The humanity of code-switching

Cristian Ispir
2 min readDec 22, 2023

I met a guy last week who could switch from speaking French in a Parisian accent to English in a cockney accent, without any effort, affectation or emphasis. And most of all, he was doing it within the same phrase, while walking.

Everyone who grew up bilingual or trilingual or became so later in life will know the strange nature and performance of a code-switcher.

Code switching refers to the practice of alternating between two or more languages or dialects within a conversation. Sometimes that happens within the same conversation, sometimes even within the same sentence or phrase.

The performance of a code-switching practice will depend on the nature of the bilingual environments, on the formal or informal context, on the social and cultural identity expressed, on the way emotions and feelings are articulated, on the technical or specialised nature of the language (switching to jargon from another language), on the social dynamics (conforming to or deviating from the linguistic preferences of the conversation partners), and finally on language proficiency (as when filling in the gaps of an acquired language with elements from the mother tongue or another language).

Code switching is not just a linguistic phenomenon; it’s a powerful tool for cultural expression. When individuals code switch, they often draw from the linguistic resources of different cultural backgrounds, helping them express a multifaceted identity that goes beyond language alone.

The practice also showcases the adaptability of language in various contexts. It allows speakers to seamlessly transition between languages based on the social setting, the relationships between interlocutors, or the subject matter being discussed.

And most importantly, A.I. is, at the time of writing this, totally incapable of code-switching. The deep reason for this is that LLMs and GPTs, despite their deep learning foundation, remain deeply unequiped for general intelligence, which is exactly what is required in code-switching. Moving from a rule-based system to another and back is an expression of cognitive flexibility that A.I. don’t currently possess, or, according to some prominent sceptics, will ever possess.

So if you’re a notorious code-switcher, rest assured that no machine will steal your voice, which remains, in all its code-switching nuances, deeply yours. If you’re not a notorious code-switcher, you’d better become one soon.