15: On Code-Switching

I am doing NaBloPoMo this month. 30 blog posts in 30 days. Come join me. #nablopomo2022

photo credit: @issaphotography via Unsplash

I mentioned in my post about German Idioms that Jon and I speak a mix of English and German at home. I also have a few multilingual friends with which that happens and we always called our language “Denglish”, which is a portmanteau of the German words Deutsch (German) and English. But upon investigation, this actually has a negative connotation and describes the increased use of anglicisms and pseudo-anglicisms in the German language. It’s not quite the same as “mixing” two languages together. Did you know that the mixing of two languages while speaking is actually called code-switching?

There, you just learned a new linguistic term. (Or at least I did.)


Code-switching can refer to two (or more) different languages, but also language varieties, vernaculars, and dialects. Sometimes the process is also called language transfer when only certain linguistic features are applied from one language to another that are inconsistent with the syntax and phonology of each language.

There are 3 types of code-switching:


  1. Alternation: shifting between whole stretches and phrases of a language one after the other
  2. Insertion: mixing of individual lexemes or words of one language while speaking another language
  3. Dense code-switching/congruent lexicalization: lexical and grammatical mixing and activation of 2 languages

I think I mostly use alternation and insertion because I feel like most people who code-switch still use one dominant language (like with Jon, it’s mostly English with German alternations/insertions, with my German friends who live here it’s mostly German with English alternations/insertions). Dense code-switching starts to sound really weird because both languages seem to get equal weight in the speech process – if that makes sense.

Language is represented in the brain as a network of neurons. If you speak two (or more) languages, each language forms its own network which may or may not be closely linked to another. Code switching then depends on how ‘internalized’ those languages are. While speaking, these language networks are activated and as the internalization of one language grows and mixes with another, the brain starts extracting words/ideas based on intention and connotation from each network.

I notice that a lot of English words have slipped into my German conversations with my family (which gets my sister upset and she jokingly says that I obviously have to move home because I am losing my German – haha.) I try to explain to her that it’s the ‘tip of the tongue’ phenomenon, that I sometimes just don’t remember a (not frequently used) German word and I code-switch because it is easier than spending cognitive resources to fetch the correct German word that is temporarily blocked from memory.

Also, concrete objects and abstract concepts can have various contexts and representative words in different languages and some of these words have complex connotations and therefore can’t be easily translated. 

I mentioned the other day that I am struggling to come up with a good German translation for the word “pet peeve“. The dictionary says “Lieblingsärgernis” (a word I have honestly never heard anybody use in German) and the literal translation is “favorite nuisance”. While it somewhat accurately describes what a pet peeve is, it doesn’t carry the same weight/connotation for me (and I am curious how other German speakers feel about that). So, in conversation, I’d probably insert “pet peeve” into my otherwise German sentence. The same can happen the other way around. A good example is the word “Schadenfreude” (which is considered a German loanword that has been completely adopted into the English language). I wonder if it has the same connotation for me as it has for you.

As you can tell, I went a little bit down the rabbit hole when I looked up code-switching, and I am very intrigued to read more about it. Linguistics is super interesting to me. I dabbled a little bit in it in college. Has anybody read the book “The Language Instinct” by Steven Pinker? Absolutely fascinating.

When I was younger, I’ve always dreamed of one day being able to speak another language fluently and effortlessly. It seemed like a big accomplishment to be able to communicate in a foreign language and I still envy everyone who gets the chance to grow up bilingual. It’s such an advantage, as learning a language later in life takes so much more effort. It also will likely never become as internalized and ‘fluent’ as your first language, no matter how hard you try!

I am far beyond the point where I have to translate everything back and forth between the two languages in my mind (that was hard in the beginning and took a lot of time and cognitive resources). Now, I often honestly can’t tell you if I had a thought in German or English. People have also repeatedly asked if I dream in German or in English and most of the time, I don’t remember. In my mind, both languages function in parallel without much conscious thought. However, I still have days when my brain is just “exhausted” and all I want to do is blurt out every little thing that comes to my mind in German.

Do you have any experience with code-switching of any kind?

  1. Lieblingsärgernis? No! To me it sounds way more positive than in English, almost cute, you know? In French we call it bête noire, which literally would mean black beast/animal.

    I’m curious: in which language do you count?
    I think in more than one language, I also work in several but when it comes to number,s French comes automatically to me…

    1. I love Sarah’s question: in which language do you count?!?
      While I’ll dream in English and feel actually more comfortable explaining myself in English, I do count in German. My coworkers always found that hilarious. I didn’t even realized it I ntil they pointed it out .

    2. Haha, I totally agree…. Lieblingsärgernis definitely has a much too positive ring to it. :)

      Mmh, which language do I count in… that is a good question. I think I do mostly count in German in my head…

  2. I too envy and admire people who can speak more than one language! It’s so impressive!

    Your description of code-switching was so fascinating to me, because I have only heard the term used in connection with behavior/culture. My understanding is incomplete, but for example, people of one race might feel that they have to “code-switch” in front of people of another race by behaving or dressing or speaking differently than they might otherwise, in order to fit in or be taken seriously or not endanger themselves. Or (a less high-pressure situation) how a person might use different speech patterns/phrasing at home with her parents than she would with her high school friends.

    1. It’s true – I had heard about “code-switching” in the context of culture/behavior before and didn’t know it was also used in linguistics (but I guess it makes sense, because it goes hand-in-hand with behavioral changes in different situations).

  3. Like Suzanne, I had only heard of code switching in the context of behavior/culture, especially for those of a different race. I never thought of it in terms of language. I only speak English. Phil has a minor in Spanish and studied abroad in Spain. So he was fluent but has since lost it. Since our kids go to Spanish Immersion daycare, he has more opportunities to use his Spanish and many of the teachers would prefer to communicate in Spanish. There is usually one teacher in each room whose English is strong, but neither of Will’s teachers speak English well so that motivated me to start to use Duo Lingo to learn Spanish. So now I can have very basic conversations with them. Their lack of English skills isn’t problematic, though. They bring in an interpreter for conferences although Phil wouldn’t need one since he understands everything – he is just slower to respond and is less secure in his speaking skills.

    Our boys will go to our community school, though, not a Spanish immersion school. So they will lose their fluency for awhile but hopefully it comes back when they learn Spanish in school. We’ll also look for some camps/after school programs to help them retain their fluency. They understand everything in Spanish but don’t speak a lot of Spanish. But pretty much all of their first words are in Spanish – mas, agua, leche, carro, hola, adios. And they learn to count in Spanish before counting in English. I’ve pretty amazing what they can learn at such a young age!

    1. Yes, I had heard the term “code-switching” in the context of behavior/culture before but am not surprised that it’s also used in this linguistic context. It all plays together somehow.

      I am glad your kids will have the chance to experience some multilingualism. I think it’s super-stimulating for the brain!

  4. One of my biggest regrets is not keeping on with language study. One of my sisters ended up pursuing French – lived abroad, took two Master’s degrees in the language and taught it at the university level. She LOVED learning another language.
    I, on the other hand, only know English. I think that it is culturally and intellectually enriching to understand/speak multiple languages. However, the time and effort it would take now is just far more than I’m willing to invest. Woulda, shoulda, coulda…

    My kids could go to French Immersion, but they wouldn’t be able to attend our local school – we’d have to drive every day and their friends from the community wouldn’t be there. I’m confident in our decision (and starting in Grade 3, French is mandatory in Canada), but still…they’re not learning much!

    1. It’s hard to keep up languages, if you don’t use them. Besides English, I also learned Spanish and French in school (and I took Italian classes for a while), but none of that “stuck” because I never got to use it. It’s a conscious effort for sure to become proficient.

  5. Ooh, i love the term “code-switching”- I’ve never heard it before. But I hear my co-workers do it all the time- they switch back and forth from Spanish to English, and one of them mixes Creole and English seamlessly. Sadly, I only speak English. I learned a little German when I was there, but since Germans speak English so beautifully, it was easier just to speak English than to stumble along in very poor German.

    1. That’s so cool that you witness code-switching with your co-workers :) I am kinda sad you didn’t get to learn more German while you were in Germany because Germans probably pushed to practice their English.

  6. I’ve studied other languages – German more than others, but never seriously enough for it to stick. My husband and I love to throw in an occasional word or phrase from another language (such as “das ist nicht dein Bier”) but it’s just for fun and to keep the boys on their toes.

    I work for a non-US company and I’ve noticed that when I talk to people one on one that it’s almost entirely in English. But when we have team meetings, it gets harder for everyone to stick to just one language. Those conversations are always fun because I get to learn new words!

    1. Super-interesting to hear about your work environment and how words/term from different languages slip into your meetings – that’s the beauty of working for a global company :)

      I also love that there are still phrases from German that you slip into your conversations – I mean, if it works it works :)

  7. This is fascinating to someone who only has rudimentary knowledge of a second language and not even close to not needing to translate. I had a friend who was bilingual in Greek and English, having grown up speaking both. After sitting in her kitchen listening to her chatting with her mum who was speaking Greek I asked her about what she thinks in and she told me that she thinks in the language she speaks in. She mainly spoke in English if I was there, even if her mum spoke in Greek.

    1. Yes, that makes sense – I think I also think in the language that I speak in… but if I just think (without talking) it feels like I cannot really pinpoint which language I am actually thinking in.

  8. Definitely not Lieblingsärgernis. That word – I have to agree with Sarah – sounds way too positive.
    I had no idea switching language was actually named code switching. Interesting. Since we are speaking German here we only if ever put certain words in from other languages. Mostly English now and then Spanish since I am learning. Often those words in English that don’t feel right with a translation. Like pet peeve. humble. appreciate. and a few more.

    1. Haha, I am glad you agree that “Lieblingsärgernis” is not a good translation of pet peeve (have you ever heard anyone use that word even?)
      It’s interesting that you’ve also adopted words from other languages into your every-day conversations. How do you feel about all the anglicisms that have slipped into the German language?

      1. I am a bit ambivalent. While I love English it is also a bit sad that some words just get lost. I guess that is the price of globalization. However since I saw the “decay” in my own vocabulary I made an effort to pick up more German books.

  9. It’s the first time I heard of the expression code-switching and yes, we as a family do it all the time. Usually we will speak German but there is always a word here and there in English. We use “ausfiggern” with abandon what means basically “to figure something out” with a German twist. Yes, linguistics is so interesting. It always fascinates me that both our kids get the same amount of German exposure and our daughter is fluent whereas my son has a harder time – so there is definitely some different wiring going on. I love it to find words from other languages showing up here and there, too like the mentioned “Schadenfreude” and also “Angst” or simply “Gesundheit”.

    1. I can imagine that code-switching is very normal in your family, with both you and your husband being German but having chosen to live your lives in an English-speaking country and raising your kids here.
      I had to laugh about your word creation “ausfiggern” LOL

  10. This is so interesting, San. I have always been fascinated by people who are fluent in more than one language. I have to work really hard at the most rudimentary of conversations in non-English, and I am just in awe of people who can switch back and forth so smoothly.

    1. I have always been fascinated by people who are fluent in more than one language, too and I never thought I’d be one of them. When you start learning another language, it just seems impossible to ever “master” it, right? (I wish I spoke another language fluently besides English… maybe one day I’ll have the time and headspace to get back to Spanish or Italian.)

  11. I am always amazed at people who can communicate fluently in more than one language.
    I do wonder how people learn language and if English is easy to learn or not. I grew up speaking Mandarin, but now only speak it with my parents, and even then there is English liberally sprinkled in. My parents pretty much only speak to me in Mandarin, though, because they are afraid I’m going to forget it, which is a fair point. I wish I had learned to read and write Mandarin, though. I’m doing some DuoLingo, but it’s not the best for Mandarin.
    My son just started Kindergarten in a French Immersion program and it think it’s so cool how he is so proud of the few French words he has learned so far, and how he sprinkles French, English, and Mandarin into a sentence, just for fun.

  12. I am what would definitely be considered fluent in Spanish, as in I read it, write it, speak it confidently and fluently. BUT, that being said, even despite what I feel is a quite high command of the language, there are still always little things that I feel I don’t know!! It never really ends. I am amazingly impressed by the perfection of the level of your English, as a non-native speaker- I mean, you literally never have one single grammatical error in your posts! I think I would have gotten to that point if I had lived in Mexico- and in fact, most people are amazed how well I speak Spanish, considering that I never have actually lived and worked abroad. I’m never satisfied though- haha! I get so annoyed when there are little things I don’t know or stumble over, which is pretty rare, but depends on the topic of conversation. I find language fascinating and I have that book on my list of books to read! I actually checked it out once, but never got around to reading it before I had to turn it back in. Maybe that will be a 2023 goal! There are definitely certain phrases that are better in English vs Spanish, and my husband and I totally do the “insert English word here” (or Spanish, if that’s the better option). We actually sometimes go back and forth from one sentence to the next- like he’ll talk in Spanish, I respond in English, or vice versa! It actually makes me laugh when I am the one to speak to him in Spanish and he’ll respond in English! It’s like, wait, what?! Role reversal!! haha!! Who’s the Spanish speaker and who’s the English speaker??! lol!!

  13. Interesting perspective and I’m glad you brought up slipping in English words into your conversations in German. My mother tongue is Russian and I grew up in Kyiv, learning Ukrainian as my second language (in school) and picked up Armenian from my summers with my cousins. When we moved to the US, I was 8. English quickly took over. The Ukrainian and Armenian fell away and I no longer remember them. Russian was still spoken at home, although with every passing year into my teens and adulthood, it became more difficult. I found I didn’t have the vocabulary to express my adult thoughts, political discussions, etc. in Russian. But I noticed at some point, even my parents started mixing the two languages and Russifying English words to make them fit. My parents are by no means fluent in English, even after 30+ years, but it’s interesting how easily English takes over. They used to give me such a hard time about it, to the point where I still feel self conscious about my broken Russian, but I’m trying to accept that if you don’t use it, you lose it, and that goes for adults, too. It’s still in the back of my mind somewhere. I can speak and understand it, and read and write, but choose not to because of the mental energy it takes.

  14. This is so interesting! Like others have mentioned, I’ve only heard code-switching discussed in terms of culture/behavior. Like how Black people must code-switch in different settings. But it makes sense that it happens in terms of language, too. But how cool it must be to be so immersed in speaking English that you think/dream/etc in English just as much as German!

  15. What a wonderful gift, to have two languages in which you are fluent. I love your descriptions of how you flip back and forth between, and also merge, languages and words. I’m always fascinated listening to people who are able to fluidly (and fluently) switch between languages – it used to happen a lot when I worked in the hospital, with patients and families.
    Like others, I’d only heard of code-switching as it relates to Black people change how the speak depending on the context… but it makes sense here, too! I wish I’d stuck with French through college… I was nearly fluent by the time I returned from a summer-long stay with a family that only spoke French, but… lost it over time. Random words will still come back to me now. :)

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