Code-switching is the practice of switching between languages or vernacular in conversation. In Matt Thompson’s article “Five Reasons Why People Code-Switch” he describes fitting in as a major reason why people code-switch. He states that “Very often, people code-switch – both consciously and unconsciously – to act or talk more like those around them…” I agree with this statement as a major reason why people code-switch. I have witnessed this type of code-switching first hand, when listening to the conversations my mother has with people of other ethnicities.
I often notice my mother code-switching when talking to people of other races other than Indian. To me, it is very obvious: her voice becomes a bit higher and she pronounces certain words differently because she feels she needs to compensate for her heavy Indian accent.
This is only noticeable to our family (and I’d assume a few of her friends) because we know how she speaks around us. Around us, she doesn’t care if she is messing up her English grammar, as long as she gets her point across. For example, she will often say things like “Go to Indian store and pick up all vegetables on list.” Notice anything funny? She struggles to incorporate articles such as “the” when she speaks English. The case is not that she doesn’t know how to use articles, rather for the sake of convenience she doesn’t attempt to use them. Around others, however, she is often careful about what she says as she doesn’t want to let out improper English.
Around us she will often try to use common sayings, and fail miserably. In our conversation about studying hard in college, she said, “You have to hit head on the nail.” Although I understood her message, I still died laughing. She understands that she has not mastered English, however, for this reason she does not feel comfortable speaking with native speakers.
Thompson describes code-switching to fit in, both consciously and unconsciously. It is difficult to tell whether my mom does this consciously or unconsciously. There may have been a certain point where my mother code-switched enough to make it an unconscious habit. For example, when she first came to this country, to avoid scrutiny, she began to code-switch – with the symptoms depicted above. However, she may be at a point where whenever around other ethnic groups, she will code-switch to fit in. So, at a certain point, it is possible that code-switching can go from a conscious decision to an unconscious one. Some examples of code-switching may not be as clearly definable as others, like in the case of my mother’s code-switching.
Code-switching can indicate certain qualities in a person, and at the surface, these qualities may seem negative. For example, one may deduce from my mother’s code-switching that she gives a great deal of importance to people’s judgments. At times it may seem that she has low self-confidence. While these statements may hold some truth, it is perfectly normal to code-switch to fit in. Humans have evolved as a social species, with each of us playing an integral role in society. As a result, it is likely that the desire to belong is a human characteristic, and so code-switching – especially in the case of unconscious code-switching – makes sense in the context of human nature. Therefore, although caring about what people think about you is not something that should characterized as a good quality, there is an unconscious aspect to it that might just be out of our hands.