Atlantica Boruah

In linguistics, Code- switching occurs when a speaker alternates two or more languages or language varieties in the context of a single conversation. It occurs in single utterances. Being a student of Assamese background and foreign speakers of English language we often switch codes while communicating with each other. Mostly we communicate with our friends in Assamese language but somewhere we use switch codes from English mostly to our mother tongue in day to day conversation. Code-switching is mainly possible in a bilingual situation, where bilingual means the ability to speak two languages. The term bilingualism means the ability of the language users to communicate in two languages. It is generally found that a bilingual person is more skilled in one language. Bilingualism can be sequential, simultaneous and receptive. In sequential bilingualism the speaker learns the second language after acquiring the first language fully. In simultaneous bilingualism, the learner is exposed to two languages as first language from birth. In receptive bilingualism the speaker has the ability to understand two languages but he can express only in one (Lyons, 1981).

 In India, English using bilinguals behave in certain distinguishing ways. English has until very recently been the language of instruction, administration and technical education. It is even now used as the medium of instruction at the post-graduate level. It is commonly used as the language of all India seminars and workshops. Higher education has thus far meant English based education. Most of the text books, reference materials and journals on technical subjects are in English. The language of the elite class in clubs, offices are also in English. English and the major Indian languages have co-existed within the same linguistic area as part of the same socio-economic complex for years.It is only natural for English using bilinguals in India to keep on switching from one or more of the Indian languages to English according to different performative occasions and the roles they are playing. Nagarajan revealed (1992) revealed that it is quite common today for foreign speakers of English to switch to English when talking about abstract scientific principles. They use different varieties of their mother tongue in various situations of life.

 There are many advantages and disadvantages of Code- switching, out of which the possible advantage could be effective communication. As students of university level we often meet various students from various linguistic communities and from different cultures. We frequently feel uneasy to communicate with each other because of our lack of understanding of their mother tongue. Code-switching makes it easier for us to better understanding of their mother tongue by switching it in English. Because of it we can effectively communicate with each other. Other situations where we use code- switching is that when we are with many bilingual families while travelling or while attending national and international conferences.

 As Code-switching helps us in effective communication there are also some disadvantages such as risk of shifting more and more towards the code the speaker is comfortable with. Though the speaker use a code while he is communicating with others which he or she feels comfortable, at the same time he or she must take care of the point that shifting might not hamper his or her meaning of the subject which he or she wants to discuss. In some cases shifting of codes makes the meaning of the subject worst. For instance, while communicating in Assamese language if we switch codes of English as much as possible everywhere in the conversation, the proper meaning of the sentence might not give us exact sensation which we can have if the sentence is fully in Assamese language.

 In the same way the speakers use English words and expressions even when equivalents exist in Assamese. They feel that these English expressions come so naturally to them that their equivalents in Assamese might not sound formal and unnatural. The speakers think that some of the formulaic expressions in English are now so deeply embedded in urban bilingual societies that they come out naturally in informal conversations. There are so much of English words around us and it is so much in active use that switching from Assamese to English takes place automatically and unconsciously. Educated speakers tend to switch freely and insert entire English sentences, clauses and phrases in their Assamese and other mother tongue discourse.Code-switching is context governed. If the interlocutors have proficiency in English and use English as their medium of lecturing or in their office work, they are likely to use information carrying items of English and the linkers of mother tongues. If their topic of discourse is technical, their registrar items are likely to be from English and the grammatical items of mother tongues. Code-switching therefore seems to be a marked badge of educated, urban bilinguals.

  • J. Lyons. Language and Linguistics– An Introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
  • M. Nagarajan. Modern Applied Linguistics. New Delhi: Trinity Press, 1992.

About the authorThe author, Atlantica Boruah was a former student of Department of English, Dibrugarh University.

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