociolinguistic research focussing on the relationship between language and society and more precisely on the relationship between language choices and certain types of activity. The assumption is that language choices become predictable on the basis of the domain in which they occur.

In contrast to that, micro level approaches regard the motivations for code switching not deriving from overall societal norms but from the interlocutors themselves. With micro-level approaches, code switching is explored at an interactional level.

Jan Blom and John J. Gumperz were the first to concentrate on the functions of code switching for the discourse itself and later on introduced the term conversational code switching. Code switching is, according to Gumperz, regarded as a contextualization cue which speakers strategically use to mark their speech. Gumperz’s work proved to be very influential for the ongoing research on code switching.

It is especially Peter Auer’s work which can be understood as a detailed reflexion and modification of Gumperz’s theory of conversational code switching. Auer proposes the method of conversation analysis which is a detailed transcription of speech exchanges between interlocutors within a conversation in order to get to an interpretation of the meaning conveyed by code switching.

With a particular focus on the psychological forces underlying language behaviour, speech accommodation theory set up by Howard Giles and his colleagues serves as an attempt to explain languages choices in terms of convergence and divergence. Thus, speakers adjust their speech style as a way of expressing certain attitudes and intentions towards the interlocutor.

Carol Myers–Scotton is also interested in identifying the psychological and social motivations underlying code switching and introduces the markedness model. According to this model code switching is regarded as the negotiation of the relationships between speakers. Moreover, the markedness model is an effort to combine the study on code switching at a micro – and macro-level since she uses the conversation between bilinguals as unit of analysis but also considers social norms and expectations as influencing factors.

The following chapter includes a detailed discussion of these approaches mentioned above with the purpose to compare and evaluate them. In doing this, I concentrate on the following questions:

- What do these approaches have in common?
- What are the main differences between these approaches?
- To what extent have these approaches contributed to the understanding of code switching and its social meaning?
- In which points are these approaches limited and disputable?

The last chapter in this critical essay includes a summary of the most important aspects which have been discussed here. Finally, I will close this chapter by drawing a conclusion on/about the importance of the discussed approaches for the prospective research of code switching.

2. Terminology and definitions

2.1 Monolingualism

Monolingualism or unilingualism describes the condition of an individual or a community having access to only one linguistic code and therefore speaking only one language. This usually refers to the language which is acquired as a first language or mother tongue. Besides, the term is sometimes used to refer to a language policy which enforces one official or national language over others. Although monolingualism had been so far and is in some communities still regarded as the norm, there are less monolingual people or groups than there are bilinguals or multilinguals within the world population nowadays.

On the one hand, monolingualism is likely to occur in isolated tribes and on the other hand particularly among native speakers living in many of the Anglosphere nations like the United States, Australia or the United Kingdom due to the worldwide perception that English speakers see little relevance in learning a second language. This is considered to be above all a result of the widespread distribution of English and its use as a lingua franca even in non-English speaking countries. According to Edwards (1994) the possession of a powerful language as English but also French, German or Spanish can lead to monolingual perspectives. The assumption that it is not necessary to learn a second language is based on the consideration that speakers of a minority group in a community need to learn the dominant language in order to accommodate to the majority and manage their everyday lives. Such notions have triggered off local discussions which deal with the question to which extent a non-native group should integrate its language and its culture into the public life of a community.

A good example illustrating this problem is the discussion in Germany about the integration of Turkish language and culture in everyday life. Due to the bad results in the PISA study which most of all uncovered the strong correlation between education and social background in Germany it has been proposed that German should be the obligatory language not only in lessons but also on the school grounds (Reimann 2006). This proposal on monolingualism at school is heavily disputed. With regard to cultural integration, there is for instance deep disagreement whether female teachers of Turkish nationality should be allowed to wear the traditional headscarf during their lessons. Monolingual perspectives also include the perception that bilingualism is something exotic with an either romantic or threadbare background since the speaker was either the child of European nobility or a child of refugees (Myers – Scotton 2003).

Myers-Scotton further claims that especially some Americans associate bilingualism with migrant and uneducated, unskilled workers.

In the end, monolingualism does not only describe the condition in which individuals only speak one language but furthermore a viewpoint which comes along with cultural narrowness which is often enforced by state policies attributing only one language an official status.

2.2 Bilingualism

It has already been mentioned that bilingualism is the standard rather than the exception these days. Individual as well as societal bilingualism has been promoted by several factors. Bilingualism derives from the contact between people with different nationalities whereas this contact can be forced under certain circumstances or chosen by the people themselves.

On the one hand, the geographical proximity between two communities is the reason for the development of bilingual communities and speakers. Close proximity between groups includes amongst others living in a border area between two nations. In border areas speakers often learn the language which is spoken across the frontier as being the case at the Dutch-German border. Moreover, close proximity also means living in a bilingual or multilingual area especially as a minority group. These conditions naturally call for the need to communicate with each other particularly for the purposes of trade. The marriage outside one’s ethnic group is also a result from geographical proximity which then leads to the creation of bilingual families.

While close proximity on the one hand is a main factor for language contact, conditions of displacement (Myers-Scotton 2003) are another one. Due to certain events and developments throughout history, there are various reasons to explain migration of groups or an individual. An example for migration under force is the involuntary movement of Africans during the slave trade area to the Caribbean and southern states of America. This has resulted in the development of African American Vernacular English, a pidgin and creole language as a particular form of bilingualism. In addition, the movement of people to other countries has been a consequence of a prevalent war with the aim to seek political or religious refuge.

Another major historical factor explaining the development of bilingualism is colonialism since wielding power on the colonized nation also meant to impose the language of the conquerors on the local population. However, today the displacement of people does not exclusively occur under forced circumstances. The reasons to migrate in search of employment might be more or less voluntary. In some cases the economic situation of the home town certainly coerces people into moving away but there are also a number of people who leave their home town voluntarily. Due to economic as well as mental changes globalization has brought about, people are willing to learn additional languages in order to improve their occupational skills and therefore assure their mobility. This in particular applies to the learning of English for the purposes of international businesses. And apart from political or economic reasons there are still some people who learn additional languages out of curiosity and for the purposes of travelling.

Nevertheless, all these factors have finally resulted in the contact of people from different nationalities and therefore in the contact of different languages which has inevitably led to bilingualism.

In the history of bilingualism research various definitions have been proposed. Those have in common to use bilingualism as a cover term for speaking at least two or more languages. Yet, there is a distinction between societal and individual bilingualism. While the latter refers to the psychological state of an individual having access to two linguistic codes (Hamers; Blanc 2000), societal bilingualism is given when two languages are spoken in a community. This for instance used to be the case in Canada or Belgium.

Definitions on individual bilingualism have mainly differed in terms of proficiency meaning how fluent an individual can communicate in a second language. Narrow definitions such as the one of Leonard Bloomfield consider the perfect mastery of at least two languages as a criterion to define bilingualism. Thus, Bloomfield defines bilingualism as the “native-like control of two or more languages” (Apple/Muysken 1987:2). In contrast to that Mcnamara suggests that any person who possesses a minimal competence in only one of the four basic language skills (reading, writing, speaking, and listening) in another language than his mother tongue, can already be called a bilingual (Hamers; Blanc 2000). Whereas the above-mentioned descriptions are very limited and diverge extremely, the concept of bilingualism has become broader throughout the twentieth century and involves different degrees of competence in the languages that are involved.

According to Myers-Scotton (2003) for instance bilingualism does not imply the complete mastery of two languages and just a few bilinguals are as proficient in a second language as they are in their second. Bilingual speakers rarely achieve equal proficiency in both languages since they are, for the most part, not exposed to these languages to the same extent. In addition, the different languages are usually not used in the same situations and with the same frequency.

The difficulty in defining the term is to set a specific limit on the proficiency a speaker has to possess on a second language. Therefore, recent definitions as the one of Carol Myers-Scotton (2003) tend to define bilingualism in a very broad sense describing it as the “ability to use two or more languages sufficiently to carry on a limited casual conversation”.

2.3 Multilingualism

Today it is very common to use the term multilingualism either instead of bilingualism or at least in the same context although the two terms do not exactly identify the same phenomenon. Bilingualism and multilingualism merely differ in the number of linguistic codes an individual or a community has access to. Thus, multilingualism describes the ability to speak more than two languages and comes about when speakers of different languages are brought together within the same political entity (Hoffmann 1991). Although there is barely a difference towards the concept of bilingualism, multilingualism remains a topic worth mentioning since in many parts of the world this phenomenon has become an indisputable fact of life.

Multilingualism on a societal level is particularly very common in Asian and African communities. Several languages co-exist in these countries and large sections of the population speak three or more languages. On the one hand, speakers use a local, ethnic or another indigenous language in order to communicate within their own or between different ethnic groups. Next to these local language speakers often use an additional language for more formal occasions. This language which may be, for instance, English, French or Spanish which has been introduced during the process of colonisation often serves as the language of education, bureaucracy and privilege (Wei 2000).

Attitudes towards multilingualism have also changed throughout history. With regard to societal multilingualism, many governments have chosen to ignore the linguistic diversity of their community in the past and gave only one language an official status (Hoffmann 1991). Nowadays the linguistic diversity of many countries is more or less accepted and there are some bilingual states, in which even two languages hold an official status. Brussels and Canada are the best known examples for states with two official languages. Nevertheless, the majority of multilingual communities still hold one official language and choosing this language can turn out to be a challenge for the government which then has to face possible internal conflicts especially if the nation has a colonial past.

Individual multilingualism is often regarded as an additional skill improving the occupational opportunities and mobility of the speaker. In many European countries, it is therefore very common today to learn at least two additional languages next to their mother tongue. The availability of different languages in a community can serve as a useful interactional resource for the multilingual speaker who usually assigns different roles to different languages. Thus, speakers may use one language in formal contexts as work, education and government and another one in more informal contexts with family and friends. The use of different languages is likely to occur in the same utterance. This very typical language behaviour performed by bilinguals or multilinguals is then known as code switching which will be the central subject matter in the following chapters.

3. Code switching

3.1 Language contact phenomena

In the previous chapter several occasions have been mentioned in which speakers of different languages communicate with each other. For the purposes of trade, amongst others, the linguistic exchange of speakers occurs very frequently with the consequence that their different languages influence each other. In other words, when speakers of different languages interact very closely with each other, this may result in a phenomenon which is called language contact. The permanent use of several languages in daily interaction can have different long-term effects on the grammars of those languages and the outcomes are defined as language contact phenomena which take many forms. Language contact phenomenon is used as a cover term for bilingual speech behaviour including code switching, borrowing, pidgin and creole development and the attrition of languages. All of these phenomena have in common that they are concerned with how elements of two different languages are used together and furthermore, they are concerned with the effects a grammar of one variety can have on the grammar of another variety (Myers-Scotton 2003).

Since the effects can be more or less radical language contact phenomena can be distinguished according to the degree of structural change obvious in the grammar. In other words, language contact phenomena range from the borrowing of words to more radical changes such as the attrition or total loss of a language or even to the development of pidgin and creole languages in communities in which speakers do not share any common language (Myers-Scotton 2002).

Among the various language contact phenomena it is above all the phenomenon of code switching that has attracted the attention of many linguists and has been studied from different perspectives.

3.2 General distinction between code switching and borrowing

In the previous chapter it has been explained that phenomena like code switching is one of many various language contact phenomena next to borrowing or pidginization. The diverse phenomena have may have the same origins, namely the contact between speakers of different language but still differ on a linguistic level. For further analysis it is necessary to keep code switching clearly from other language contact phenomena apart. A great deal of attention has been drawn to the distinction between code switching and borrowing. Gardner-Chloros claims that this can be explained with the frequent occurrence of single-word switching alongside with borrowing in many communities (1995).

Borrowing describes the process in which languages borrow words or phrases from other languages (Malmkjær 2002). One of the best known examples is the word Computer in German. The use of Anglicism especially in the media has led to the fact that those words which are in general called loanwords have established in the vocabulary of particular young speakers (Myers-Scotton 2003). Being widely accepted through their frequent use, loan words have become integrated into the recipient language of a community and are also perceived as a part of this. This is one important distinction between borrowing and code switching. Whereas loan words are integrated into the linguistic system of the other language and have established within the vocabulary of a linguistic community, words from the other language in code switching are used in their original sense. In contrast to borrowing, code switching is rather regarded as an individual and maybe spontaneous occurrence. In other words, the degree of integration is mainly used as a criterion to draw a line between the two language contact phenomena. Thus, it is assumed that loan words are adapted on a morphological as well as phonological level into the recipient language whereas words used in code switching are not (Apple/Muysken 1987). However, there is disagreement about the necessity of a sharp distinction of the terms due to the perception of some scholars that code switching can serve as a precursor borrowings (Carol Pfaff 1995). This means that foreign vocabulary introduced by code switching bear the potential of becoming a loan word. Nevertheless, the realm in which this debate is carried out implies a rather structural and grammatical perspective.

With regard to definitional issues it is sufficient and important to emphasize that code switching in contrast to other language contact phenomena such as borrowing describes an individual behaviour in which two different languages are used within the same conversation.


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The Sociolinguistic Dimension of Code Switching
University of Duisburg-Essen
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Thuy Nguyen (Author), 2008, The Sociolinguistic Dimension of Code Switching , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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