Young african woman holding a digital tablet and talking with team members at office. Business team meeting for a new work suggestions and productive ideas.

What is code-switching, why do people do it and has the pandemic changed the ‘need’ for it?

Code-switching is when a person changes from one form of linguistic speech to another, depending on the social context or conversational setting. Most people have code-switched at some point in their lives, regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and the like – it is natural to adapt to our social settings and this is not always a bad thing.

Annya, from Northampton, is the perfect example.

She said: “Different people respond to different language approaches. To be able to communicate effectively, you need to be able to adjust to different situations or to enable engagement.”

Code-switching is a skill that is needed in the right context. It is often popular amongst people who speak more than one language. Babel (The Language Magazine) writes, “At first sight, many people tend to explain code-switching as a sign that the speaker either does not know the relevant words or expressions in the other language or is too lazy to bother to search for them. But in fact, code-switching often occurs in speakers who are perfectly capable of speaking either language monolingually when necessary.”

However, what happens when code-switching progresses beyond being a ‘helpful’ skill?

Some people do so to try and protect themselves from being stereotyped or labelled.

For example, as the Harvard Business review highlights, code-switching has been a ‘strategy’ for black people, to ‘successfully navigate interracial interactions.’

This was the case with Bishop Claoin Grandison.

He said: “Code-switching began for me when I returned to live in the UK in 1990. My Jamaican lilt (sound) was now deep-seated after having spent the past decade there. As I restarted my career in one of the top banking establishments, it was not long before I clocked how uncomfortable ‘the others’ felt around me. Code-switching was not so much about effective communication – I needed to fit in.

I would overthink – going over every sentence in my head, somehow not wanting to be discovered as a fraud. With age I am learning to be more relaxed with how I sound, joyously conversing with strong Caribbean undertones – but still very annoyed that the English man, regardless of how long he lives in another country, never switches.”

Comedy Central’s sketch comedy duo Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele have frequently referenced code-switching in their humor.
Ian White/Comedy Central/AP

Here we see conscious and unconscious choices to resume a persona – it is about feeling safe and accepted. Harvard Business review picked up on this, stating that code-switching has ‘large implications for their (black people) well-being, economic advancement, and even physical survival.’

This is still the case, even though life, as we know it, has changed. Code-switching is still a need for many when it should be a choice. The pandemic has resulted in a high rate of unemployment amongst other pressures. The greater implications of code-switching on self-perception, mental health and other factors cannot be ignored.

We spoke to a young woman in her 20s who preferred to remain anonymous.

She said: “I visited Credit Suisse to meet someone I knew, and as they introduced me to the workers, I was so nervous. It was like we both knew I was out of place there. I put on this weird ‘posh’ accent and spoke very slowly. That visit stayed with me – I researched international banking to keep up with them, even though I knew I did not want to work in that field.”

Asher, professional DJ and sailing instructor, said: “I tend to do so when I am on the phone, answering and receiving formal calls.”

In 2021, the fight for true acceptance is ongoing. In the UK, we are still waiting to hear the findings of the Government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities.

I submit to you that whilst code-switching is not always a bad thing, it is especially vital for groups that are in the ‘minority (depending on where they live). No one, regardless of race, should have to carry the mental weight of constant code-switching out of necessity. If structural inequality of all types, remains unaddressed and/or is not tackled, the pressure to code-switching will never end. The pandemic is a perfect time to look at the way we operate as a society and make steps towards change.

+ posts

Courtney Carr is a freelance journalist who first began writing for media outlets at age 14, after experiencing and documenting the Tottenham Riots (2011). She is passionate about uncovering hidden stories, championing justice and enjoys singing, dancing and gaming.

You may also like

Comments are closed.

More in Culture