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The Wonder of Code Switching

The Wonder of Code Switching

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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Why Study Linguistics?

Why Study Linguistics?

Because it’s in fashion … for now?

“Why study linguistics?”

This question is projected onto the front wall of my phonetics classroom. I look at it. “Why?” Why would my professor ask us this? Shouldn’t we know?

Won’t she drive any doubt out of our heads with the lecture she’s about to deliver, full of those pop science-y morsels about who says “pop” and who says “soda” that we can repeat to our friends later, feeling smug?

Maybe part of me hoped or even knew that there could be more to studying the elements of language than this, but I’d never really thought about it.

Various aspects of the answer come through years of study, true, but the most important element introduced in that phonetics class is borne out every day on the streets of New York, watching movies and television, talking with friends: language is always changing, and trying to staunch the flow of new vocabulary and phrasing will get you nowhere.

Unsurprisingly, new terms tend to come from the mouths of young people, especially young women. The very professor from my phonetics class, Lisa Davidson of NYU, was recently interviewed about a particular quality of young women’s speech that is becoming more common by the day.

This is “vocal fry,” a phenomenon occurring when a speaker’s vocal folds fully close then quickly open, creating a gravelly sound very different from when the vocal folds move smoothly between being partly open and partly closed, which happens during typical speech.

As with every change new generations make to language, vocal fry is being derided by older speakers, from public radio hosts to anonymous bloggers, with increasing regularity.

Davidson puts to rest the idea that vocal fry is inherently “bad” to do while speaking, noting, “We expect our children to dress differently than we do, and to have different hairstyles. We might decry it, sort of, but you know, fashion styles change. Why wouldn’t everything else [including language] change too? It’s just yet another way of making ourselves different than the generation that came before us.”

Studying linguistics taught me precision and how to diagram complex sentences – but internalizing the fact that language is constantly in flux was the most important thing I learned in my years of study. I can only hope this attitude will stick as I grow older and the changes become more and more removed from the ones of my youth.

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