Code-switching involves changing from one way of speaking to another between or within interactions and includes changes in accent, dialect, language (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). Code-switching can also refer to the process of multicultural individuals using more than one language in conversation or other communicative acts (e.g., gestures, body language, and understood contexts). By using different languages at the same time the brain switches back and forth between transmitting and receiving messages. Code-switching among multicultural individuals creates a dual communication system in which people are able to maintain their identities with their in-group but can still acquire tools and gain access needed to function in larger dominant society (Yancy, 2011).
There are many reasons that people might code-switch. There has been cross-cultural research indicating that an accent can activate stereotypes and change perceptions (Bourhis, Giles & Lambert, 1975; Dixon & Mahoney, 2004). In the United States, people who have a Southern accent are perceived as being less intelligent and having a lower socioeconomic status when compared to individuals with a standard American accent (Phillips, 2010). If an individual believes that their accent is leading others to form unfavorable impressions, they can consciously change their accent with much practice and effort. Once their ability to speak without their Southern accent is honed, they may be able to switch very quickly between their native accent when speaking with friends and family and their modified accent when speaking in professional settings.
Increased outsourcing and globalization have produced heightened pressures for code-switching among call center workers in India. Although many Indians learn English in school as a result of British colonization, their accents often active negative stereotypes and reactions among Western customers calling for help or customer service support. Some Indian call center workers completed intense training to be able to code-switch and accommodate the speaking style of their customers (Pal, 2004) and there has been a growing trend toward accent neutralization as a response to racist verbal abuse call center workers receive from customers (Nadeem, 2012).
People who work or live in multilingual settings may code-switch many times throughout the day, or even within a single conversation. Some cultural linguists have argued that as a result of social media, the majority of Americans engage in code-switching regularly. Words like text, tweet, liked, googled and communicating with symbols (e.g., emojis) are used every day, across technological platforms and by individuals of all ages. Also, within the United States, some people of color may engage in code-switching when communicating with dominant group members because they fear they may be negatively judged and switching may minimize perceived differences. Code-switching may also signal a shift from formal interactions to more informal interactions and individuals may code-switching to reinforce their ingroup identity (Heller, 1992).
As our interactions continue to occur in more multinational contexts, the expectations for code-switching and accommodation are sure to increase. It is important for us to consider the intersection of culture and power to think critically about the ways in which expectations for code-switching may be based on cultural biases and how we can avoid ethnocentric bias and misinterpretations.