25 Jan Code-switching and the Interpreter
I am interpreting consecutively. I am well-rested, fully focused, alert and engaged. Almost effortlessly, I allow the equivalent words,phrases and structures to flow through my brain and out my mouth. An interpreting instructor of mine once called this being “in the groove.” It doesn’t happen every time, but more and more often I find I get better at it as I gain ever more confidence and expertise. It is one of our common goals, an ideal we strive to achieve in our work.
My sister, a trained classical singer, once mentioned to me that watching anyone perform well in whatever endeavor always reminded her of an ice skater at her very best, an analogy that really intrigues me when I apply it to interpreting. When I am on my game, it does feel as if I am gliding seamlessly from one language to the other, my brain shifting back and forth, ready to address all the challenging mental gymnastics coming at me.
Oddly, though, I find I can only achieve this switching back and forth when I am actually interpreting. My brain seems incapable of mixing the two languages in everyday conversation, no matter whom I am speaking with.
Weird, isn’t it? Many of my bilingual friends think nothing of starting a sentence in English and finishing it in Spanish, or nonchalantly tossing foreign words willy-nilly into a monolingual communication. (I even have a friend who does this when she writes!)
It’s called code-switching.
Not only do I find it difficult to mix my languages, but when I hear it done, I can feel my brain suddenly grinding and shifting like a manual transmission manhandled by a novice driver. And when I am at a gathering with bilingual friends and we start to chatter away, my head is soon aching with the effort of listening to all the switching back and forth. My inner ice skater feels as though the ice is all bumpy, and I am no longer skimming along. Since I don’t know what language is coming next, my brain cannot prepare itself, and screams: “Hey, I was listening to that, don’t change the channel!”
When I speak Spanish, I speak only Spanish, and when I speak English, I speak only English, and the twain meet only in the courtroom, or the hospital or at the deposition table.
Code switching is a subject of a good deal of discussion, both pro and con. Conventional wisdom used to have it that people who mixed languages were either too lazy or too ignorant to express themselves properly in one language. Nowadays, on the contrary, code switching is often considered as proof that a person is truly bilingual, and chooses which language to use according to specific cultural and personal factors. New research seeks to show that it is an intrinsic part of being bilingual (Grosjean).
I must say that this conclusion makes me somewhat uncomfortable. I consider myself fully bilingual. I have lived and studied in various countries. As a graduate student in this country for many years, my main language for speaking and writing was Spanish. My colleagues and instructors were all extremely well-educated and well-informed scholars and intellectuals from many Spanish-speaking countries. I have read and studied works of literature in Spanish and other languages from all over the western world. My accent in Spanish is impeccable, my use of idioms and vocabulary on the educated native level. Why don’t I do code-switching?
I think perhaps the main reason is that I learned Spanish in another country, with absolutely no contact with the English language. For one year, I heard and spoke no English, and I firmly believe that the two languages somehow came to occupy different parts of my brain. I believe something similar happens with others who did not learn their two languages simultaneously. I have noticed that when I converse in Spanish with people who were born in other countries and learned English as a second language, we almost invariably stick to Spanish. With my friends who were born here and speak Spanish as a second language, we usually communicate solely in English (except when we need to say something we do not want overheard, of course!) It is only with my colleagues who grew up here learning both languages at the same time that code-switching comes into play.
I find myself wondering what impact, if any, code-switching has on interpreting. I am not referring here to the dreaded Spanglish used by some witnesses, which presents its own headaches for the interpreter, but whether the habit of mixing languages in social communication helps or hinders the interpreting process. I plan to investigate this more fully. Meanwhile, if anybody out there would like to share experiences, please comment below!
There are many websites, blogs and books on the subject of code-switching. Here are a few I have found of interest, but just google the term, and you will be amazed at the number of sources that address this phenomenon.
Websites and Blogs:
Lewis, Benny. How to Speak Multiple Languages Without Mixing Them Up. Retrieved from the website Fluent in 3 Months http://www.fluentin3months.com/not-mix-up/
Nortier, Jacominel (2011) “Code-switching Is Much More than Careless Mixing: Multilinguals Know the Rules!” Retrieved from the website Multilingual Living http://www.multilingualliving.com/2011/05/19/codeswitching-much-more-than-careless-mixing-multilingual-bilingual-know-rules/
Soto, Roxana A. (2010) “What is Code-Switching and Why Do Bilinguals Do it?” Reitrived from the website SpanglishBaby: Raising Bilingual Kids. http://spanglishbaby.com/2010/06/what-is-code-switching-and-why-do-bilinguals-do-it/
Scholarly papers and books
Grosjean, François. (2010) Bilingual: Life and Reality. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Mahootian S. (2006) Code Switching and Mixing. In: Keith Brown, (Editor-in-Chief) Encyclopedia of Language & Linguistics, Second Edition, volume 2, pp. 511-527. Oxford: Elsevier. Retrieved from http://www.neiu.edu/~linguist/Codeswitching%20and%20Codemixing.pdf
Price, Tom. (2010) What is Spanglish? The phenomenon of code-switching and its impact amongst US Latinos”. Début: The Undergraduate Journal of Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies Vol 1, No. 1. University of Southampton, Southampton, UK. Retrieved from: http://www.llas.ac.uk/resourcedownloads/3088/debut_vol_1_price.pdf