Code-switching is a term that refers to the use of more than more than one language in conversation. An example of code-switching would be if I began speaking in English, et je continue en Francais, pero quiero para terminar en español. Contrary to what many think, code-switching is not a sign of limitation in one language that would require resorting to the other. Rather, it is a form of self-expression and ingroup behaviour. Code-switching is used by bilinguals/multilinguals when:
1. A particular concept is better expressed in the alternate language, or when one wishes to reiterate a shared identity with the listener. For example, if an Arab and a Brit are discussing business, and the Brit is trying to close the deal, he may pepper his language with Arab phrases to express solidarity and develop a deeper personal connection. In many parts of the world, relationship-building determines whether deals are made or lost, and code-switching is a useful tool to do this.
2. Academia and technology: The universality of these fields often means that English becomes the lingua franca. It is not uncommon to see professors in Latin America, Asia, and Europe speak in their native language during a social discussion and suddenly switch to English if a technical matter comes up.
3. To convey humor. Many jokes are told in English, with the punchline being delivered in the ethnic language shared by the speaker and receiver.
Q: What did the mouse say to the cheese?
A: A: Tu Cheez badi hai Mast Mast!
The answer is a line from a popular Hindi song, which means “You are my desire/Damn, you’re fine!” It’s a highly corny but very popular joke, and one that would be dished out only in the company of paisanos.
Brandcrafters, take notice. Multilingual speakers far outnumber monolinguals in the population. If you want to appeal to them on a deeper level, why not show them that you understand their mixed identity? In my next post, I’ll touch open aspects of code-switching that marketers need to understand, and look at the issues of mental models, language schemas, and current ads that attempt to tap into multilingual madness.