Functions of Code-Switching in Bilingual Conversations

Term Paper, 2010

34 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Data Description
2.1 Participants
2.2 Setting and Instructions
2.3 Questionnaire

3. Choosing a Base Language

4. Code-switching versus Borrowing

5. Different Reasons for Code-switching in Bilingual Interaction
5.1 Expression of Certain Notions or Concepts
5.2 Substitution of a Linguistic Need
5.3 Quotations
5.4 Communicative or Social Strategy
5.5 Other Influencing Factors
5.6 Code-switches without Obvious Reasons

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

9. Appendices
9.1 Transcription
9.2 Questionnaires

1. Introduction

“He plays the piano auswendig

(Transcription Family Dinner: Sequence 2, Nicole: line 41)

People communicate for many different reasons, for instance, in order to cultivate relationships and to gather or provide information. Although every person communicates, communication can vary depending on such simple aspects as geographical location and which language or languages a person is exposed to while growing up or a person’s social background and events experienced during his or her childhood.

Communication, more specifically verbal communication, for instance in daily conversations, plays an essential role in everyday human interaction. In order to communicate verbally, the human population uses a wide variety of languages. The increase in number of listed languages between 1911, when the Encyclopedia Britannica “implie[d] a figure around 1000” (Anderson 2004) and 2009, when the Ethnologue Organization’s detailed classified list notes approximately 6909 different languages in the world (cf. Lewis 2009), does not necessarily prove that there are “more” languages today than in the early twentieth century. It rather seems to suggest that scholars today are more keenly attuned to this method of communication and its intricate function in modern society.

Because of the world’s great variety of languages, David Crystal calls attention to the fact that over half of the world’s population is bilingual (c.f. Crystal 2004: 38). This demonstrates, quite obviously, that bilingualism is a widespread phenomenon and could explain why “one of the main insights of twentieth-century linguistics was to demonstrate the extraordinary capacity of the brain for language” (ibid.). The result of these observations was that scholars accepted bilingualism and multilingualism as “the normal human condition” (ibid.). People in basically every country, of every social class and of all ages “[…] use two ore more languages (or dialects) in their everyday lives” (Grosjean 2010: 4), i.e. they are bilingual.

Currently, it is possible to find numerous definitions for the term bilingualism. These definitions range from different kinds to different degrees of this aspect of language. On the one hand, Bloomfield, an American linguist, believes a bilingual should have a “native-like control of two languages” (Bloomfield 1933: 56). Thus, Bloomfield requires a maximal proficiency in two languages. On the other hand, Haugen, also an American linguist, says that speakers of one language can be referred to as bilingual when they are able to produce meaningful and complete sentences in another language (cf. Haugen 1953: 7). Therefore, his requirement to be considered a bilingual is rather minimal.

In order to study bilingualism, though, Mackey (Mackey 1968: 555) points out that the abilty to speak more than one language is an entirely relative concept. He argues that it is either totally arbitrary or even impossible to determine the threshold at which a speaker goes from being monolingual to bilingual. Mackey’s definition for bilingualism, i.e. the alternate use of two or more languages, is comparable to Crystal and Crystal’s, which simply states that bilinguals are „[...] proficient in more than one language” (Crystal & Crystal 2000: 66) and also to Grosjean’s, which emphasizes that bilinguals are people who need and „[...] use two or more languages (or dialects) in their everyday lives“ (Grosjean 2010: 4). In this research, the definition of the term bilingualism by the latter two linguists will be used.

Coupled with the widespread phenomenon of bilingualism is another, that of alternating between two or more languages during spoken conversation. In general, this is referred to as code-mixing and code-switching. As stated by Poplack, “code-switching refers to the mixing [...] of two or more languages in discourse, often with no change of interlocutor or topic“ (Poplack 2001: 2062). Code-mixing usually “refers to the mixing of various linguistic units [...] from two participating grammatical systems within a sentence“ (Kim 2006: 45). Although some scholars differentiate between these two terms, as previously mentioned, Kim points out that it is often difficult to make a clear distinction between code-mixing and code-shifting (cf. ibid.). In this study, the term code-switching will be used in the sense in which Gumperz (Gumperz 1982: 59), quoted in Romaine (Romaine 1989), has defined it, as “the juxtaposition within the same speech exchange of passages of speech belonging to two different grammatical systems or subsystems”, for example “He plays the piano auswendig”.

Bilinguals are able to speak mixed languages and/or have the ability to switch rapidly back and forth between two (or more) spoken languages. These switches often happen for specific reasons and motivation, which are influenced by numerous factors, for instance the participant(s), the situation, the topic and the function of the language act (cf. Grosjean 2001: 5). This means that certain situations or monolingual interlocutors require the monolingual mode while others allow for a bi- or multilingual mode to be used. Therefore, a bilingual continously has to decide which mode to use. This decision is based on numerous factors, both social and linguistic.

Traditionally, code-switching was considered to be random, meaningless and a sign of incompetence. It was seen as a strategy to compensate for a weakened language proficiency. Researchers thought that bilinguals, especially bilingual children, switch codes because they do not know either language completely. At this point, the dominance of one language also is said to play a role. One problem with this approach is how proficiency is defined, i.e. is it the reading and writing skills or the ability to speak a language which shows that someone is proficient? Recent studies, though, indicate that code-switching follows certain rules and is grammatically constrained; that “it has a role, a function, facets and characteristics” (Kim 2006: 51). In fact, it is not random at all, although it often happens subconsciously. These studies additionally describe different types of code-switching and different communcicative functions. As mentioned before, it was often believed that children switch languages due “[…] to the lack of proficiency in the one or the other language” (Huerta & Quintero 1992: 86). Yet, it is also stated that adult bilinguals switch more extensively again, which “this time [...] is not due so much to lack of proficiency [...], but is rather indicative of a growing metalinguistic and pragmatic sophistication [...]“ (ibid). Does this now mean that proficient bilinguals in a bilingual mode always switch for a specific reason, subconsciously or not? Or is it possible that proficient bilinguals switch languages without a pragmatic reason?

This analysis is based on a recording of a conversation between three bilinguals of different origin with a focus on the numerous types of code-switching that occur and their different communicative functions. A questionnaire about their switching behavior that was filled out by the three bilinguals after the recording will also be taken into consideration.

2. Data Description

The following chapter deals with how, where and with whom the data that is used for this research paper was collected.

2.1 Participants

The recorded sequences are part of a dinner conversation between Nicole, a 42-year-old American, her husband, Kaspar, a 55-year-old German, and Nicole’s sister Paula, 52 years old. It is the second conversation between these three participants after an approximately two-year break. The two sisters, Nicole and Paula, although born and raised in the United States of America, were brought up bilingually by their German parents. Both women moved back to Germany over twenty years ago and have lived and worked in Germany ever since. They each have children, who are also being raised bilingually, and hence, still speak English on a daily basis. Kaspar, a helicopter pilot in the German air force, has lived in Germany his whole life, aside from a ten-month training period in Alabama, USA. He learned English in school and through his employment. Thus, he is able to speak and understand English on a proficient level. His wife does not necessarily speak German when Kaspar is present. Therefore, Kaspar’s English has improved over the years and he tends to switch codes almost as frequently as the two sisters.

2.2 Setting and Instructions

The conversation sequences used for this study were recorded on April 28th, 2010, in a small town near Berlin in Germany. Of the three participants, only Paula knows that this dinner conversation is being recorded, since she is using the recording device. Paula was given the instructions to tape a conversation at, for instance, the dinner table. The conversation should include English, but bilingualism would also be acceptable. Kaspar and Nicole were not informed until later when a second conversation, which included their son Michael (Mikey) and is not part of this study, was taped. Therefore, the sequences used portray a fairly naturally occurring conversation among the participants. The complete recording was approximately twenty-eight minutes long. Of these twenty-eight minutes, nine minutes were transcribed for further analysis.

2.3 Questionnaire

In addition to a recorded conversation, a questionnaire, that asks the participants if they switch the language mode consciously or not, in what types of situations they switch and if they switch with bilinguals as well as monolinguals, was added. This questionnaire was filled out by the three particpants via electronic mail approximately two to three weeks after the conversation was recorded. Their answers were neither corrected nor shortened.

3. Choosing a Base Language

In order to understand when bilinguals code-switch, it is important to figure out what base language is being used. According to Grosjean, bilinguals, when communicating with others, “have to ask themselves two questions […]: which language should they use, and can they bring in other language(s) into the interaction if they need to?” (Grosjean 2010: 39) Grosjean uses a figure that illustrates this decision-making process.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

The two squares on the top visually represent the bilingual’s two languages, Language a and Language b, which will be reffered to as “La“ and “Lb” respectively. These (squares are filled with diagonal lines) remain inactive before the communicative event. The solid black squares then indicate the active language after the bilingual, most of the time subconsciously, answered the questions. Cross-hatched lines (Lb in the bilingual mode) show that Lb is also activated but less than La. The chosen language is then the base language (also called the host or matrix language) for the bilingual interaction (cf. Grosjean 2010: 39ff). Which language bilinguals decide on is influenced by numerous factors. These factors mainly belong to four categories: participants, situation, content of discourse and function of the interaction (cf. ibid). However, it is said that a language is never fully deactivated in a bilingual even when the bilingual is in a monolingual mode. Since the recorded dinner conversation is mainly conducted in English, the base language can be said to be English and not German.


Excerpt out of 34 pages


Functions of Code-Switching in Bilingual Conversations
University of Hamburg  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Advanced Integrated Skills
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
872 KB
Bilingual, code-switching, empirische Untersuchung, Funktionen von Sprachwechsel, Code Wechsel, Sprachwechsel
Quote paper
Heidi Veldtrup (Author), 2010, Functions of Code-Switching in Bilingual Conversations, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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