The Importance of Code-switching in Speaking

Code-switching remains essential despite efforts to standardise English.

Due to globalisation, English has become the main language of international communication. As more people in the world speak English, many media platforms around the world are breaking away from broadcast-standard accents and employing presenters who speak with a variety of regional accents, seemingly bringing about the democratisation of accents. However, with so many variants of native English and so many accents, two people speaking English still may not understand each other. As a result, an international movement to create a global standard of English, known as Global English or International English, is growing. However, without leadership or consensus, the development of International English is mostly organic and haphazard. Code-switching continues to be essential for international communication.

What is code-switching?

According to the Harvard Business Review article ‘The Cost of Code-Switching’, “code-switching involves adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behaviour, and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, and employment opportunities.”

Code-switching includes switching back and forth between our ethnic vernacular accent and other vernacular or standard accents. Among bi-lingual speakers, code-switching also means speaking two languages in the same conversation. Speaking Singlish is an example of code-switching. It also includes reducing or adopting culture-specific behaviours in different situations, for example, using Western hand-shaking with a Westerner in an Asian context. An example of code-switching behaviour can be seen in a viral video where President Barack Obama greets a white coach differently from an African-American player.

Code-switching in Singapore

The fact is, not only is code-switching needed for international communication, it is needed within a country to communicate across cultural, linguistic, religious and socioeconomic lines. Despite what opponents to code-switching may say, for countries like Singapore, code-switching is the glue that brings its residents together. Singaporeans need to code-switch to understand and be understood in the complex multicultural, multilingual, multinational environment of Singapore.

Code-switching to bridge language proficiency differences

Within the Singapore context, many locals and foreigners will omit slang and speak slower and more clearly to each other, adjusting their accent to a more neutral one, if they can. Code-switching is also common in Singapore between generations and non-native English-speaking locals. Used within this context, this practice is seen to be considerate and pragmatic. Kasmani Dollah, a trainer who teaches WSQ courses in Singapore, says that his elderly participants often ask him to use simple English or to supplement with Malay when he teaches. When teaching operator level trainees, he finds that they prefer him to speak in Singlish.

Code-switching to sound more professional

Singapore’s colonial past and the country’s decision to make English the language of instruction in all schools has resulted in the perception that speaking proper English projects an image of professionalism. Chan Ying Ying, a Human Resources Manager, says that “interviews have protocols like dressing appropriately and speaking properly. If a local candidate speaks in a mixture of English and dialect, it is against protocol and the candidate may be viewed as unprofessional or disrespectful or not wanting the job. Once hired, it’s natural to speak Singlish on the job but not at the interview.” She adds that many factors are considered in the hiring of employees. “A good command of English is not a deciding factor unless the role requires it. In Singapore, companies are so used to hiring foreigners that accent and English proficiency are not as important as the required competencies. In fact, some jobs require the employee to connect with customers with specific non-English language or accent preferences. In that case, the interviewer may favour people who speak English with a foreign accent or another language.”

Shannon Zann, an emcee, says that although there is no explicit request for one accent over another, she has noticed a preference for emcees who speak standard English with a neutral accent or slight British or American accent among corporate and MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conventions, Exhibitions) event organisers, especially when the audience is international. On the other hand, Emcees will use Singlish for heartland events or mass-appeal events like the IT Show to create a greater connection with the audience.

Code-switching for Social Connection

Dollah, Chan and Zann all agree that speaking Singlish creates a greater connection among locals and between locals and foreigners. Chan echoes what I have heard others say. “A local speaking with a western accent will usually be viewed as fake.” As a local whose natural accent is considered too western, I am familiar with that sentiment. I have had to code-switch since childhood to avoid negative consequences.

It is understandable that Singlish creates a greater sense of connection between people living in Singapore. Singlish is an inclusive language. It blends words from all the ethnicities living in here, and creates a casual, relaxed common ground that ignores the prissiness of any grammar. While the world waits for International English to sort itself out, code-switching effectively lets the world get on with business. As Dollah puts it, “it is better to express not impress; connect not communicate”. So, although we may come away from a conversation not understanding more than half of what was said, a connection is made. Sociologists point out that much of the conversations we have around coffee are not about sharing information. Catching up with friends is a ritual we perform to say: we are friends. Code-switching to make someone else feel comfortable in Singapore is, therefore, a requisite skill

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