The Act of Code-Switching in Conversations

Teodora Turtoi
4 min readApr 26, 2022
Photo by Dominika Roseclay on Pexels

This article is for all the bilinguals or polyglots out there. However, that does not mean that someone who is not a bilingual cannot enjoy it. Of course you can enjoy it because you can easily become a bilingual if you dedicate yourself to learning a language and using it everyday. Nevertheless, that is another subject, which I will tackle in another story.

Revenons à nos moutons. Let’s get back to the matter in hand. This is what I love so much about code-switching: the ability to find an equivalent in another language when you feel that one language does not meet your needs.

Code-switching is a frequent activity among multilingual speakers from all areas of life. It involves switching back and forth between two languages or dialects or registers of the same language. This phenomenon expresses itself in a variety of ways and for a variety of purposes. It can appear within or between phrases, and it can refer to social qualities like identification or solidarity among individuals who share similar beliefs.

Of course, we rarely switch intentionally from one language to another. Most of the times that happens involuntarily and without much thought.

I have been born in Romania, so my mother tongue is Romanian. My first encounter with English happened in the first grade, meaning 17 years ago. Since that moment onward, English has become a strong presence in my life. However, after entering college, the presence of English became even stronger. All my classes and course were taught in English, so for most of my day I was speaking English. This phenomenon intensified when I got hired at my current job. 80% of the time I use English or I read English content because I work with people from all over the world. I have reached a point when my English knowledge is almost at the same level as my Romanian knowledge, which makes me a bilingual.

Bilingualism is the capacity to communicate in two languages in everyday situations. In many regions of the globe, bilingualism is prevalent and, on the rise, with one in every three individuals being bilingual or multilingual. Despite the widespread frequency of bilingualism, there has been surprisingly little study on the subject, particularly on the foundations of multilingual language development in newborns and toddlers. Bilingualism research is still in its early stages, therefore conclusive solutions to many issues aren’t yet accessible. Furthermore, due to huge variances among families, groups, and cultures, other issues are hard to answer. There is no question that a bilingual is able to adjust language usage to individual circumstances at any moment; in certain instances, both languages can be used freely with thick code-switching, whilst in other situations, distinct languages are utilised in various ways. The premise is that two languages are available in a bilingual’s mental system, and linguistic aspects from both languages are active. This enables quick switching between them, allowing the bilingual to translate, and so forth.

One problem, some say, with bilingualism is the fact that code-switching appears in the background. It is believed that languages are compartmentalised in drawers in our head; for each language we acquire, a ‘drawer’ is created where all the information in that language is stored there. When we are talking and we are very much invested in delievering the message as fast as possible, it may happen that we cannot find a certain word, phrase, or expression. In a moment of panic, our brain pulls out the equivalent of that word, phrase, or expression in another language.

I cannot tell you how many times this has happened to me! I have done it in both directions, but most often has happened while speaking Romanian. I couldn’t find the Romanian equivalent, so I had to insert the English one. This has struck me the most. How could I not find the word in my mother tongue, but I knew it instantly in another language? There could be myriad of reasons for that:

  • the English equivalent was encountered more often than the one in Romanian
  • the English word might have a deeper meaning than its Romanian equivalent
  • the English equivalent was shorter and simpler than the Romanian word

It’s interesting to see this phenomenon appear more often than it used to because nowadays parents want their children to learn at least two languages. Thus, the next generation will have even more bilinguals and polyglots.

I am curios to know more about this. Are you a bilingual? If yes, how often do you code-switch? Leave a comment below.



Teodora Turtoi

Writer | Storyteller | Writing pushes the pause button on life