Is Codeswitching only a matter of convergence?

A sociolinguistic approach to code-switching in multilingual communities

Hausarbeit, 2012

16 Seiten, Note: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Theoretical foundations
2.1.Code- switching versus Borrowing and Mixing
2.2. Multilingual communities

3. Social functions of Code Switching
3.1. The Markedness Model by Myers-Scotton
3.2. Communication Accommodation Theory

4. CAT and MM put into practice

5. Evaluation

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Code- switching (CS) is a worldwide phenomenon and has been the norm in many different communities, but it was unnoticed and neglected by researchers for years. However, due to social changes, such as globalization and immigration, CS has surfaced in new places and thereby attracted attention. Nevertheless, those linguistics who researched into the occurrences of CS mostly commented on it negatively and categorized it as a form of interference and broken language. The perception of CS changed when Blom and Gumperz in 1972 focused on CS between dialects in a Norwegian fishing village and pointed at its social dimension and function. As a result, further studies of CS in various parts of the world were introduced and up until today it is a major research topic. Especially, the motivations for CS remain an interesting focus for those studies. Moreover, globalization and with this, the formation of multi-ethnical societies with a variety of different languages in a country is an on-going process and hence a late- breaking topic. Different sociolinguistic theories to explain this phenomenon have been developed. Two well-known approaches are Giles’s Speech Accommodation Theory, nowadays revised as Communication Accommodation Theory (CAT) and Myers- Scotton’s Markedness Model (MM). The first has its basis in psychology as it explains CS as a form of accommodation to converge to the addressee in order to become more alike and therefore narrow social distance. In contrast, the socio-psychological MM also takes macro-level perspectives into consideration and provides a generalization about how motivations for CS are interpreted. In this paper I will focus on CS in multilingual societies and examine, whether this process is only a matter of convergence as CAT claims. Further, I will match this theory with the MM as it is the leading model in terms of CS in multilingual communities.

First, I am going to explain the basic theory of both approaches. After the establishment of a profound theoretical basis, I will introduce a study by Burt, who re-examined CAT’s claim that every code- switch is motivated by convergence, respectively divergence. By this, the theoretical approaches will be put into practice and further examples from a multilingual family will be offered and closely analysed in terms of the motivations for the code- switches. Finally, an evaluation of the given analyses completes the paper and answers the underlying study question: is code switching in multilingual societies only a matter of convergence?

2. Theoretical foundations

2.1.Code- switching versus Borrowing and Mixing

The distinction between CS, code-borrowing or code-mixing is a relatively new consideration in linguistics because a monolingual speech has been considered as normative. As this paper wants research into the motivations that determine CS in conversations, it is crucial to state a clear definition of these processes. However, this differentiation is not of an easy issue but more of a compromise designation as “the distinction between CS and borrowing is also still unresolved” (Slabbert 2002: 235). Nevertheless, I will point out some features of the processes in the following.

According to Gumperz, code borrowing is: “the introduction of single words or short, frozen, idiomatic phrases from one variety into the other” (Gumperz 1982: 66). This phenomenon can be found in various languages. A good example for this is the English word “computer” that is frequently used in the German language. Particularly, Anglicisms are broadly used by young speakers and because of their frequent use they are widely accepted and integrated into the recipient language of community, hence become a part of it. Although this definition is useful considering monolingual speakers, it shows its restricted character in the context of multilingual societies, as the provided examples will show. For this reason, the following distinction by Poplack should be taken into consideration: “a code-switch […] is maximally distinct from the surrounding discourse, while a loanword should be identical to recipient- language material on the basis of synchronic considerations…” (Poplack 1980: 220). Thus, one can say that loanwords are integrated into the language system of another language so that they become an accepted part of the vocabulary. Hence, the distinction between these two different processes is a question of integration of foreign codes in a linguistic system.

Taking the above distinction into consideration, code switching or also referred to as code alternation, is a process among speakers of one or more languages, in which they switch between different codes that are available to them. However, this process varies in its use and especially the length of the linguistic units. Accordingly, a long part of the conversation can be spoken in one language or might start in one language but finishes in another or single sentences are installed in a different language (Wei 2000 p. 16)

The founders of code switching research, Einar Haugen and Uriel Weinreich introduced the following definition of code switching, based on the their definition of a bilingual speaker, as someone who is proficient in two languages:

“The ideal bilingual switches from one language to the other according to appropriate changes in the speech situation (interlocutors, topics, etc.), but not in an unchanged situation, and certainly not within a single sentence” (Myers- Scotton 2009: 475).

Thus, correspondent to Haugen and Weinreich anyone who changes codes within a sentence is not an ideal bilingual speaker and the act of CS is considered an interference phenomenon, so that CS as such, is a sign of the inability to carry on the conversation in the language it has been started in (Kovács 2001: 61f).

Although, this definition is widely accepted, the view on CS has changed enormously (Wei 1998: 156f). Since the seventies it is assumed to be a process of high linguistic competence. In this process, one language sets the grammatical framework and is referred to as the base or matrix language (Kovács 2001: 64f), whereas the other language, the so-called donor or embedded language, which supplies items which fit into the framework of the matrix language. As these studies have pointed out, CS is not simply the confusion of two different languages, but as complex behaviour of bilingual communication. Thus, CS can be defined as: “the alternative use by bilinguals of two or more languages in the same conversation, not counting established borrowed words or phrases from one variety into the other” (Myers-Scotton 2009: 473).

To keep things simple, I will not differentiate any further between CS and mixing as these terms are frequently used complementary and as cover terms for any form of code alternation (Kovács 2001: 62).[1]

Having shown the difference, it is mandatory to shortly point out the sociolinguistic dimension of CS. Although various approaches to this question exist, one can see a basic distinction between the macro and micro-level approaches. The first refers to institutional and sociological categories, which are predominant in the particular linguistic community because they are considered to be restricting to language behaviour. Hence, macro-level approaches explain the language behaviour such as CS in terms of the consequence of institutional and sociological boundaries given (Ellis 2006: 103). In contrast, micro-level approaches focus on the individual participants of a conversation themselves and the relationship they have with each other. The aim of this approach is to investigate into the meaning, which is intended to convey via CS, as well as the motivations that are behind it. So, according to the researchers of micro-linguistic approaches institutional and sociological factors do not determine CS, but only the speakers’ values and needs, which he wants to express and communicate through the process of code switching (Ellis 2006: 101f).

2.2. Multilingual communities

The term multilingualism refers to the speaker’s or the community’s ability to have access to more than two languages and occurs especially in political entities, in which speakers of different languages are brought together (Hoffmann 1991: 157ff). However, the line between the concept of multilingualism and bilingualism is only a very narrow one. Taking Carol Myers-Scotton definition of bilingualism as a basis, this becomes even more obvious. She refers to bilingualism as “the ability to use two or more languages sufficiently to carry on a limited casual conversation” (Myers- Scotton 2006: 44). Nevertheless, the distinction between these concepts might rather be of an sociological and political background since there are many countries nowadays and especially on the Asian and African continent, where multilingualism, so the ability to speak more than two languages is very common. Here, we find the existence of an official language, mostly of European descent brought to the countries by colonization and is used for educational, privileged and bureaucracy sectors. Despite this, a variety of local, indigenous and ethnic languages coexist and usually they are used for more casual communication between members of different ethnic groups (Wei 2000: 89ff). Nevertheless, multilingualism can be found in western countries as well. However, in these areas the so-called individual multilingualism is seen as an additional skill, as it is conducive to the speaker’s mobility.


[1] code-mixing refers to the mixing of codes within a clause, in contrast to code-switching, which describes the switch within complete sentences (Kovács 2001: 62). However, it does not serve the focus of this paper to differentiate any further, as it concentrates on the general motivations of CS.

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Is Codeswitching only a matter of convergence?
A sociolinguistic approach to code-switching in multilingual communities
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Jochen Mueller (Autor:in), 2012, Is Codeswitching only a matter of convergence?, München, GRIN Verlag,


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