Reasons for (and against) Code-Switching

NPR has a blog called code switch now, and recently published an article called Five Reasons Why People Code-Switch. I recommend you read it in full if you’re at all interested in the linguistic phenomenon of code-switching, but for the purposes of this blog post I’ll some up the five reasons listed:


Photo by ROCPHOTO.CO.UK on Flickr

1. A certain language feels more appropriate in a “primal” state

2. To fit in to a certain linguistic environment

3. To be treated “like a local”

4. To communicate in secret

5. It helps convey a concept more “native” to a certain language

Code-switching is a well-researched linguistic phenomenon, and you can go into it way deeper than the NPR article does (just check out the references of the Wikipedia article on code-switching).

But while in Beijing over the weekend, I was reminded of another aspect of code-switching: it can be annoying. Although the act of code-switching is generally accepted as “normal,” there are still limits. People can code-switch too rapid-fire, or for “the wrong reasons.” (Alas, the Wikipedia article does not comment on “when code-switching gets annoying.”)

So assuming that non-comprehension isn’t a factor, what are the circumstances under which code-switching becomes annoying? I would guess that a flagrant violation of reason #5 above would be the most annoying… switching to another language to express a thoroughly generic concept, rather than for a “culturally justified” reason. Worse yet: doing that repeatedly. This was the one that came up in my recent conversation.

I’m curious, though, what factors might also make code-switching annoying. Some thoughts:

1. Code-switching too often, and for no discernible purpose

2. Code-switching which seems to be for the purpose of showing off

I’m pretty tolerant of code-switching, though. Maybe you readers have other reasons to add?


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I tend to like staying in either one language or the other, and going back and forth within a sentence or two is difficult as my brain is switching big, heavy gears. When we met up in Shanghai, I had a hard time switching between the languages, which you might have noticed (and I apologize if it affected the quality of our conversation). But it seems to me that the people who do the “fashionable” code-switching that annoys us so much are those who fear being perceived as weak in the language they are code-switching into, and their insecurity or wish to reassure others overrides their need to communicate effectively.

    • I don’t remember that… But I think I remember you seeming a little tired. (Tired of code-switching?) 🙂

      Yeah, I hear you about the insecurity thing, though.

  2. In the ASL (American Sign Language) world, code-switching happens a lot. For me, when I’m at home with my wife, I talk with my voice in English, but when we’re out and about in public, I feel less confident about being clearly heard against the background noise, so I automatically switch to “ASL mode.” Sometimes she doesn’t like that, especially in high-stress situations.

    I’m not sure if there’s a spoken-language equivalent of that situation, though.

    Now, Chinese 的话, I guess it can be annoying if I’m in English mode and 突然地 switch languages in midstream (especially if I don’t say it quite exactly 地道ly) then I guess it can be a bit 麻烦. 🙂 Besides, talking like this probably makes me look like a 傻瓜. 🙂

    Anyway, I would think that as long as the sincere intent is to communicate and the code-switching is not awkward, it’s ok to do it. To a certain extent, I find that code-switching can be automatic and natural. I suppose that the “language power struggle” can also drive some of this. As long as the intent and time/place are appropriate, I’m at a loss to think of more ways it might be annoying.

    Perhaps if I’m talking to a Chinese-speaking person who is trying to improve his/her English, such a person might be annoyed if I constantly switch to Chinese at the expense of the opportunity to practice understanding English.

    Or…if my speaking or writing skills are not polished enough and we’re discussing a very serious subject, that might be the wrong time for code-switching. It could be pretty distracting.

  3. This isn’t exactly annoying as such, but for a language learner, code switching might be very good for communicative purposes, because some concepts are simply easier to express in some languages than others. This might be because of factors intrinsic to the language, but it’s more likely to be due to greater familiarity or competency in one of the languages.

    If we always code switch, we will use our strongest card to aid communication, which is great if that’s the goal. However, we will do little to strengthen the weakest links in the chain. If we get used to code switching when trying to express a specific concept, it might be very hard to explain that concept without code switching if we encounter a speaker who don’t share the other language with us.

    • “However, we will do little to strengthen the weakest links in the chain.”

      This is why use of English during Upper Intermediate or Advanced classes & lessons bothers me so. I want to hear that advanced vocabulary in Chinese, not in English. My theory is that Chinese instructors may switch to an English word thinking I need that, or as mentioned above perhaps to show off their advanced English vocabulary. I need to hear the Chinese. Even if I can’t call it to memory well enough yet to use in my own speech, I can understand it when heard, or I can ask for clarification.

      I definitely feel that code switching is one aspect of the language battle! And I admit I am sometimes guilty of using Chinese in a snobby way myself.

  4. benjamin c Says: April 24, 2013 at 10:24 am

    I’ve been studying Chinese for about six years now and would consider my level to be intermediate. My biggest reason for code switching to Chinese would be when I’ve judged that my conversational partner won’t grasp what I’m about to say in English. My two biggest reasons for switching to English are because I just don’t know how to say what I need to say in Chinese well, or because I’m mentally fatigued and need a rest.

    what about your trip to Beijing brought this to your attention? Do you find people code-switch more here?

    • No, there was a conversation about code-switching, and what constituted “annoying code-switching.” Unfortunately, I don’t remember any exact examples!

  5. My Japanese is fluent, so when Japanese speakers code switch into English with me it’s almost always to show off or to force me into helping them practice their English, and I almost always find this extremely annoying.

    This was the one that came up in my recent conversation.

    I’d love to see a transcript or a description of this!

  6. I always got a kick out of the mad, chaotic code-switching that took place every day when I was in Xinjiang. I was studying Mandarin in a class that consisted of everything from Koreans to Russians to Kazakhs and Kenyans, and between all of us and the multiple local ethnic groups there were sometimes nearly a dozen different languages being spoken in a single room. Single lunch conversations would cycle from Kazakh to Russian to Mandarin to English back to Russian as acquaintances of various nationalities came and went, everyone switching in an attempt to use the language most familiar to the most people in the group at any specific moment. If we’d all been isolated on an island for a few years who knows what monstrosity of a creole would have evolved.

  7. My favorite example of failed code switching (0:30 secs)

    I find it deeply pretentious and almost always unnecessary. Gather your thoughts and express yourself in a way that your partner will understand.

  8. I hate it when people on mailing lists or Skritter forum pepper their messages with Chinese characters that I have to look up to understand what they’re talking about, and that they could easily have written in English. I’m pretty sure that in most cases it is to show off and to exclude beginners from joining in the conversation.

    • I think it’s more likely to show off than to purposely exclude. Or, if not meant to intentionally exclude lower-level learners, to at least catch the eye of higher-level learners (the intended audience) with the characters.

  9. Josh Neal Says: April 24, 2013 at 7:09 pm

    Showing off is annoying, but I’m going to go against the grain here and say that it’s almost never the case the people code switch just to show off. In fact, I would almost go as far as to say that being offended by other people code switching is a natural coping mechanism we often use to soothe us through the learning experience. I was much more frustrated by it when I didn’t have a good grasp of my second language. Now I just don’t care.

    But then, I started learning Chinese when I was hanging out with a lot of Malaysian Chinese people. Almost every sentence was code switched to make sure they were using the funniest language for each joke.

  10. Greek is my second mother language and I rarely care if code switching occurs when I speak with Greeks nationals. In fact, my parents have lived in Australia for so long they drop English words into their Greek sentences even when they are speaking to native speakers of Greek. One could say its a force of habit. But the most particular thing about it is how systematic it their code switching is. From my casual observations, they usually use English verbs mixed in with Greek sentences. They specially use verbs when they are easier to say when the verb is easier to say in English rather than Greek.

    Recently, I dealt with some Greeks who are only calling Australia home for a few years before they move back home. When we spoke I made it clear their English was far superior to my Greek so it was in both parties best interests to stick to English. To my surprise, they code switched with me, dropping simple sentences in Greek they knew I would catch. I liked it. In the moment, I felt a bond with them. No annoyance or pretenses at all.

    • Like what Stavros has said. Similar story myself. My partner speaks Cantonese and I have been learning (slowly) over the years. Nowadays at home we always are switching between Cantonese and English. The choice of when to use one or the other doesn’t really fit in the five reasons listed above. A lot of it just has to do with developing a bond and speaking freely. The words we choose to switch are often just whatever was closest to the tip of our tongue. Of course, I think we are aware that others might be annoyed, because there seems to be an effort to stick to one language with others.

  11. What about accidental code switching?

    Since I’m so used to code switching with my Chinese wife at home, sometimes I find myself accidentally code-switching at work for reason # 5 – things like 麻烦,or other phrases I find myself accidentally saying to my coworkers.

    For me its accidental, but I bet for them its annoying.

  12. Generally I am a fan of code-switching, but the most annoying form of code-switching is perpetrated by native Chinese speakers, selling stuff. Yesterday I went into a clothes shop with my wife and we both spoke to the owner about different items, colours, sizes etc., while the owner kept her mouth firmly closed, the whole time. She carried a calculator – after we showed interest in any item she laboriously typed in the price and showed us. Why not just say how much it costs? She was code-switching into ‘English’ when it would have been much more efficient to speak to us in Chinese.

  13. My wife is a Dutch citizen who grew up in the US. She was studying in the Netherlands. Her Dutch at the time was advanced but not native. She went to the Post Office which does other official business. She was returning her rail pass. She spoke in Dutch but the clerk responded in English immediately. She continued to speak in Dutch never actually speaking any English and the Dutch clerk never spoke anything but English.

    I can’t bring up the story anymore because she’s still pissed about it 15 years later.

  14. David Moser Says: April 27, 2013 at 11:11 am

    My daughter constantly engages in what seems to me like totally gratuitous code-switching. Things like:

    用不着那么多,你给我one or two 就可以。
    Mom, you don’t understand, 他是我的friend!
    我的homework早就做完了,给我一个break, dude!

    This kind of thing is quite common in our household. But here are some nice examples of quite reasonable ones.

    (My wife, holding two different pocket calculators.) 这个也是made in China. 我看看这个是 made in 哪儿?

    (While driving) 那个sign 把我 confuse 掉了。

  15. Another kind of code switching occurs in crossword puzzles. For example, if the clue is: “Florence’s country,” the answer is probably “Italy,” but if the clue is “Firenze’s country,” the answer is probably “Italia.”

    I personally do it just to try to be funny, adding “-ing” to Chinese verbs and “-s” to pluralize Chinese nouns (within English sentences), to humorously show off (around true bilinguals) how limited my Chinese is. And sometimes some fairly hilarious puns come out of doing that. Then again, maybe I’m the only one laughing…

    • I totally conjugate Chinese verbs when speaking English!! Sometimes the Chinese verb makes more sense than the English verb, in the context, but a verb in English sounds wrong without conjugation, so….! Usually it comes out of my mouth before I realise what I’m doing and only once I’ve finished my sentence do I stop and realise how silly I just sounded;)

    • I don’t do it to be funny, I do it because it sounds bad to me if I know the English verb should be conjugated or the noun pluralized!

    • I’m talking seriously lowbrow humor. Examples:

      “I need to shuā my yás.” (shuāyá = 刷牙 = brush teeth)

      Q: “Where are my parents?”
      A: “They are sànbùing around the neighborhood.” (sànbù = 散步 = take a walk)

      Bad pun: “niào-nuts” = 尿-nuts = urine-nuts = pee-nuts = peanuts

      I think I do this because my vocabulary is bigger than my ability to construct sentences. Perhaps I’m making the imbalance even worse, but at least I’m exercising what I know (more), which is vocabulary.

  16. I’m native English but speak fluent Chinese (live in China). The last three years I lived with a bilingual flatmate (with whom I had code-switch heavy conversations) while working with expats, most of whom did not speak much Mandarin. It made me very aware of my tendency to code-switch, more than I realised. It happens so subconsciously! Most of my Beijing years I’ve been around people with enough Mandarin to understand most of the random putonghua I throw into my spoken English – now I get a lot of blank stares when using words I think of as “normal”. I see how this can be annoying to others, how it looks like showing off. I’ll admit that sometimes it can be frustrating, having to stick to one language. My brain can move faster by picking the best word to fit each thought, regardless of the language it happens to come from. But it means I really appreciate my bilingual friends (regardless of which language is their mother tongue)!!

  17. Josh Neal Says: May 6, 2013 at 6:21 pm

    I just remembered the one time that code switching does get to me.. When watching TVB Cantonese dramas the actors and actresses often code switch in a way that clearly says “I know more English than the average local”.. That I can laugh at, but the thing that really annoys me about it is the way they treat English words as if they have tones. Whether they are speaking softly or shouting, the English words they are using sound identical each time.

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