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Code switching and language alternation

A colleague writes to ask:

I read your article ‘Code Switching’ in Sociocultural Linguistics. What I wonder is [why] you didn’t write something about the author Grosjean (1982, Life with Two Languages). He also used the term Code Switching as one of the first. And I can’t get the differences between ‘ language alternation’ and ‘ code switching’? Can you describe the differences?

These are excellent questions. There are two principal reasons that I do not discuss the work of Professor Grosjean in my 2005 paper. The intent of the paper is to highlight work by linguistic anthropologists, sociolinguists, and sociologists of language; I would classify Grosjean’s earlier work in speech production, perception, and comprehension as works of psycholinguistics. There is a large and important literature on bilingualism in psycholinguistics which, as my introduction warns, the paper neglects.

Second, by the time Grosjean’s work on bilingualism and biculturalism came to the fore people like Einar Haugen (e.g. 1953), Roman Jakobson (e.g. 1961), and John J. Gumperz (e.g. 1964) had been discussing these issues – albeit in somewhat different ways – for quite some time.

Perhaps a third reason is simply space constraints. The paper as originally written is more than 18,000 words and still neglects many linguists and other scholars who made important contributions to the study of code switching.

The more substantive question is: what is the difference between language alternation and code switching? This is a controversial question, and my answer to the question is not the most widely used one in the field. I will therefore offer two answers.

First, I believe that the more standard practice is to make little distinction. Many linguists use the term code switching to mean the use of two languages within one conversation or text. Romaine (1989) attributes this definition to Gumperz (1982), though as my paper suggests, Gumperz did not actually use the word “languages” in his definition of conversational code switching.

The distinction between language alternation on one hand and code switching on the other comes from the work of Celso Alvarez (e.g. 1998, 2000). My definitions of language alternation and code switching are deeply indebted to Alvarez, and also owe debts to work by Gumperz (1982, 1992) and Auer (Auer and di Luzo 1992, Auer 1998), among many others.

Second, then, I will try to describe how I use the terms in that paper. You may think of language alternation and code switching as two different ways of thinking about language output, the first relating to grammatical form and the second to communicative function. Language alternation describes the alternating use of two recognizable grammatical systems – two “languages” in some sense of that word. For example, if a conversation contains some utterances in, say, Mandarin and others in, say, French, you may say that the conversation features language alternation. Recognize that the definition of what counts as a language is not an uncontroversial one. While most people will probably accept the suggestion that Mandarin and French are discrete languages, it may be more difficult to make the same assertion about Dyirbal and Giramay or about English and Scots. There may also be argument over whether an English speaker who utters the string “je ne sais quoi” is speaking French or using a stock English phrase that was borrowed from French.

Where language alternation concerns linguistic form, code switching concerns the contextualization of communication. In my own work, code switching is defined as a use of language alternation or of code choice (that is, deciding to speak one language rather than another) in order to contextualize an utterance. Contextualization refers to Gumperz’s (1982) description of the ways in which speakers give cues about how to understand an utterance. These cues are generally subtle and not related to propositional content, for example signalling the formality of the situation, the relationship between speakers, or other elements of context.

When a change in linguistic form (language alternation) signals a change in context (contextualization) the practice may be described as code switching. It is therefore possible to use code switching without switching “language” per se, for example by switching registers. It is also possible, at least in theory, to observe language alternation that does not effect contextualization and therefore does not count as code switching under this definition. This may be the case, for example, in what Myers-Scotton (1993) calls “codeswitching as unmarked choice.”


Alvarez, Celso. 1998. From ‘switching code’ to ‘code-switching’: towards a reconceptualization of communicative codes.” In P. Auer (ed.) Code-switching in Conversation: Language, Interaction, and Identity, 29-48. London: Routledge.

— 2000. Para um modelo do ‘code-switching’ e a alternancia de variedades como fenomenos distintos: dados do discurso Galego-Portuges/Espanhol na Galiza. Sociolinguistic Studies 1(1), 111-128.

Auer, Peter. 1998. Code-switching in Conversation: Language, Interaction, and Identity. London: Routledge.

Auer, Peter, and di Luzo. 1992. The Contextualization of Language. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Grosjean, Francois. 1982. Life with Two Languages: An Introduction to Bilingualism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gumperz, John J. 1964. Linguistic and social interaction in two communities. American Anthropologist 66(6): part 2, 137-153.

— 1982. Discourse Strategies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

— 1992. Contextualization revisted. In P. Auer and A. di Luzo (eds.) The Contextualization of Language, 39-53. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Haugen, Einer. 1953. The Norwegian Language in America: A Study of Bilingual Behavior volume 1. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Jakobson, Roman. 1961. Linguistics and communication theory. In R. Jakobson (ed.) Structure of Language and its Mathematical Aspects: Proceedings of Symposia in Applied Mathematics volume XII. American Mathematical Society.

Myers-Scotton, Carol. 1993. Social Motivations for Codeswitching: Evidence from Africa. Oxford: Clarendon.

Romaine, Suzanne. 1989. Bilingualism. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

[This post was edited 10/8/2013 to change a broken link.]

4 thoughts on “Code switching and language alternation”

  1. Pingback: Signspotting | learn.logic

  2. Please help,im doing a proposal on language attitude,the attitude of teachers and students towards codevswitchibg abd code mixing in classroom interaction..what theorical frameworjs do i quote?

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