Code Switching in the Community

Code Switching in the Community

Primary Investigators: Rena Torres Cacoullos and Shana Poplack

Graduate Students: Mariela Abigail Chi Baack, Jessica Vélez Avilés

Lab Website:


Does mixing languages mean mixing them up? 

Labels such as Spanglish may disparage bilingual speakers as confused corrupters of language. In contrast, we are learning from the northern New Mexico bilingual community that code-switchers maintain distinct grammars within each language, but deploy shared word orders and aggregate grammatical patterns at the boundary between languages.


How do we know? 

Evidence comes from quantitative analysis of community-based spontaneous speech. The database is the New Mexico Spanish-English Bilingual corpus, comprising faithful transcriptions of 30 hours of bilingual conversations, comprehensively tagged for language. Thousands of instances of the presence and absence of code-switching reveal a major intonational pattern and a general syntactic (word-placement) rule.


The prosodic boundary constraint 

Bilinguals adhere to intonational boundaries, avoiding switching between languages within the same intonation unit.  

The rate of code-switching is: 14% after falling pitch (period), as in “and I used to get chile quite a bit. y salía todo”; 8% after continuing intonation (comma), as in “y ahora la tierra como que no me sirve, something is wrong“; and 2% within the same Intonation Unit, as in “también dicen que they might go” (N=63,000 IUs; examples from NMSEB 04).


The Variable Equivalence hypothesis 

Bilinguals opt for code-switching with syntactic alternatives that are consistently equivalent, choosing the more available option in their combined linguistic experience.  

For example, the junction of Spanish-English main-and-adverbial clauses is consistently equivalent since the conjunctions are placed the same way in both languages. Conjunction choice follows code-switching direction (an English conjunction when switching from Spanish to English, and the reverse), as in quizás era chiple, because she was a twin ‘maybe she was spoiled’. On the other hand, with main-and-complement clauses there is variable equivalence, since in Spanish the conjunction is always present but in English it is often absent. The bilingual strategy is to use the Spanish conjunction que, regardless of code-switching direction, as in saben ustedes que that is my place ‘you know that’, even though in theory either conjunction would fulfill equivalence. Bilinguals prefer the more frequent and predictable option que, considering their combined linguistic experience in both languages.