Happy European Day of Languages! Let’s talk of Code-Switching

Today is the European Day of Languages, observed every year to celebrate the social and cultural wealth coming from the big range of different languages in Europe and to promote the diffusion of multilingualism.

Today is the European Day of Languages: created in 2001 by the Council of Europe and the European Union, it is observed every year the 26th of September to celebrate the social and cultural wealth coming from the big range of different languages in Europe and to promote the diffusion of multilingualism.

EU_lingueIt’s a day I like to celebrate because from almost three years to my language, italian, I added the english language, which I talk, write, read and listen daily thanks to Stephen, his family and his friends. I studied english until child school, but to talk it properly is difficult, and still today, after months passed abroad, I don’t have a perfect knowledge and use of it. Nonetheless it’s a fascinating path, which starts from the language to end in a deeper knowledge of another culture through the particular use of words. This isn’t the only marvel of being bilingual: the communicational capabilities and possibilities largerly widen, both from the point of view of the number of people you can talk and the quantity of concepts you can express.

It’s exactly from this last point that I want to start to write about a term studied in linguistics, that I found about casually during a conversation with a friend living in Paris, Valentina, and which immediatly fascinated me. I’m talking of Code-Switching, a concept for sure not new for a lot of those who already talk different languages but of which I was not knowing the name.

Basically, when I started to talk english daily, and in the while Stephen started to better understand and talk the basics of italian, we found out some things:

  • to explain a concept or an idea, often we use in both languages a word or a way of saying which is part of just one language;
  • sometimes we switch from a language to another in the middle of a conversation for fun or to be reserved;
  • even between us is not rare that, sometimes without paying attention to it, we talk a language which is a mix of italian and english, interchanging words and way of saying and communicating with a code just us two can understand (we call it “Italish”).

These are all examples of Code-Switching:

the act of changing between two or more languages when you are speaking. (Cambridge Dictionary)


In linguistics, code-switching occurs when a speaker alternates between two or more languages, or language varieties, in the context of a single conversation. Multilinguals—speakers of more than one language—sometimes use elements of multiple languages when conversing with each other. Thus, code-switching is the use of more than one linguistic variety in a manner consistent with the syntax and phonology of each variety. (Wikipedia)

After a fast research on the web, I found that this thing is very common between people talking more than one language, and in particular it shows up in specific situations:

  • when the reptilian brain takes control, in other words when we feel fear or rage;
  • when we want to be part of a group talking a specific language or dialect (for different motivations depending if it is the prevalent language or a minority in a place);
  • when we want to say something in secret;
  • when we can express a thought only with that word of that specific language.


  • to show solidarity or empathy;
  • to reflect a social status;
  • to talk about a topic which is forbidden or uncomfortable in a culture (it’s easier to do that in another language);
  • to talk about memories of a place (generally, when you can choose, you talk about that in the language of the place you lived the events);
  • to convince an audience: code-switching grabs attention.

Sometimes Code-Switching is used to pass from an informal situation to a formal one and vice versa: think of dialect, often used with family and friends but not on the workplace.

Another concept I found, often wrongly used as synonymous of Code-Switching, is Code-Mixing: this doesn’t mean an alternation of languages, but a mixing of them, related in particular to the grammar rules of one language assigned to another. Generally this happens in bilingual children or in those not knowing perfectly yet one of the languages.

I find these concepts very interesting, especially since I see them working daily in my life, and I’ll try to deepen my knowledge of them. For now I wish everyone a happy European Day of Languages and I invite all the experts of the topic to leave reading tips in the comments 🙂

I want to say thank you to Valentina for giving me the starting point and to invite all of you to read an article which helped me writing this post: “Why do People Code-switch: A Sociolinguistic Approach” di Walid M Rihane

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