Code Switching

I think it was last week (time moves differently when you’re in grad school). I was on the subway on the way to one of my classes, listening to a podcast which was an interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Y’all know how I feel about Hamilton and Lin’s Twitter feed.

If I ever run into him somewhere in Manhattan, I’ll either be in complete shock or talk to him as if I know him, which will be awkward.

I digress.

During this podcast interview, Lin mentioned the early code-switching that he experienced as a child. As he put it–I’m paraphrasing–“I was Lin-Manuel–in Spanish–at home in upper Manhattan and I was just Lin at school on the Upper East Side.”

Code-switching is defined as the practice of alternating between two or more languages or varieties of language in conversation. In Lin’s case, he spoke English and Spanish at home, but at school, it was definitely English.

Most of us code-switch in some way, whether it’s our vocabulary or tone or level of swearing with one group of people and a more formal way of speaking with another group of people. I code switch and like Lin, I was doing that pretty early in life. Like, if I’m talking to my mom or my aunt, then I will switch between Japanese and English in the same sentence. Everywhere else, it’s solid English, but how much slang I use or how much I swear depends on the people I’m with.

I remember once on a writing forum, talking about how my co-workers, who were majority Spanish-speaking at the time, would say things like, “Well, I wanted to do this, pero, the customer came up and I had to help thm.” And someone on a writing forum was like, “That doesn’t sounds real at all! Why would they only use one Spanish word like that in a sentence!”

Because they did. Welcome to the world of bilingual code switching.

This made me think about fictional code switching. I think it can make for a more well-rounded character, if you see them act or speak a different way with different people. I read a YA book last year called The Education of Margo Sanchez. The protagonist, Margo, is a Latina teen who has grown up in The Bronx, but goes to a snooty private, mostly-white school. Star in The Hate U Give also code switches between home and her private school.

4 thoughts on “Code Switching

  1. I've always found code switching interesting, because I wondered why people do it. I've watched friends and family members do it, and sometimes it's funny, but it also strikes me as strange. It's interesting to think about from a story perspective. I have a tendency to talk and act the same regardless, which varies based on comfort level and mood anyway. Like, my sister is more obnoxious around my mom's brother than she is around the uncle we work with. I don't understand it, and I don't know if she even realizes that she's doing it, so I wonder sometimes, too, if it's more of a subconscious thing than a conscious one.


  2. I'm guilty of code switching…in my case, with the German and English language. The words just come automatically at times, and others, I can't think of the word in the other language fast enough. As long as my speaker understands both, I let both fly. Lol! But I've also unconsciously done it…you should see some of the faces on cashiers when I suddenly spit on German. I think it's because I get too distracted and simply let my mind do its thing. I wonder how that would work with fiction. Honestly, I've never thought of this before. So, thanks for the post!


  3. Oh, I think it's definitely an unconscious thing and it is based on comfort levels, I think. The way I spoke to my old co-workers was less proper English and more slang than the way I speak at my current job or with my classmates.


  4. Oh, I do the same thing with Japanese and English at home. Sometimes the right word is in another language! I've read historicals where people randomly speak in French, but that's not so much code switching as those characters being characters who would speak French. But I think it could give dimension to a character.


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