Posted by: Piers Kelly | August 20, 2009

Codeswitching? Moi?

Why bother studying codeswitching at all?

We get it. Codeswitching is simply when people switch languages, styles or registers when conversing with other people who have access to the same codes. Why do the pointy-heads to get so excited about matters of apparently marginal interest?

For me, I see codeswitching as existing at the intersection of the How and the Why of language.

What I find interesting is the fact codeswitchers are often utterly unaware of the fact that they are switching. This lack of consciousness, or partial consciousness, is crucial.

Here’s a token from Shana Poplack (1980) who received this response from a speaker who had been asked to comment on her own codeswitching behaviour.

Sometimes I’ll start a sentence in English y termino en espagnol.

(‘Sometimes I’ll start a sentence in English and finish in Spanish’)

It’s reported the speaker was unaware of the codeswitching that took place here, which is amazing considering that she was commenting on her own switching behaviour at that very instance. WTF?

If this kind of thing is both subconscious and rule-governed, then it kinda belongs in the same realm as other aspects of language that are both subconscious and rule-governed, like syntax. For instance, I’m not really consciously aware of all the rules that govern the sentence ‘The cat sat on the mat’ but I do know that ‘Cat the the sat mat on’ violates a whole lot of them. Likewise, a codeswitcher will be able to point out violations even if the rules are not manifest.

So if Chomskyans reckon that linguistic structures can tell us something about  cognition (ie, how thought works) then surely codeswitching and its associated rules also has implications for language and cognition.

But a purely structural analysis of codeswitching events is fairly useless in isolation because it will only ever tell us about the How. In order to understand why codeswitching exists as a universal phenomenon of multilingual communication we have to examine the social circumstances in which it is applied.

This is just one of the ways in which the How of language is dependent on the Why.  And it’s the reason you can’t ever really have the linguistics without the socio.


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