Language and Identity

Have you ever thought about the way we communicate with one another, Mom? I think if you did, you would find the way you communicate with me is very different from the way you communicate with your boss or with your peers. What could I possibly mean by this? I mean individuals express themselves by changing their voice and word choice or phrases to suit the group with which they are communicating or as a situation demands. NPR has termed this phenomenon “code-switching.” There are many reasons why individuals code-switch, but are individuals still genuinely themselves when they do? Some individuals may argue code-switching is insincere or is not really self-expression but rather conformity to a group. However, I argue code-switching is self-expression by way of allowing individuals to display their various identities.

I was first introduced to the idea of code-switching when reading NPR’s articles “How Code-Switching Explains the World” and “Five Reasons Why People Code-Switch” in my freshman writing course. Prior to reading these articles, I hadn’t given much thought about how I talk to you versus how I talk to my friends or even how I talk to my professors. Code-switching was an entirely new concept to me and an eye-opening one at that. In the later article, NPR identifies five main reasons why individuals code-switch based upon instances of code-switching submitted by NPR readers. The top five reasons why individuals code switch were identified as the following: our subconscious mind takes over, we are trying to fit in, we desire something we don’t have, we want to say something secretly, and we are attempting to convey an idea more clearly. Regardless of the reason, the voice and expression is still you, but others may not agree.

Some individuals may point out code-switching to suit the group you are in is like buying and wearing clothes other individuals in the group wear; it’s about conforming to the group and doing what is popular. While it is true code-switching can be used as a means of fitting in, this by no means undermines someone’s individuality. Everyone individual had different desires and goals for themselves. Thus, every individual has different groups into which they wish to be accepted and different ways of getting there.

Another argument some will raise against code-switching is its insincerity. Are you really expressing your own thoughts and feelings, or are you only saying what you think others want to hear? I agree that to some extent code-switching is insincere. If you are trying to fit in or to get something you want, surely you are going to say what you think others want to hear. Nonetheless, I still assert code-switching is sincere because it is an outward expression of desire. What is in your inmost thoughts comes out. In fact, code-switching is the expression of the various parts or identities of ourselves.

Let’s take a look at the five most common reasons why individuals code-switch to examine how code-switching is an expression of our identities. Where we have been reared and the dialect spoken there as well as the language used by our peers and family becomes part of our subconscious, and these factors are a part of our cultural and social identity. For example, an individual may transition between English, Spanish, or a blend of the two depending upon to whom he or she is speaking. Likewise, the employment of code-switching as a means of fitting in reflects our social and human identity, since all humans have the basic need of love or being wanted/accepted. Furthermore, our use of code-switching as an end to getting something we desire or wanting to say something in secret depicts our moral identity and identity as creative and cunning beings. If an individual cares little for exploiting others to get what he or she wants, then he or she will “sweet talk” or assume a different character until the other individual is convinced to give the first what is desired at the least cost or effort. Lastly, we code-switch to better convey certain ideas, thereby displaying our identity as intellectual beings.

In conclusion, code-switching is an expression of self through the use of voice and language; it is neither insincere nor conformist but rather a display of the various colors of our identities.

One thought on “Language and Identity

  1. Very articulate and well organized. My main concern is that I simply don’t believe you’re talking to your mother. Can you imagine a reason why you would need to tell her this stuff, beyond “it seemed interesting”? Or another venue in which you would put these ideas more formally, as you have here?


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