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Bilingualism as a Beautiful Form of Localization

I was standing at the bus stop, tired after a long day and ready to go home. A woman and her young daughter were also waiting there, and I was letting their Haitian Creole wash over me as I stared into space.

Suddenly, though, the mother said “a strawberry smoothie, once a day,” in English. This was a bit jarring and snapped me back to attention and on to remembering learning about code switching, something covered in sociolinguistics courses I had taken in college.

There is still much to be learned about bilingualism – whether bilingual babies and children are learning two or more languages simultaneously and separately; whether they really master one first, then the other; whether the grammar from one language serves as scaffolding for a second, third, fourth.

“An observable phenomenon occurs with many bilingual speakers in conversation, once those languages have been learned: code switching.”

But an observable phenomenon occurs with many bilingual speakers in conversation, once those languages have been learned: code switching.

This refers to switching languages in the middle of speaking – often in the middle of a sentence, or just inserting one word from Language 2 into a sentence spoken in Language 1. As someone who had to study hard to approximate fluent French, I am always mesmerized by truly bilingual people who can switch between languages so fluidly.

Whether and how one code-switches depends on the relationship between the speaker and her listener, the subject matter at hand, and probably other mechanisms that bilingual people have internalized but maybe couldn’t even articulate if asked.

Code switching is common when the speakers are very familiar with each other. It’s seen with family members or friends speaking casually, perhaps with Dominican-Americans dropping an English word that may more precisely convey some American cultural signifier or concept into an otherwise Spanish sentence.

What was the Creole-speaking woman at the bus stop saying about her strawberry smoothie? I’ll never know. But her easy shifting reminded me to appreciate all our beautiful codes, and especially those who can switch between them to create a novel and quite personal code of their own.

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