Code-switching (Post 28)

It sounds like something a double agent in a spy story would do. In fact, it’s something we all do – or at least, I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t do it.

We speak in different ways when we are in different settings. I think the most influential aspect of the setting is the person or people we are with at the time. There are things that we would say to friends that we wouldn’t say to our parents; similarly, there are ways of speaking that we would use with friends which we wouldn’t use with our parents. For many people, swearing falls into this category.

HOW we speak, as well as what we say, changes when we are in different groups. In Post 3How do you sound? I asked you to record yourself speaking. You probably sounded rather different when consciously recording yourself, compared with when you speak naturally and in a relaxed way. That slightly more formal, more self-conscious way of speaking is one code; the relaxed, informal way of speaking with your friends is another code. Yet another code might be the way you would speak in an interview – more thoughtful and formal still, trying hard to create the impression you think the interviewer wants to hear (and see).

Gangs very often have their own codes – their own ways of speaking – which they use to identify one another. Rap often contains examples of gang code.

You might choose to speak in only one way all the time, and of course that is your prerogative [that is, it’s your choice to make]. You might think that that shows integrity, and it probably does. If you do only speak in one way all the time, however, you are losing what might be valuable opportunities to establish bonds with other people, and you may be displaying a lack of empathy [sharing other people’s feelings].

It is valuable to be able to code-switch. If people regard you as more like themselves, they are more likely to trust you. If they consider that you are not “one of us”, you must be “one of them” and so they might not accept you into their group. If their group happens to be the university you want to attend, or the business you want to work for, that’s going to place you at a disadvantage.

Here is the writer and journalist Oliver Kamm explaining why knowing how to speak (and write) in an appropriate manner (“code”) is helpful to you. The explanations in square brackets are by me. The extracts which follow are from his book Accidence will happen: The NON-PEDANTIC GUIDE TO ENGLISH. The title makes use of both a pun (see Post 18) and a homophone (see Post 19): “accidents will happen” is a much-used expression in our language, while accidence is the part of grammar dealing with inflection – where we put the stress on words; see Post 17Rhythm.

“We all adapt our style … according to our audience. We use intimate terms (and perhaps a private vocabulary) with a loved one, casual language with friends, and varying degrees of more formal language … with strangers, experts or figures in authority. … code-switching … saves us time and gains us credibility with listeners or readers whose attention we want … .”

” … the conventions of language enable you to talk to any audience without being dismissed or patronised [treated as if you were a child] because of the way you write or speak … .”

“The reason for speaking and writing fluently in Standard form [conventional or “correct” English] isn’t to show refinement; it is to make us at home in the world. Slang makes us at home in a like-minded group. That isn’t wrong but it is limiting.”

“Teenagers may be highly intelligent and also habitual users of slang and non-Standard forms; but if all they use is slang or non-Standard English, then their intelligence will not be recognised and their abilities will be needlessly constrained … .”

“… Linguistic superstitions don’t matter. Tacit [unspoken] conventions that make up Standard English do, because they enable you to get listened to without prejudice.”

And here is another writer on English language use – Professor David Crystal – making the same point about punctuation [commas, full stops, inverted commas, etc] in written English:

“… non-standard punctuation used in settings where we expect standard forms to prevail … can affect the user’s social credibility or career prospects.” [From his book Making a Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation.]

I’d argue very strongly, then, that knowing how to speak and write in Standard or formal English is a valuable tool for anyone to have in his or her language tool-box. It might be said to be a power-tool. And this blog is all about the power that language use gives you!