Spanglish. Research and Sociolinguistic Aspects of Code Switching

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar), 2015

21 Seiten, Note: 2,0



1 Introduction

2 Various Definitions of Code Switching

3 Confining Code Switching to Lexical Borrowing
3.1 Examples of English Loan Usage in Spanish

4 Theoretical Approaches About the Use of Code switching
4.1 The Equivalence Constraint
4.2 The Free Morpheme Constraint
4.3 The Matrix Language Frame

5 The Term Spanglish

6 Conclusion

7 Bibliography

1 Introduction

Children exposed to two languages develop bilingual competence, which stands for knowledge in linguistic terms, as well as bilingual proficiency to a relatively high level that is surprising to both the casual listener and linguists of language development. In the same way, multilingual competence and ability are a result of contact with more than two languages. Nowadays considered a normal language outcome, child bilingualism and children’s ability to switch immediately between the two languages they speak fluently are attracting increasing attention among researchers and scientists of different fields. The growing interest in second language acquisition during early childhood has provoked various exciting discourses by linguistic investigators leading to new insight in the present research on language development.

According to Norbert Francis, an established professional in the field of bilingual proficiency, it is important to distinguish between “simultaneous” and “sequential” bilingualism, whereas the first term describes the child’s learning two languages at the same time in contrast to learning one language after first language acquisition (Francis 2011:1). Since the word “simultaneous” has been used in different contexts, it is recommendable to use the more current expression “bilingual first language acquisition” or BFLA1, introduced by de Houwer (de Houwer 1990:3). Summing up Francis’ considerations, it might be of great interest to all of us how much the ability to control two languages bilingually, with which one grew up during childhood, differs from second language learning (L2) in terms of sequential bilingualism. Why is it impossible to speak two languages as perfectly as a bilingual if you do not have the opportunity to learn both languages at an early age? As we recognize, the term bilingualism has triggered a flood tide of questions and assumptions among linguistic research aiming at the disclosure of the secrets behind multilingual skills. Nonetheless, I will mainly concentrate on one important phenomenon among various different aspects of bilingualism: the conversational interaction of code switching in bilingual English-Spanish speaking communities.

It is obvious that in the realms of today's globalization, we are heading towards a kind of world bilingualism as a widespread phenomenon which has almost become the rule and monolingualism the exception. Thirty-three million people in the United States speak some form of Spanish, leading to the fact that it is the second most used language in the country. Generally speaking, the knowledge of both languages officiate as universal communicative devices between nations and within the context of world trade and global politics. Consequently, first and second, and – in this case- bilingual first language acquisition has increasingly drawn interest among linguists and is the reason why numerous studies and surveys regarding bilinguals and their language behavior have been published in the past decades.

As a student of English and Spanish Studies, I agree that the linguistic phenomenon of code switching deserves attention for two reasons: Not only does it seem to play such an important role in linguistics, but also in everyday life. That is why politicians or even natives speakers should be aware of the extent of the sociolinguistic aspects in language development in English-Spanish bilingual communities. Furthermore, I wish to examine the famous term “Spanglish” and the change in attitudes towards the present concept since its emergence. I will discuss the sociolinguistic aspects and the term’s evolution in more detail in the last chapter of my paper. Referring to the particular identity of Hispanics living in the U.S., being able to manage two different languages, bilinguals are capable to code switch within their languages. For this reason, it is essential to define code switching, including its three types of interaction, in the first place in order to distinguish the term in comparison to other linguistic phenomena, such as loan translation or loan words and lexical borrowing, with which one can easily comprehend. Because of the prevalence of lexical and grammatical theories, which have dealt with code switching for the last three decades, I have decided to focus on what are considered to be the three most relevant ones at present linguistic discourse: The Equivalence Constraint, The Free Morpheme Constraint and The Matrix Language Model. In the last part of my paper, I will take a closer look at the term Spanglish in reference to its various implications and what can be included in its today’s definition. Additionally, I will include some examples of the use of Spanglish, in other words Spanish-English code switching.

2 Various Definitions of Code Switching

Even before knowing the definition of code switching (hereafter CS), one might have already listened to it during an ongoing interaction between two bilinguals, for instance among Turkish teenagers born in Germany. They maybe talking in Turkish and, almost suddenly, they add German words or partial phrases into their conversation, which gives a person, not being able to understand Turkish, the opportunity to derive meaning from the context around the incorporated code switching. Nevertheless, I still wonder whether it is a sign of high competence in language skills, or it is just a consequence of “accidentally” growing up with two languages. Additionally, I have had a further important consideration: Why do bilinguals only tend to code switch when communicating with other bilinguals? During a monolingual conversation, they are able to concentrate on the one language without any evident efforts: Is CS a subconscious (linguistic) process or a mere ruled-governed behavior?

Starting up with the term code, in my opinion, it actually describes a system of particular, often secretly used symbols standing for or representing others. It is evident that it is a relatively neutral conceptualization of a linguistic variety - be it a language or a dialect (Romaine 1995: 121). I prefer the more general meaning of the concept code which includes the use of different languages, as well as different dialects within one language. There are various definitions of the term, but since I want to offer a well-rounded description, I have chosen the ones which have been suggested by some remarkable authors on the subject. The most general definition, from the famous Oxford Dictionary available on the internet, seems to be insufficient in my opinion: “ The practice of alternating between two or more languages or varieties of language in conversation” ( The term “varieties of language” sounds too general to me because it neither bears the variation of word types occurring in CS, nor does it includes the appearance of words, as well as of partial phrases. Another definition given by Carol Myers-Scotton (1993:4), whose theory of The Matrix Language Frame you will get to know in the following part, adopts a kind of „specific“ view often made by linguists instead of giving a more solid explanation: “Code-switching, is the selection by bilinguals and multilinguals of forms from an embedded language (or languages) in utterances of a matrix language during the same conversation”. The matrix language here is meant to be the dominating language of a sentence in which expressions or partial phrases of a second language are embedded. The variety of definitions of the term code switching is, of course, dependent on a linguist’s individual focus and attitude towards language. I think that the sociolinguistic dimension, as well as the situational context should be mentioned, since these aspects affect – if not the grammatical, then at least- a sentence’s structure or way of phrasing. For this reason, I propose a more accurate definition by Meisel (1994: 415):

“Code-switching is the ability to select the language according to the interlocutor, the situational context, the topic of conversation, and so forth, and to change languages within an interactional sequence in accordance with sociolinguistic rules and without violating specific grammatical constraints”.

Despite some doubts I had originally, after starting my research in Spanglish CS, I have to admit that, during the course of my research, I have continuously changed my mind about questioning the speakers’ competence with respect to the interaction of code switching. In the beginning I was convinced that bilinguals’ switching between two languages may be a sign of “linguistic incompetence”, like not having had the chance to learn either language properly. Nevertheless, I agree with Cantone’s words that “CS requires ability on the bilingual’s part” and can be seen as a positive result of the speaker’s competence and speech style in it, and that, additionally, the definition above assumes that “code-switching is constrained by grammatical rules” (Cantone 2007:57). Of course, I will refer to a selection of grammatical approaches to CS, but beforehand I need to present similar language contact phenomena which erroneously have been ranked among examples of Spanglish, in order to be able to distinguish them from the linguistic concept of CS.

During my investigation for the appropriate definition of CS, I have surprisingly found plenty of other language contact mixtures I had never heard of before, for instance “Taglish (Tagalog-English in the Philippines), Hinglish (Hindi-English in India), Franglais (mixture of French and English), Portuñol/ Portunhol (Portuguese-Spanish), Guarañol (Guaraní-Spanish), and many others” (Lipski 2008:40). These varieties of bilingual language developments in general, as well as Spanglish in particular, demonstrate the increasing importance in today’s societies all over the world and are evidence for the relevance of linguistic studies in general. Considering the constantly growing relevance, there have been various motivating reasons to me for to write this thesis paper.

3 Confining Code Switching to Lexical Borrowing

As I mentioned above, it is quite difficult to be able to differentiate properly between different language contact phenomena concerning the research in bilingual CS. Alongside the expression of CS, the term lexical borrowing, which again can be subdivided into the two concepts of loanwords and loan translations, turns out to have similar aspects depending on its context. For this reason, it is useful to take a look at Gumperz’ comparison between CS and lexical borrowing. He claims: “Borrowing can be defined as the introduction of single words or short, frozen, idiomatic phrases from one variety into the other” (Gumperz 1982:66). These items do not only appear to have morphological characteristics which are „treated as part of its lexicon“, but, furthermore, they are incorporated in the syntactic structure of the other language. He explains that CS, in contrast, “relies on the meaningful juxtaposition of what speakers must consciously or subconsciously process as strings formed according to the internal rules of two distinct grammatical systems“ (ibid.). While the categories of loanwords, loan translations or calques can be seen as parameters within lexical borrowing, the difficulty arises regarding such words or phrases reproduced as literal translations in the other language. When a word or phrase, for example, appears often within the same language contact context, it is not a code switch anymore, but instead has already been incorporated into the lexical repertoire of the other language as loanwords or loan translation. The question is: Where can one draw the line between lexical borrowing and CS? Despite the existence of different theories about this distinction for almost three decades, I will briefly present two differentiating attitudes, since my research is rather dedicated to the approaches of the usage of CS.

According to Poplack and her associates, CS and borrowing are understood as two different mechanisms depending on the following criteria: an utterance ends being a code switch when it is “phonologically, morphologically, and syntactically integrated into the base language” (Poplack 1982: 231). Due to her study with a bilingual Puerto Rican community of New York, she exposes these three types of criteria to assign the status of non-native utterances in bilingual contexts. Moreover, it includes whether or not such a single lexical item from one language in code-switched surroundings is integrated by these different classifications into the so-called base language. In her approach as shown in table 1 below, she offers four possible combinations of incorporated utterances: If a lexical item attests exclusively one criterion, such as syntactical (type 2) or phonological (type 3) integration, or even no integration at all (type 4), it is considered as CS. Nonetheless, in case it is considered as borrowing, its integration will be proven by all three types (type 1). The intermediary part in Table 1 requires the existence of so-called loanwords: “elements which are spontaneously taken from one language and can be established or not (nonce loans)” (Cantone 2007: 58). Admittedly, due to more specialized empirical data from recent studies of bilingual communities, Poplack’s theory was then regarded as too general by reason of the kind of inconsistent character of its phonological aspect. By contrast, the frequency of a lexical item’s usage is considered as another important factor, resulting from researchers’ varying attitudes about the criteria of CS and borrowing. Myers-Scotton, for instance, rejects the morphological criterion as an argument for differentiating between these terms, since she comprehends both concepts as universally related parts of one continuum. Furthermore, she does not only argue that there is no need for a categorical distinction, but also confirms frequency as being the decisive factor to establish a closer connection between borrowed forms with the mental lexicon of recipient’s language (Myers-Scotton 1993a: 169).


1 BFLA= Bilingual First Language Acquisition

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Spanglish. Research and Sociolinguistic Aspects of Code Switching
Universität zu Köln  (Englisches Seminar)
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spanglish, research, sociolinguistic, aspects, code, switching
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Natalie Christmann (Autor:in), 2015, Spanglish. Research and Sociolinguistic Aspects of Code Switching, München, GRIN Verlag,


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