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Updated: Nov 15, 2021

What is code-switching, and why does it happen?

A few weeks ago, I spent ten minutes of art class trying to get my friend to lend me her eraser. Why, you may ask? I had been practicing the very ancient, very sophisticated art of code-switching. Just kidding. I’d been screaming keshigomu (Japanese for eraser) at her for the past ten minutes and even though she looked utterly confused and frustrated, I didn’t even realise I wasn’t speaking in English. When she informed me, I stared at her blankly for ten more seconds before I remembered the word for eraser in English.

If you’re bilingual- or multilingual, for that matter- you’ll know – relate to – what I’m talking about, though you may not know what it’s called. You don’t even have to be fluent in your non-dominant languages, just enough to know a few words, and sometimes you’ll find yourself forgetting words in your native language, forcing you to employ another.


And this wonderful, wonderful phenomenon has an equally wonderful name: code-switching. According to the Oxford Dictionary (yes, this is a legitimate word, what did you think?), code-switching is the practice of alternating between two or more languages or varieties of language in conversation, varieties of languages being dialects, for example.


There are many reasons to use this method – to fit in better with a group, as a force of habit, to replace words you may have forgotten in the language you were originally speaking in, or to convey thoughts and concepts that may be easier to explain in a specific language. Personally, I code-switch for all of the above reasons.

To an outsider who doesn’t speak the other language, code-switching amongst a group of friends while conversing may look strange and incomprehensible, but for the friends themselves it is sometimes also possible that they do not even realise they are doing it.

Actually, code-switching is a powerful psychological and social tool. When an individual speaks in the language or accent of a particular group of people, they are actually more receptive to what the individual is saying. When speaking about friend groups, code-switching can also make the individual fit in better.


Imagine you’re speaking to your friend and a teacher walks in. Your language, subconsciously, becomes more formal and respectful – if the teacher is of a foreign language that is not included in your conversation, you begin getting more uncomfortable speaking in whatever language you’re currently speaking in and may start shifting to the other language.

As seen from above, social setting has a huge impact on code-switching – sometimes it’s done intentionally to influence crowds better (mind you, the morality of this has been heavily questioned), but most of the time it’s done unconsciously.

What about your own experiences with code-switching? I’d love to know, so please drop your experiences down below in the comments!



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