Code-switching among friends


Code-switching: everyone does it, most of the time without knowing it. It is as simple as switching from writing a text message to participating in a conversation. I’ve had some practice myself, but never on this scale.

Code-switching is changing from using one style of communication to another. It happens in the moment when a conversation among friends on the Quad ends because a professor has approached the table—all of a sudden, it is necessary to be more formal. An altered vocabulary comes into play and articulation may become clearer and slower.

Well, now my professors speak French. My brain has to deal with new sounds and intonations, which I touched on in my last post, while still remembering English. It’s exhausting. But rather than complain, I want to explore the different ways in which code-switching makes the process of learning French more like a game.

When I code-switch from English to French, which happens frequently when I transition from conversations with American friends to understanding French lectures, I am able to learn new words through context rather than translation. Code-switching thus becomes a more complete process; the longer I spend thinking in French, the less I fill in blanks with English. Hopefully the end result will be French and English existing independently in my mind, and I won’t have to work at keeping one (English) quiet while I try to use the other (French).

In more casual settings, switching from French to English and back again makes speaking French more difficult. It’s like sitting down on a long hike before reaching the top, making standing up again that much harder. At a dinner party I went to with my host family, I spoke to several of their friends. It took many of them a few sentences to realize I wasn’t a native French speaker—a personal victory.

However, one attendee had spent some time in the United States and wanted to practice English with me. We chatted in English for a while before I turned to continue a conversation I had been having with another man in French. He asked me a question, and for several seconds all I could do was stare at him. Something in my brain was fighting back against French. It took some friendly repetition on his part before I regained the rhythm of the conversation.

I will close with an anecdote from today about how the hard work of constantly code-switching between languages affects communication overall. My friend Zoey Sing, another American study abroad student, summed it up perfectly the other day: “My ability to speak French has improved a little, and my ability to speak English has plummeted, so overall I’m just losing the ability to speak at all.” I’m taking it on faith that this phase won’t last long, and that code-switching will get easier.


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