What Is Code Switching?

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The term code-switching is gaining mainstream recognition both in communities of color and amongst White folks.

Code-Switching

The term "code-switching" refers to a behavior where BIPOC switch from one dialect to another and go from speaking in their home dialect to a different language or accent depending on who they are around.

Code-switching occurs as a form of self-protection and safety from judgment and microaggressions. Read on to learn more about code-switching, its history, how it impacts BIPOC folks, and how we can work towards creating safer spaces for all.

What Is Code-Switching?

Code-switching is when someone switches from their mother tongue to the standard language used by the dominant group. This doesn’t only involve those who speak other languages—it can also apply to those who have a dialect unique to their culture and upbringing.

To learn more about how this term applies today, Verywell Mind reached out to Londyn Miller, LMFT and Marriage and Family Therapy doctoral candidate. “I would define code-switching as anytime a person switches their language depending on the people they are around, typically to fit in,” she explained.

Miller continued by acknowledging the socioracial connotation, stating, “Usually when I hear this term, it refers to a person of color changing how they speak and interact based on their environment.”

History of Code-Switching

By no account is the term code-switching new. In fact, it was first used over 70 years ago by Lucy Shepard Freeland when referring to the language used by California's Indigenous Sierra Miwok people in her book Language of the Sierra Miwok, published in 1951. 

Standard American English Is Considered the 'Norm'

Recent scholarly articles utilize the term Standard American English (SAE), which refers to a variety of English based on the speech of the Northeastern population of the United States, spoken by those who historically hold power in society: those who are White and highly educated.

SAE is a loaded term since America is a multicultural society yet the standard is exclusionary to people of different cultures, underscoring why many communities find code-switching necessary.

Since a college education and no accent characterize the standard of language, it can be very othering to communities who may be bilingual or where English is their second language as well as those who haven’t had the privilege of accessing a college education. 

African American English

In contrast to SAE is African American English (AAE), sometimes referred to as Ebonics. AAE is a dialect native to African Americans utilized within the Black community that draws on the Bantu languages of West Africa.

Code-switching isn’t limited to being a dynamic between Black and White folks. It is also used amongst bilingual communities when folks who share the same language shift into their native tongue, switching from SAE.

Examples of Code-Switching

If code-switching is a new term to you, you may be wondering what this could look like in everyday scenarios. Perhaps you're a person of color curious if you’re code-switching, or maybe you're someone wondering if you’re contributing to an environment where people of color feel they must code-switch.

Below are some examples of what code-switching can look like—remember, it won’t be the same for everyone:

  • A bilingual nurse working in a hospital where SAE is the default language begins conversing in Spanish with a patient whose first language is Spanish. After concluding the appointment with the patient, the nurse then utilizes SAE to brief a non-bilingual coworker on the appointment.
  • Two Black people cross paths in the grocery store. They don’t know one another, but they begin speaking AAE while waiting in line together.
  • A Black woman dating a White person refrains from referencing or discussing Black culture around her partner’s friends and family.
  • A LatinX writer working on an article for a Latinx publication utilizes Spanish slang throughout the piece.

Pros and Cons of Code-Switching

Code-switching is a product of systemic racism and can demand emotional labor from and cause stress to those who feel the need to shift their vernacular in specific spaces. However, it is a practice that surprisingly presents some pros and unsurprisingly reaps some cons. 

Pros
  • Helps marginalized folks 'fit in' with the dominant group

  • May help BIPOC feel safer in White spaces (though not completely a pro, because it is based on making White people more comfortable)

  • Might help BIPOC groups navigate various environments more safely

  • May protect BIPOC from judgment, discrimination, and violence; allows selective sharing (only with whom it's safe to share)

Cons
  • Can be emotionally draining

  • May make BIPOC groups feel like they can't be their true selves

  • Acts as a reminder of oppressive systems

  • Causes tension between self-expression and social acceptance

  • Requires emotional energy invested into worrying about "acting right" and coming across as "acceptable" to White people

Pros of Code-Switching

“Code-switching can help people of color develop resiliency in a racist nation like the United States,” Miller explains. According to Miller, code-switching can serve as a reminder to non-BIPOC folks we live in a society that often isn't welcoming of the dialect and cultural norms, values, and strengths of BIPOC communities. Though this is a solemn reminder, it may also spark awareness and inspire change amongst those who hold privilege in our world, so that a safe space for all may be created.

Research also backs up the fact that there are positive aspects of code-switching. For example, an article outlining the role of code-switching in English as a Foreign Language classes found that alternating between speaking a foreign language and a native language facilitates comfort and can even enhance learning outcomes.

This example could also apply to non-academic settings. For instance, employees of color who share a mother tongue or dialect might use it with each other at work, which could lead to great comfort and kinship in the corporate environment.

Cons of Code-Switching

An obvious con of code-switching is the labor it puts on people of color. It can be tiresome to feel that it isn’t safe to fully and comfortably express yourself, potentially leading to resentment and burnout.

Code-switching can also serve as a constant reminder of the systemic racism people of color are subjected to. 

How Code-Switching Impacts BIPOC Groups

Regarding how code-switching impacts BIPOC groups, Miller notes a concept known as "double consciousness." This is a concept that was first introduced by W.E.B DuBois in an essay titled "The Souls of Black Folks."

Double Consciousness

"Double consciousness" is a term that was created with Black folks in mind, though it can apply to people of color in general.

What Does 'Double Consciousness' Mean?

It refers to how Black folks look at themselves through the lens of the dominant society, meaning there is a consciousness of their Black identity and a consciousness of how the dominant culture sees them.

This concept can lend to a feeling of being split and that it is unsafe to be one's full self in the dominant society. 

Double-consciousness often leads to feelings of isolation. As a result, there are many negative mental health effects linked with double-consciousness including stress, loneliness, anxiety, frustration, anger, and sadness.

How Can We Create Safer, More Inclusive Spaces?

Shifting the need to code-switch in our daily environments will require those who wield power to make some changes. The following can help make it a safer environment so people may not feel as much pressure or need to code-switch:

  • Laws and policies that take the needs of marginalized groups into account. Laws and policies that hold the interests of those with marginalized identities at the forefront are essential to making our society, as a whole, less oppressive.
  • Inclusive workplaces. Those who have power in organizations must explore ways they can make the workplace a safer environment. Miller explains that when employers use language that is more racially-aware and are aligned with action, BIPOC may feel safer about sharing and discussing their experiences.
  • Therapy. For those beginning to feel the resentment, burnout, and exhaustion that code-switching can bring, therapy can be of great support. Finding a culturally aware therapist who facilitates a therapeutic experience where there is no need for you to code-switch can be healing in itself.
  • Notice your internal response. When you hear people speaking in a different language than your own, notice how you react. Invite curiosity about your response and what it may be rooted in or influenced by. Is how you are reacting how you would like to feel? If not, what else might be possible? Change starts within, and that process can be supported by sitting with discomfort, better understanding what has contributed to how you currently feel, and knowing how you can develop the thoughts and feelings you want to have about yourself and others.

A Word From Verywell

Although code-switching may be a regular occurrence for those belonging to marginalized groups, it can still be isolating and emotionally draining. If you find that you're feeling distressed, discussing your concerns with a therapist can be helpful in helping you heal from racial trauma and microaggressions. Moreover, if you're someone who is on an anti-racist journey, consider the tips above to expand your awareness and to help you take action to contribute to safer and more welcoming spaces for all.

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8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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