2 Days in New York is a delicious comedy about cultural differences, mistranslations, and … lots of code-switching! Julie Delpy, Marion in the film, is stunning in the role of code-switcher: she switches seamlessly from English to French and back again as she tries to placate her scandalized African American boyfriend and restrain her outlandish French family.
Bilinguals unashamedly, and sometimes apologetically, code-switch when they are in the company of fellow bilinguals who share their linguistic repertoire. Code-switching, the use of two or more languages in a conversation, occurs in language contact situations, and is normal practice in bilingual discourse; it is economical, sophisticated, creative and highly amusing. From a sociological perspective, code-switching is a common communicative strategy, a skill bilingual individuals master admirably. From a cognitive viewpoint, it is a structured linguistic feat: even bilinguals can’t quite explain how they ‘know’ to respect the semantic and syntactic rules governing their cross-linguistic interactions to ensure meaning is clearly conveyed.
Code-switching can be inter-sentential. In this case an individual switches between sentences or sentence clauses, for example, ‘Sometimes, I’ll start a sentence in English y termino en español. (Poplack, 1980) (Sometimes, I’ll start a sentence in English and finish in Spanish). Code-switching can be intra-sentential, that is, switching languages in the middle of a sentence: Va chercher Marc and bribe him avec un chocolat chaud with cream on top (Grosjean, 1982).
Another form of code-switching is word borrowing. When I was growing up, South African Portuguese adopted the words shop and ice-cream, so a child in this context wasn’t aware of the equivalent Portuguese terms. Imagine my monolingual grandmother’s confusion when I said, in my very own Portuguese: Quero ir ao shop comprar un ice-cream. (I want to go to the shop to buy an ice-cream). I learnt two new Portuguese words that day! Interestingly enough, both shop and ice-cream, genderless in English, adopt a masculine allure in both French and Portuguese.
Of course, bilinguals are also quite capable of conversing in one language at a time! Children simply become very adept at deciding which language to use when, how and with whom: Father: Right, Kat, we’re going to eat. Have you washed your hands? Katja: (to her French friends) Hè! On va manger. Il faut se laver les mains. (Harding-Esch & Riley)
Grosjean, F. (1982), Life with two languages: An Introduction to Bilingualism, Harvard University Press
Harding-Esch, E. and Riley P. 2003. The Bilingual Family: A Handbook for Parents Second Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Poplack, S (1980) ‘Sometimes I start a sentence in English y termino en espanol: Towards a typology of code-switching’ Linguistics 18, pp.582-618