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Code-Switching Phenomenon

The last decade witnessed the emergence of many areas in sociolinguistics among which a particular attention should be paid to the problem of language switching codes that became particularly relevant in a modern bilingual society. Moreover, with a rapid popularity of immigration process, individuals who move to another country face difficulties in settling in a new place because of the lack of language knowledge. As soon as they get used to a new life and learn a new language, they encounter the problem of code-switching. In its turn, it causes difficulties in expressing one’s ideas fluently in both languages. The research paper analyzes the important for modern sociolinguistics problem of code-switching, especially in the condition of bilingualism. Describing the main aspects of the analysis of switching codes, the paper focuses on clarifying the essence of the phenomenon, and differentiating it from related concepts (mixing codes, borrowing).

In order to achieve the aim of the investigation, the research paper solves three main tasks. First, it characterizes the main research directions of code-switching in modern sociolinguistics. Second, it finds out the different approaches to defining the essence of the term "code-switching" and trace the evolution of views on this phenomenon. Finally, the paper attempts to make a clear distinction between the notions of "code switching", "mixing codes", and "borrowing" by setting their differential features.


The code in sociolinguistics is any present in the language formation (natural / artificial language, a system of gestures, etc.), which functions as a means of communication. A sub-code, in its turn, is any variety of code that has a smaller size, a narrower scope of use, and a smaller set of features than a single code (MacSwan, 1999). These terms serve to demonstrate the hierarchical relationship between linguistic entities (idioms) within the national language.

The set of language codes and subcodes used in a particular language community and remaining in respect of functional supplement (each code/sub-code has features that mostly do not overlap with the functions of other codes/sub codes), forms a social and communicative system of this community. In terms of the monolingual environment, the code is considered a certain language while sub code is a social and stylistic variation of the language (territorial dialects, social or professional jargon, urban vernacular, etc.) (MacSwan, 1999). In terms of bilingualism, individuals possess two or more languages (codes) and within the individual expression, they can alternately employ them (MacSwan, 1999).

In English sociolinguistics, the scientists began to research the phenomenon of code-switching in the 1970s of the twentieth century (MacSwan, 1999). Among the first scientists to deal with this problem were William Labov and John Gumperz. In modern sociolinguistics, there were formed several areas of the problem of code-switching (hereinafter - CS) in a particular communicative situation. The most priority directions are:

  1. sociological: research of socio-demographic, socio-communicative and other factors influence on CS’s characteristics (William Labov, John Gumperz, and their followers);
  2. psycholinguistic (socio-psychological): identifies certain recurring samples, models that can describe how bilingual individual receives, accumulates, transforms and transmits information from various linguistic language systems (e.g, K. Myers- Scotton - «matrix language frame model» ) (Myers-Scotton, 1998);
  3. cultural-anthropological: the study every act of language choice as an important means of expression and realization of specific socio-cultural group values, and of the culture as a whole (e. g, S. Hal);
  4. properly linguistic: investigates whether the process of CS is subject to certain rules and if so, to what an extent they are universal and mandatory (C. Poplaca, K. Myers-Scotton, P. Muysken) (Myers-Scotton, 1998).

Anyway, the representatives of these areas have to determine with every individual question, among which the paper identifies and analyzes the most essential.

The problem of definition

Linguists have different interpretations and definitions of the code-switching phenomenon. In a broad sense, it is understood as an alternating utilization by a bilingual individual of the elements of two or more languages within a communicative act. Most researchers support the opinion that CS is a "shift of the speaker in the speech communication from one language (dialect, style) to another depending on the conditions of communication" (MacSwan, 1999). According to Schweitzer’s point of view, code switching is the "communicants response to changing the social situation of the speech act" (MacSwan, 1999). In some definitions of the concept, the "terms of communication" are narrowed only to the social role: "The transition from a specific language or form of its existence (code/sub-code) to another code is caused by the changes in the role relationships between the speakers in the communication process" (Isurin, 2009). Nevertheless, the same dictionary entry mentions other situational components of communication relevant to a CS - the recipient, and the subject of the message (Isurin, 2009).

In sociolinguistics, there are two most common classifications of code-switching. According to the first one, developed by John Fishman, John Gumperz and others, one should distinguish between:

  1. Situational CS, which involves the selection of the code/sub-code caused by the situation (formal, informal, etc);
  2. Metaphorical (John Fishman), which does not concern the integrated social situation changes but the changes of some of its components (for example, themes) as well as installations on overcoming social and communication barriers between the participants. (Isurin, 2009).

According to the CS theory developed by Myers-Scotton, the most authoritative modern researcher in the field distinguishes the following types of CS taking into account the status of various languages, and social position, elected by the speaker:

  1. non-marked CS that happens when the speaker follows the rules of verbal behavior that have developed in the language community, and switches according to the expectations of the audience;
  2. marked CS, which occurs when the speaker deliberately violates certain switching codes: the basic directions of sociolinguistic research are adopted in the speech team convention and deliberately perform switching so that it is perceived by the companion as a deviation (Isurin, 2009). As one can see, Myers-Scotton’s classification is very close to the classification of J. Gumperz. Most researchers consider CS as a motivated phenomenon. Y. Golovko, having analyzed code-switching in different territories offers his own approach to the classification of CS:
  3. A motivated, which is divided into marked and unmarked CS;
  4. unjustified CS when two languages are used constantly, which results in permanent CS that is virtually the only intragroup way of communication in the bilingual community (Isurin, 2009).

Distinguishing related concepts

1. Switching codes - mixing codes. Implementation of a significant number of field studies, which examine the processes of linguistic interaction necessitated the delimination of switching and mixing codes processes. Some researchers believe that mixing codes is what precedes full lexical borrowings (i.e. the cases of the words usage that are not yet "settled down", not adapted) (Declerck, Koch, Philipp, 2015). In the opinion of others, code-mixing is a bilingual unwarranted transition from one language to another in the process of speech communication which is largely the result of inadequate knowledge of the language(s), of its existence forms, styles (Isurin, 2009). Bhatt and Bolonyai (2011) believe that code-switching may sometimes be referred to as language mixing while it may occur when the speaker consciously or subconsciously shifts from one language to another due to the situational conditions and environment. If the speaker can anticipate and to some extent plan the impact of a certain factor, the code-switching happens on a natural verge of speech flow (at the end of the phrase, syntactic period, and in the calmest conditions of communication - after completion of a topic discussion) (Isurin, 2009). Myers-Scotton calls the code-switching of this nature the “intersentential” one (Myers-Scotton, 1998).

However, if the interference of the factor that led to the code-switching is unexpected for the speaker, he/she can resort to code-switching in the middle of the phrase, sometimes even not completing the word. In terms of code-mixing, the border between the codes can take place even within a closely related phrase, where the definition belongs to one language, and the signified to the other (e.g. the verb belongs to one language while the dependent of the verb belongs to another one) (Isurin, 2009). Myers-Scotton who does not differentiate between code-switching and code-mixing called such code-switching intrasentential (Myers-Scotton, 1998) while Muysken considers as such code-mixing. Moreover, Muysken notes that he tries to avoid using the term code-switching to describe the basic process of mixing, which, in his opinion, is only suitable for alternation as a form of code-mixing (Muysken, 1995).

2. Switching and mixing codes - borrowing. The studies of many linguists are focused on distinguishing between a code-switching and borrowings and their inclusions into the speech. Thus, analyzing the Russian-French bilingualism of early nineteenth century, Schweitzer notes that during the use of inclusions sociolinguistic variables are represented by separate linguistic units (lexemes, phraseologisms) that perform the supporting role and do not have the basic information. In the case of a code-switching, the variables are represented by the codes, in general, i.e. whole language systems and subsystems. In such case, it is not the choice of a linguistic unit/units but the choice of a certain language (in a situation of bilingualism) or its variation (in terms of diglossia) that bears the socially significant meaning. (Isurin, 2009).

In the process of code-switching in terms of bilingualism, the speaker uses elements of the "donor" language according to phonetic, grammatical and other characteristics of these elements. During the borrowing, the word or any other unit fully / partially subordinates to the phonetics and grammar of the language of the recipient. When inclinations are used, there remains the "foreign language face" of the linguistic unit, which is used in a "frozen" form, without any changes according to inflectional or syntactic patterns (Isurin, 2009). Accordingly, scientists  (Poplaca, K. Pfaff, and others) offer to consider various features of borrowings, including phonological and morphological adaptation, availability of lexical gaps and in one of the languages.

Distinguishing between code-mixing and borrowing, linguists state that the difference is that the first phenomenon applies to speech while the second one applies to the language itself. Code-mixing can turn into borrowing if the alien word that was used occasionally, will be regularly used by a large number of native speakers. As one can notice, code-switching and borrowing relate to each other as a process and an outcome. Linguists believe that in a situation of stable bilingualism is code-mixing is a frequent phenomenon, and a number of borrowings from one language to another is significant, especially if one of the languages dominates socially (Declerck, Koch, Philipp, 2015). If borrowing does not include possession of the most part of the code that acts as its "donor", the code-mixing, in contrast, requires a certain possession of such code.

According to Myers-Scotton, it is impossible to draw a clear line between the code-switching and a borrowing because there exist no reliable criteria for distinguishing between them (though, the researcher admits that these phenomena are different). However, if theoretically it is possible to distinguish between code-switching and code-mixing, with the direct analysis of spontaneous speech there occur a lot of problems determining what phenomenon is presented in this or that case. For example, N. Bikova, studying the types of verbal behavior and speech features of Old Troyan’s village residents in a situation of multilingualism, sticks to the following criteria of distinction:

  1. In a spontaneous speech, the borrowing is considered the use of some word forms adapted or not adapted to the grammatical rules of the language of the recipient, aiming at filling the lexical gaps;
  2. Code-switching in a particular speech act is a motivated process (usually a reaction of the interlocutor on the change of topic or communication situation) that may happen on the verge of statements and "inside" the expression on the syntagmatic verge (when a communicator uses two or more structural units of another language, following the grammatical rules of the latter);
  3. Code-mixing is an unreasonable spontaneous use of the vocabulary of two or three languages, "decorated" with the grammatical laws of one of them, that happens during the communicative act to facilitate the process of language (Bhatt, Bolonyai, 2011).


A thorough research of various approaches to the study of code-switching enables a deeper understanding of the language situation in bilingual countries. Moreover, it enables the comprehension of the code-switching mechanisms in bilingual countries and opens prospects for understanding the essence of bilingualism. There are many reasons that make people code-switch, starting from societal influence and parental impact to the lack of proficiency in both languages. All in all, with the process of globalization and the establishment of English as the “world language”, the code-switching phenomenon develops extremely rapidly and confidently. Nevertheless, it does not cause any serious problems or threats for a modern society.

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