What Code-Switching Is and How It Works

Hermano, tienes que aprender how cool code-switching is

Antonello Zanini
5 min readFeb 21, 2022
Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash

I grew up in a bilingual family and consider myself a native speaker of two languages. As should be clear from my name, one of these languages is Italian. The other is a rare variant of one of the many endangered languages of Italy. In detail, it is the Bassa Bresciana variant of the Bresciano language.

In my family, everyone can speak both of these languages and can use them interchangeably, to the point that it is completely normal for me to hear the two languages used together in the same sentence. Growing up in such an environment, and being used to mixing multiple languages to express a concept myself, I had never found this phenomenon particularly fascinating.

Then, I started learning languages and realized how difficult it is to switch between languages so quickly. It was not until recently that I came to the conclusion that that phenomenon had to have a name in linguistics, and I began to delve into it. As a result of this, I found out that it is called “code-switching”.

Now, allow me to share what I learned about the code-switching phenomenon and what my experiences are with it.

What Is Code Switching?

Code-switching is a phenomenon that happens when a speaker alternates between two or more languages during a single conversation, sentence, or situation.

It is also known as language alteration, and it usually occurs when two or more multilingual people who know the same languages speak to each other.

In my experience as a code-switcher, this last aspect is what typically triggers the phenomenon. Specifically, I code-switch only when I am completely sure that my interlocutor knows the language I usually code-switch in. What’s more, I always start my conversation with strangers in Italian, but when they reply to me in the Bresciano language, or by code-switching between the two languages, then I feel free to code-switch with them.

I do not consider code-switching a grueling task. On the contrary, I generally hope for the people I talk to to be able to speak the same languages as me. This is because I consider code-switching a more efficient and accurate way to convey a message; this is also what other code-switchers think of this phenomenon. Otherwise, why would people code-switch?

And this leads to the next chapter.

Why Do Multilingual People Code-Switch?

As reported by The Cambridge encyclopedia of language, there are three main reasons why people code-switch and range from social factors to linguistic causes. Let’s see them all.

  • To convey a message more accurately: when a multilingual speaker cannot express themselves how they would in the language they are currently using, they tend to switch to another language to convey the message more precisely. As a result of this, the conversation may continue in this new language for a while, but it might also be used in the context of a single sentence.
  • For formality reasons: monolingual speakers vary the formality of their speech by adapting their vocabulary accordingly. Likewise, multilingual speakers can change their formality by switching to another language.
  • To better express emotions: monolinguals tend to show empathy by changing their lexicon to make it more familiar to the listener. Similarly, the words they use change according to their current mood and emotional state. Multilinguals do the same but through the adoption of different languages. Specifically, they tend to choose the language that they think best conveys an emotion or can connect them with the listener.

In my experience, these are also the three main reasons why I code-switch. In particular, I tend to switch to the language that allows me to convey the message or nuance I want more easily.

Also, when I am watching a football game, speaking loudly, or want to say something empathic, I tend to switch to the Bresciano language, which is far more colorful and rough than Italian. Regarding this, when heavy emotions take over, I tend to avoid using Italian, which is a more delicate and suave language and makes conveying harsh messages more difficult.

After all, swearing in Bresciano is an art. Why should I use Italian to swear when I know a language that lets you insult someone by telling them that they are a rake or a broth-reverser?

Now, it remains only to understand how code-switching happens.

How Does Code-Switching Work?

Imagine the following scenario: you are speaking a foreign language and switch to your mother tongue to ask your partner how to say something and to avoid interrupting what you were saying. In this case, you are switching between two languages, but you are doing it consciously and typically out of frustration or to ask for help. All language learners have been there.

Specifically, you are doing that to address a particular problem, namely the fact that you do not know how to say something in the language you are using.

Although you are using two languages, this is not how code-switching works.

On the contrary, code-switching feels like an uncontrollable process, rather than something that happens because of a particular cause. Code-switching generally happens at an unconscious level, and code-switchers tend to describe it as a natural, effortless phenomenon of moving back and forth between two or more languages.

But I think that the best way to really understand how code-switching works is by seeing it in action. Enjoy this short video about three young women code-switching between English and Spanish:

I hope that you hayas disfrutado este artículo!


In this article, we learned more about the phenomenon that happens when bilingual people use many languages during the same conversation. This is called code-switching, and here we delved into what it is and why bilinguals use it. Being a code-switcher myself, I was able to add some of my experiences to this article and hopefully help you better understand how this process really works.

Thanks for reading! I hope that you found my story helpful. Feel free to reach out to me with any questions, comments, or suggestions.