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!

Be careful what you say (Thought 14)

This is a reflection rather than a suggested activity – but it might affect your behaviour; the choice is, of course, yours.

To be known as “a woman of her word” or “a man of his word” is one of the greatest compliments you can ever be paid. It means that you “deliver on” what you say you’ll do.

If you “keep your word” – that is, do what you say you’ll do – then people will come to trust you; and being trusted – and trustworthy – is both a compliment and an asset to you.

Trust, however, takes a while to build up: you might have to prove on several occasions that you can, indeed, be trusted, before another person will take that for granted.

Trust is also very easily broken – and it is possible that you may never be able to rebuild it fully. It only takes one broken promise for the person to whom you made the promise to feel that he or she can never truly trust you again.

You may have heard the expression “white lies”. It means things that are untrue, but either unimportant, or a way of explaining something where the truth would do more harm than good. The Tooth Fairy might be an example of the first kind of white lie; saying that you like a present that a relative has given you when you don’t actually like it at all might be an example of the second kind of white lie.

Actually, I don’t believe that white lies are a good idea, or harmless. You may of course disagree. I think it’s better either not to make up untrue explanations – in the first example – or to find something different to say that is true, in the second (perhaps, “That is a really generous and thoughtful present! Thank you VERY much.”).

OK – enough of the “heavy stuff”.

Why does it matter that you keep your word? It matters because being trusted is the way that most of the important relationships in our world are built up. Personal relationships are an obvious example, but business and workplace relationships also work best when built on trust.

So does it really matter, in these bigger, more important settings, if you say, “I’ll get us something for lunch when I’m out this morning” and then don’t bring anything back? Surely that’s trivial – ? Or say you’ll empty the dishwasher, or put the clean washing up to dry, and then “forget” to do it – ? I think it does matter – because if you can’t be trusted with the small things, why should anyone believe you can be trusted with the bigger things? Are you a person who is true to his/her word, or not? Best to be able to answer that “Yes” or “No” rather than have to settle for “It depends …” – which isn’t really much use to anyone.

Think before you speak. If you can’t be sure that you’ll do what you say, then be honest: “I’ll try to get that done, but I might have to put it off until tomorrow or the next day.” Or “I’m sorry, but I’d rather not do that.” People will admire you far more for being honest than if you’d said what you thought they wanted to hear, and then failed to deliver on it.

You don’t have to be hurtful, however, to be honest. Sometimes it’s better to say nothing, or to say something different, rather than tell the truth and hurt another person’s feelings. If you haven’t already heard it, you soon will hear people referring to the classic excuse, “Sorry, I have to wash my hair this evening” – used when someone doesn’t want to go out on a date. It’s so well known now that it probably isn’t used any more in reality – unless the speaker wants to say it as a code for, “I don’t want to go out with you!”

Better not use that one, then – but there is no reason to be brutal and say, for instance, “I really don’t like you and I wish you’d stop asking me out”. How about, “I don’t see this friendship going anywhere, and I appreciate your asking me out, but I’m going to say no. Thanks anyway” – ?

I’m writing this from experience, as you can maybe tell. When I was quite young, my mother – who had brought me up always to tell the truth – was appalled when I told my grandmother that I didn’t actually like the present she’d bought for me for my birthday. Well – she had asked me what I thought of it! My mother told me later that day to go back to my grandmother and apologise, and tell her that I did like it after all. I still haven’t really got my head around that one – which is why I developed the belief that if you can’t tell the truth without hurting someone, you should tell a different truth instead, if that’s possible. Even although I was very young, I could have said to my grandmother, “Thank you! That’s really kind of you. I love you.”

Look how you speak! (Suggestion No. 9)

Today’s suggestion comes from Jordan Pfotenhauer, Programmes Director of the English-Speaking Union in Scotland. Its “Speak up Scotland” programme encourages debating activities in schools.

This suggestion is a development of my Post No. 3 – How do you sound? If you have carried out that task, you should be well on the way to getting rid of any verbal “tics” or fillers that you picked up when you listened to the recording you made of yourself. Now it’s time to see whether you like – or are impressed by – how you look when you speak.

How we look when we speak – how we “deliver a speech” – can have a very strong impression on our listeners. It can make them more likely to agree with us, or drive them to reject what we have to say.

Not all listeners respond to the same speaker in the same way. Some listeners like serious speakers. Some like entertaining speakers. Some are moved by passionate, emotional deliveries; others are more convinced by a sombre, measured approach.

What you’re talking about – your topic – will also influence the style you choose when you are talking about it. Some subjects – topics – suggest that a sad delivery would be most suitable. Some are light-hearted and lend themselves to a more joking approach.

Here is Jordan’s suggestion: Choose something that is currently irritating or angering you. This can be as serious (people losing jobs because of coronavirus shut-downs?) or as playful (having to share a bathroom with your brother or sister?) as you like. Write a one-minute speech and deliver it to yourself in the mirror (Try to find a full-length mirror, and also to look at all of yourself as you speak. You can do this several times, perhaps until you don’t need to read your speech but can deliver it without notes). Try to deliver your speech in such a way that you would convince a listening audience that you are RIGHT to be angry.

How did you feel about doing that exercise? Was it awkward? Did you enjoy it?

If you don’t want to pay attention to what you’ve got to say, why should anyone else want to do so?

Watching yourself, as well as listening to yourself, can be quite embarrassing to do at first. Carrying out these activities will help you to present yourself in a way that suits you.

Visit for more of Jordan’s suggestions. You can influence people with both what you say AND how you say it.

How do you sound? (Post 3)

Have you listened to a recording of yourself speaking? Many people – especially but not only younger people – either avoid doing this, or hate the sound of their own recorded voice.

Nowadays, however, it is very likely that we will be heard in a recorded or electronic form by many people – especially during this COVID 19 period of restricted movement and a ban on meeting people in person. So it is time to take control of how you sound when you speak.

There are two main areas of your speech which you might want to consider. One is your accent – how you pronounce words. The other is your interpretation of what you say: do you raise and lower your voice to make some parts of what you say more interesting? Do you speed up or slow down at times? Do you use “fillers” such as “eh?”, “emm”, “like”, “you know”, “sort of thing”, “hmm”, “right” – ?

Generally, variety makes people – our listeners, in this case – more interested. Young people often speak in a monotone (one pitch, one speed, no interpretation) when answering questions asked by adults, but (a) this is a phase which you might leave behind when you leave school [I do hope so!]; and (b) it doesn’t have to be this way! You choose how you speak.

Accent. Each one of us has an accent. Accents are neither “good” nor “bad” but they can have a remarkably strong effect on those who hear them. Especially in the United Kingdom, your accent may lead someone to think better or worse of you. It’s not a rational thing, but it does still occur. Thank goodness, it happens less than it used to do – say, in the first half of the 20th century – but be aware that how you pronounce words can alter the way people think of you.

So: first of all, make a recording of yourself. Using your phone might be the easiest way of doing this, or perhaps you can use a computer’s built-in microphone. I suggest you make at least TWO recordings – one of yourself reading something, and the other of yourself talking as if to a friend about something that really interests you. Try to make your recordings at least one minute long in each case.

Now listen to them.

Accent: do you like the way you pronounce the words when you’re reading aloud? If you do, that’s fine; if you don’t, try to identify what you don’t like about it, and practise changing that. Listen carefully and try to pinpoint exactly what it is that you don’t like. It will usually be a vowel sound – a, e, i, o, u – or a combination of these. Consonants – the rest of the letters in the alphabet – are generally either sounded or not sounded; they are not open to as much variation in accents as the vowel sounds are. One consonant-related point that can arouse really strong feelings in listeners however is the sound of “t” or “tt”. Do you pronounce the “t” in “party”, or the “tt” in “letter”? Some speakers replace those with a slight pause (known as the glottal stop) – saying “par’y” and “le’er”. This drives some listeners mad! Others consider that it shows the speaker is part of a particular group. In fact your accent can often be used to show your loyalty to a particular group: if people have similar ways of pronouncing words, it can be a strong bond between them.

If you don’t like the way you pronounce words but are struggling to change it, think of someone who speaks in a way you admire. Listen carefully to recordings of that person, and try to imitate the way they pronounce their vowel sounds.

Remember, however: the MOST IMPORTANT THING about how you speak is not your accent – it is that you speak CLEARLY. Especially now that English is the language most commonly spoken as a second language, and now that it is so widely used in contexts such as business, academic study, entertainment and social media, we owe it to one another to speak English in a way that as many people as possible can understand – that is, CLEARLY.

Interpretation: I said earlier that young people can go through a phase of replying to adults’ questions in a monotone – that is, with no variety. Giving some interpretation to how you speak means that other people are more likely to listen to you, and more likely to consider what you say.

Firstly, speak as though you’re interested in what you’re saying. After all, if you don’t find it interesting, why should you expect anyone else to find it interesting?

Give your listener clues to the important parts of what you’re saying by – for example – slowing down. You might show excitement by speeding up, or by getting louder – or both! If you want someone to listen really closely, and perhaps to suggest that something is a secret between you, speak more quietly. (You might have to slow down, too.)

Don’t run all your words together when you speak. Use pauses every now and again to allow what you’ve just said to “sink in”. These don’t have to be long pauses, but they will make a difference.

And listen – in your second recording (and also listen to yourself when you’re actually speaking to someone) – for those fillers. What’s the matter with “aye?” or “right?” or “ok?” or “mm-hm?” or “like” or “you know?” – ? Well, nothing, in themselves – but once a listener realises that that is your go-to filler, there is every chance that he or she will miss the meaning of what you’re trying to say, because (s)he’ll be too busy waiting for the next “aye?” or “right?” or “ok?” or … . You get the message!

Now make sure your listeners get your message, too!