Languages and Identity, the Risk of Code-switching

Code-switching BELatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of belatina.com

Speaking more than one language is not only an admirable skill — it is also a source of frustration, especially in communities like the Latino community in the United States. Being able to navigate between English and Spanish masterfully is often perceived as a gesture of bravery or a way to survive and move on.

However, it also sometimes happens that we alternate languages in the context of the same conversation, which in linguistics is called “code-switching.”

Being multilingual, we can use more than one linguistic variety in the same conversation without losing the thread. NPR describes it as “the practice of shifting the languages you use or the way you express yourself in your conversations.”

It is automatic and natural to switch in some cases to make more sense in conversations or to “fit in” between languages or cultural norms. In other times though, it can get as dark as having to switch your personality to conform to other’s desires.

This was the belief of scholars in the 1940s and 1950s, who considered code-switching to be poor language use. Forty years later, it was realized that code-switching is a normal and natural product of bilingual and multilingual language use.

Today, in popular usage, code-switching is sometimes used to refer to relatively stable informal mixtures of two languages, such as Spanglish, Taglish, or Hinglish. However, when these switches are made by public figures or in certain contexts, they are criticized as lacking authenticity or sincerity.

When code-switching is a matter of identity

How much code-switching should we be comfortable with, though, to still feel like ourselves? Is it okay to completely change our personality in our workspace and shy away from being your authentic self in order to please our co-workers and make them feel comfortable at the cost of our uniqueness? 

It may seem like a necessary and temporary change to move forward to the bigger goal. Still, in reality, the pain behind code-switching could be brutal and feeding into potential generational trauma. It could go as far as “fixing” your accent or imitating an American voice to appear more likable. Harvard Business Review describes it as “adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behavior, and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, and employment opportunities.” I read this as changing myself to benefit others, and that to me is a problem that I don’t want my children to deal with.

It is unfair to have to go through even the smallest changes to please others. It means rewiring ourselves, and although it can be perceived as a common thing, I hope it won’t be a commonality in the future. 

What’s wrong with our authentic selves? Our background and personal storylines make us unique and, in the end, helps our workplace and community push boundaries in diversity. With this uniqueness and diversity, our creativity can be free to thrive without being restrained to a certain cookie-cutter version of ourselves to fit a norm. The bottom line is that it would ultimately be beneficial in our workspace, school, and community if we were to be more open to pivot away from code-switching and celebrate our authentic selves.