While communication is a way to share information with others, it’s also a form of self-expression. At times, bilingual people or members of underrepresented groups may adjust their language, dialect, or other aspects of their communication style based on the people they’re speaking or interacting with. These types of behavioral adjustments are known as “code switching,” and the concept plays a big role in communication, especially among minority groups.
What, exactly, is code switching, and why do people do it? Keep reading to learn more about code switching and how it can affect one’s mental health.
What Is Code Switching?
Linguists initially coined the term code-switching to describe people who alternate between multiple languages over the course of a conversation. Today, however, the term is used much more broadly. Code switching is a social strategy that allows people to alternate their speaking style (it doesn’t necessarily have to be a different language), behavior, and even, on occasion, their appearance to better fit in with the dominant culture or social group.
Code switching examples
- A person with an ethnic name may choose to use an Americanized or Anglicized name outside the home to avoid comments or negative judgment.
- A teen might use a casual dialect, like African American Vernacular English (AAVE), with family and friends but switch to the dominant dialect or language in other settings.
- Someone might opt to order food instead of bringing traditional food with them to school or the workplace.
- Many people speak their native tongue at home or with family but exclusively use English outside the house.
- Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) women might choose to straighten their natural hair when applying for jobs.
Reasons for code switching
Depending on the circumstances, code switching can be a way to assimilate or for people to express their cultural identity. Some of the most common reasons that people code switch include:
- Trying to avoid negative judgment: Certain styles of speech or dress are associated with racial stereotypes. People may change their appearance or conversation style in an attempt to avoid negative judgment from others.
- Expressing ideas: When someone’s bilingual, they might be able to express an idea in one language but not another. At times, code switching can help some people communicate more clearly.
- Attempting to fit in: Not only do we as humans have a strong desire for social acceptance, but people often feel pressured to fit in with their peers. It’s common for someone to code switch as they try to blend in with others around them.
- Unconscious emotional reactions: Code switching is often intentional, but when a person is angry, upset, or afraid, they may switch to their native language or dialect without even realizing it.
- Clearer communication: People who are bilingual often code switch to effectively communicate with a wider range of people. For example, healthcare providers may code switch when speaking with certain patients.
- Professional advancement: In many career fields, code switching is seen as essential. People may feel as though they have to water down their personality or hide aspects of themselves to advance in their careers.
Types of Code Switching
There are a few common types of code switching that we can explore to better understand who may feel the need to code switch, and when and where it may be more likely to occur.
Code switching as a bilingual person
There’s no doubt that speaking multiple languages has its benefits. Studies have shown that bilingual children focus and adapt better.
For people who are bi- or multilingual, code switching can be a tool they use to navigate a monolingual society. It’s not unusual for someone bilingual to switch back and forth between two languages across their day or even over the course of a conversation. In addition to switching between different languages, people may feel pressure to speak without an accent.
Code switching as a person of color
38% of black people and 45% of Hispanics report feeling unfairly judged for the language they use to express themselves. People of color (POC) often feel an intense social pressure to code switch, especially when they’re in predominantly white environments.
Because of this prejudicial treatment, there is an immense amount of pressure on POC to adopt a more “acceptable” mode of speech in formal spaces to help them gain employment or admission into reputable institutions. This can undoubtedly cause a lot of mental and emotional stress for people who feel inclined to conform, modify, or limit their speech to succeed.
Code switching as it relates to behavior
While code switching often refers to speech modifications, it can also describe changes in behavior. Behavioral code switching examples can include changing your appearance or hiding aspects of your personality to try and better fit in with the people around you. For example, an LBGTQ individual may feel pressured to wear plain clothing, so they don’t draw attention to themselves or their orientation.
“Code switching can be understood as an individual’s assimilation through language to fit in with a more dominant present group or culture. Assimilation is key, as code switching does have its roots in sociolinguistics, the study of languages in a social context. It can be observed in use, when one might switch between dialects. More recently, however, code switching includes modifying style, appearance, and sometimes, articulation.”– Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C, LICSW, LCSW
The Mental Health Costs of Code Switching
The pressure to code switch can be physically and emotionally draining. Code switching can make people feel as though they’ve lost their cultural identity or abandoned their culture. Studies show that over time, the pressure to conform to a dominant culture can lead to burnout or emotional exhaustion.
“Code switching imparts many assumptions about proper and informal dialogue, but oftentimes it’s perceived as negative because of the inconsistency of multiple meanings and connotations in one conversation. It may not be clear when different dialects are used concurrently to convey a single thought while changing context or syntax during a conversation.”– Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C, LICSW, LCSW
Concealing aspects of your identity may also result in negative feedback from people who are a part of your culture. People who code switch are frequently accused of “acting white.” Code switching can cause guilt and may cause people to withdraw socially.
In the workplace setting, some research has suggested that code switching in an attempt to avoid or prevent stereotyping can eventually result in work performance issues over time.
Burnout symptoms from code-switching might look like this:
Coping with the Costs
While code switching isn’t always negative, the pressure to code switch can be difficult to deal with. Many people struggle with figuring out how to recover from burnout due to code switching or the pressure they feel to fit in.
If you’re trying to navigate the concept of code switching and you need help, therapy can be an effective way to discover coping strategies that will protect your mental health. At online therapy platform Talkspace, you can quickly connect with a therapist who’s familiar with the stress of code switching. Talkspace makes the process of getting therapy easy, effective, and affordable, so you don’t have to continue to struggle on your own.
Code switching can be deeply damaging, and you shouldn’t wait to seek out support if you need it.
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