Code-switching researchers comment on how translanguaging achieves its social aims

In this research-oriented post, I summarize a new book chapter (Bhatt & Bolonyai, 2022) in which code-switching researchers argue that bi/multilingual people accomplish things in the social world by recognizing codes, not rejecting them. In the authors’ view, code-switching is still a preferable term to translanguaging because the social affordances of translanguaging (such as creative wordplay, interpersonal finesse, or pedagogical scaffolding) are achieved NOT because people forget that languages exist, or transcend these languages… but because people pay attention to differences between languages and the social meanings of those codes in context. They re-analyze data from translanguaging researchers like Ofelia Garcia, Angela Creese, Adrian Blackledge, and Li Wei, arguing that people in this data are not transcending languages—rather, they are “exploiting the discreteness of languages while seeming to flout it” (p. 161).

Bhatt, R., & Bolonyai, A. (2022). Codeswitching and its terminological other—translanguaging. In J. MacSwan (Ed.), Multilingual perspectives on translanguaging (pp. 154-180). Multilingual Matters.

The 21st century is characterized by INTERNATIONAL MOBILITY: of goods and services, of human migration, of cultural products, and of course, of languages. This has given rise to many contemporary terms used to describe linguistic hybridity, such as polylanguaging (Jørgensen, 2008), metrolingualism (Otsuji &th Pennycook, 2010), and translanguaging (Creese & Blackledge, 2010; Garcia, 2009; Garcia & Wei, 2014). All of these terms take the research focus away from analyzing named languages as isolated entities, to analyzing linguistic hybridity in everyday interactions. Yet Bhatt and Bolonyai question whether a focus on the “mix” (which goes as far as to reject naming distinct languages) results in a loss of detail as to what is happening in a situation, such as a dialogue or an advertisement. Yes, it’s important to look at how linguistic resources are used in orchestration—but why were specific languages used in specific instances? And what makes one kind of hybridity common and ubiquitous, and another kind of hybridity virtually unheard of?

In their view, code-switching offers a level of analytical detail unmatched by translanguaging, polylanguaging, metrolingualism, and the other terms, because code-switching and other older sociolinguistic terms like stylization, borrowing, and crossing (and I haven’t yet finished defining all of them on this blog!) better explain what is accomplished socially, pedagogically, or artistically… precisely because they pay equal attention to both the hybridity and the named languages. As an illustration, Bhatt and Bolonyai present some data from code-switching research, then some data from translanguaging research (which they analyze using a code-switching lens, showing how you get more out of the analysis). Finally, they conclude that the new terms provide no new coverage in terms of linguistic phenomena, and what’s more, have less power to explain what goes on.

“What goes on” is this: all the social affordances documented by researchers of translanguaging/metrolingualism/polylanguaging/etc. (such as creative wordplay, interpersonal finesse, or pedagogical scaffolding) are achieved NOT because people forget that languages exist, or transcend them… but because people pay attention to differences between languages and the social meanings of those codes in context.

Examples from code-switching

It’s important to note that “code” does not equal “language”—it could mean a different dialect or register. Take this example from a talk show. Tavis Smiley, the African-American host, is interviewing Pam Grier, who has portrayed a lesbian character on a show called The L Word.

Bhatt & Bolonyai (2022, p. 159)

Smiley’s switch from standard American English to African-American English (in italics) shows he is no longer voicing himself, but the imagined conservative audience who would take issue with Grier’s choice of role. Thus, he “is able to distance himself from the folks in the black community who are unhappy with Grier’s lesbian portrayal on the show, and yet at the same time claim symbolic (ethnic) solidarity” (p. 160). From this, we can not only conclude that Smiley recognizes two languages, but that his audience does as well, and recognizes them in much the same way he does—otherwise his smart use of stylization here would not work.

The same principle (“the creative, social, or pedagogical affordances of linguistic hybridity exist in distinctions and juxtapositions, not blurring of differences”) can be seen in this advertisement for Burger King in Hungary:

Bhatt & Bolonyai (2022, p. 164)

“Yo” is like “yo, what’s up?” in English, but it is a homonym of “jó” in Hungarian, which means “good.” Therefore, the combo is advertised as having “extra, yo!” but also as being “extra good.” Bhatt and Bolonyai argue that “the double-meaning of the pun… is available only if the different linguistic-semiotic archives [languages] are accessed—at the phonetic and orthographic levels” (p. 165). In other words, you’d need to know both languages to fully appreciate the creativity, and see how this ad simultaneously presents Burger King as a global brand and one that is playfully localized.

Code-switching researchers work under the assumption that languages mixes are not random; often, there is a logical explanation for why things mix the way they do, why certain parts of an utterance or text are in one language and other parts in another. This can be the result of domains of language acquisition (what people tend to learn in their first language, versus in a foreign language class, versus at home as a heritage language) or pragmatic choices. Here’s an example of domain-specific code-switching from an interview with a 58-year-old upper-middle-class woman in New Delhi, India. Her ethnic background is Kashmiri, and her trilingual speech is transcribed verbatim: italics are Hindi, underlines are Kashmiri, and regular font is English.

Bhatt & Bolonyai (2022, p. 161)

Because she is telling the story in Hindi, the woman’s dominant (first) language appears to be Hindi, as it is the language of the wider society and of her schooling. Kashmiri appears to be her heritage language, something spoken in her family which she may know in a smaller range of domains… even though some of those domains would not be covered by Hindi. She styles the Kashmiri accent in line 4, to explain that she didn’t want her kids to get that. As she continues her story, she states that she spoke to her kids in English so that they would not pick up a Kashmiri accent. As she mentions this, she switches to English. Then, when she moves on after a pause, it’s back to Hindi.

Bhatt and Bolonyai summarize a study by Catedral (2018) that had similar findings about domains of language use:

Catedral presents a short narrative of an Uzbek migrant woman in the US whose codeswitches reveal a number of identity acts: she (i) switches from English to Uzbek to describe o’zbekchilik–‘Uzbekness’—and the Uzbek halq—nation’; (ii) switches back to English describing the demands of the neoliberal behavioral script (‘in America you have to stand up for yourself’); (iii) switches to Uzbek again to further describe the type of speech associated with ibo hayo; and then (iv) switches again to English to clarify the behavior associated with a neoliberal micro-hegemony (Catedral, 2018: 32) (as cited in Bhatt & Bolonyai, 2022, p. 162).

Examples from Translanguaging

But what of a speech in which you can’t seem to assign specific functions to specific languages? This did suggest to me a distinction between translanguaging and code-switching, which I’ve blogged about here. I’ll reproduce that example below. It’s a famous one from Creese and Blackledge (2010, pp. 11-12), and it features the principal (initials SB) of a Gujarati heritage language school in the U.K. giving a speech at an assembly.

Creese and Blackledge tabulate what was said in each language, stating, “Gujarati and English are not distinct languages for the speaker in the context” (p. 109).

Creese and Blackledge (2010, p. 108) suggest:

The [above] show which utterances are said in English and which are said in Gujarati. We do this not because we wish to argue that each language is delivering different functions but rather because in classifying them into language groups, we can argue that such classification is meaningless for the speaker, SB.

While this may seem logical given the transcriptions, there is a counter-argument. SB seems to be making a very concerted (and almost artificial) effort to use both languages in equal amounts and to mix them at random without any domain-specific patterns, something probably only a very fluent speaker of both languages would be able to do if they tried. The reason? According to Bhatt and Bolonyai, “she is accommodating to, and signaling identity-alignments with parents, students, and teachers with varying proficiency of Gujarati and English” (p. 167). SB deliberately makes the level of challenge to understand her speech roughly equal for both English-dominant and Gujarati-dominant audience members; it is in this way that she practices inclusivity. Hence, the distinctions are certainly NOT meaningless for SB. Her most comfortable listeners, small in number though they may be, would be those most fluent in both languages. But the principal isn’t trying to make people feel bad if their proficiency is more asymmetrical—she’s trying to put the languages on equal footing and signal inclusivity by including enough talk for all audience members to latch on to. SB’s interactional choices suggest she is well aware of Gujarati and English as distinct languages.

Now let’s look at translanguaging in the classroom. Bhatt and Bolonyai show us the following excerpt with both teacher and student talk, from Garcia and Wei (2014, p. 99). This excerpt appears to be from an ESL class in the U.S. with an English-Spanish bilingual teacher. Although the students may not be that deliberate in how they mix the languages, the teacher certainly is, because she’s engaging in pedagogical scaffolding:

Bhatt & Bolonyai (2022, p. 168)

The first line is in students’ first language (L1), Spanish, as the teacher tells them what to do and organizes the activity. The next utterance by the teacher, “What does it say?”, is in English because it pertains to the content of the English text. The third utterance by the teacher, “The earthquake happens cuando hay un break underground. Y qué es el focus?” is mixed because the teacher (i) repeats the student’s mixed language answer, signaling that she accepts the content of his answer “underground, cuando hay un break,” then (ii) moves to a question where only one word is in English—the key term she is teaching, thus highlighting it more. [I’ve demonstrated at the end of this other post how this strategy of playing-off-the-juxtapositions-between-languages can be used in Content Language Integrated Learning (CLIL).]

In the above dialogue, Bhatt and Bolonyai (2022, p. 169) observe that “English and Spanish are both indexical of positively valued identities,” but there is no “evidence that would support any notion of translanguaging as ‘original’, ‘new language practice’ and so complex that it cannot be assigned to any language—i.e. what ‘some call English’ or ‘Spanish.'” Is that “paradigm shift” necessary to for the lesson to go well, both in terms of pedagogical scaffolding and in terms of positive identity positioning? Bhatt and Bolonyai would say it is not necessary. In fact, forgetting what is Spanish or English “risks glossing over, or reducing to irrelevance, the richly diverse, complex and systematic patterns in the practice of meaning-making that decades of research into codeswitching as a communicative practice have uncovered” (p. 169).


Bhatt and Bolonyai argue that “we lose tremendous explanatory power in terms of the social-indexical functions that are mobilized in bilingual language use if linguistic resources are understood as complex arrays of disaggregated structural features that are not integrated into linguistic systems” (p. 170), particularly if the difference between the systems are noticed by the people “on the ground” as their emic perspective.

However, just because people notice distinct languages doesn’t mean that they align with “official” discourses about language standardization or the national language (Auer, 2022). Code-switching researchers have never claimed this; they have only claimed—as do researchers of translanguaging, metrolingualism, and polylanguaging—that form-meaning-context combinations “(i) do not appear in hermetically sealed boxes, and (ii) are readily available and accessible to bilinguals to draw from in message construction” (p. 171). In other words, it all depends on “the agency of the speaker, who must do a quick appraisal of the context (audience, situated in time/place complexes) and deploy code-choices aligned to accommodation or non-accommodation, to negative or positive politeness, to power or solidarity, and to various other social-affective identity positions and meanings” (p. 174).

In sum, Bhatt and Bolonyai conclude that this chapter’s aim was to provide empirical evidence

to (re-)claim the theoretical status of codeswitching—as an active, agentive, sociocognitive mechanism employed by social actors to produce and interpret the ‘meaning potential’ (Halliday, 1985) of linguistic symbols/acts/utterances/features in the multilingual universe we inhabit. (p. 174)

Blogger’s summary

For me, the important takeaway from this article is that all the benefits/affordances documented by researchers of translanguaging/metrolingualism/polylanguaging/etc. (such as creative wordplay, interpersonal finesse, or pedagogical scaffolding) are achieved NOT because people forget that languages exist, or transcend them… but because people pay attention to differences between languages and the social meanings of those codes in context. Using the transcendental lens, we can come up with one finding and one finding only (see this point made in Rymes & Smail, 2021): that language use is hybrid, and seems to be especially so in this century (but see Pavlenko, 2018, for an argument against this: briefly, that there was as much linguistic hybridity all across the ages, from the Roman Empire to the Silk Road, and furthermore, there are also places that are becoming less ethnically diverse today due to genocide, mass immigration of people desperate to get out, etc.).

With the transcendental approach to studying multilingual phenomena, you can collect as much data to prove that “linguistic hybridity (broadly defined) happens”—such phenomena are everywhere! (where is language not like that?)—infinite material for publications claiming that “we live in a brave new world with new practices being documented and discovered by research.” With a code-switching lens, you have to explain “(i) WHY certain patterns of codeswitching are observed in context, after doing a lot of background reading and secondary research, and (ii) HOW linguistic forms in bilingual performance get linked to communicative-indexical functions in various acts of meaning making” (p. 155), which you cannot understand without long-term immersion in a research site, plus the triangulated perspective of many participants. In addition, you must prove the originality and generalizability of the findings, as well as their practical significance beyond the Ivory Tower. It’s hard, but in my view, this how people on the tenure track (or shooting for the tenure track) can partly earn their keep, given their substantial socioeconomic privilege (which, in my view, they will never fully pay back society for).


Auer, P. (2022). ‘Translanguaging’ or ‘doing languages’? Multilingual practices and the notion of ‘codes.’ In J. MacSwan (Ed.), Multilingual perspectives on translanguaging (pp. 126-153). Multilingual Matters.

Catedral, L. (2018). Discursive scaling: Moral stability and neoliberal dominance in the narratives of transnational migrant women. Discourse & Society29(1), 23-42.

Creese, A., & Blackledge, A. (2010). Translanguaging in the bilingual classroom: A pedagogy for learning and teaching? The Modern Language Journal94(1), 103-115.

García, O. (2009). Bilingual education in the 21st century: A global perspective. Wiley-Blackwell.

García, O., & Wei, L. (2014). Translanguaging: Language, bilingualism, and education. Palgrave Macmillan.

Halliday, M. (1985). An introduction to functional grammar. Edward Arnold.

Jørgensen, J. N. (2008). Polylingual languaging around and among children and adolescents. International Journal of Multilingualism5(3), 161-176.

Otsuji, E., & Pennycook, A. (2010). Metrolingualism: Fixity, fluidity and language in flux. International Journal of Multilingualism7(3), 240-254.

Pavlenko, A. (2018). Superdiversity and why it isn’t: Reflections on terminological innovation and academic branding. In B. Schmenk, S. Breidbach & L. Küster (Eds.), Sloganization in language education discourse: Conceptual thinking in the age of academic marketization (pp. 142-168). Multilingual Matters.

Rymes, B., & Smail, G. (2021). Citizen sociolinguists scaling back. Applied Linguistics Review12(3), 419-444.

Published by annamend

Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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