Understanding My Own Codeswitching

A recent scene inspired me to consider my own codeswitching examples in a more academic way. I believe codeswitching accounts for the majority of misunderstandings of Cantonese-Mandarin bilinguals like me, and it is the main reason why some Cantonese parents do not allow their children being exposed to Cantonese, worrying about the negative influence Cantonese-Mandarin codeswitching may have on Mandarin academic performance. 

Tina and I are in the same psycholinguistic lab. One day when we were working on the same research project, I said in Mandarin, “Tina, 麻烦你拿那个file过来.” (”Tine, please hand me that file.”) She did not understand me. To be frank, at that moment I felt as confused as or even more confused than her since I did not know why she just could not understand. Luckily, later on I realized that it was my pronunciation of “file” that caused the embarrassment. If I pronounced it as /fail/, as in commonly-accepted English pronunciation, she would probably make sense of it. Whereas I pronounced it as /failəʊ/, which could be seen as an example of Cantonese-Mandarin codeswitching. Because in Cantonese, we indeed usually pronounce a file as a /failəʊ/. What is interesting, unusual, and complicated about the example is that a Cantonese-English codeswitching is embedded in Cantonese-Mandarin codeswitching. People speaking Cantonese in Hong Kong always codeswitch between Cantonese and English, some results of which have now become legitimized expressions in Cantonese, “file /failəʊ/” being one of them (mainly because there is no nasal /l/ in Cantonese so the nasal /l/ in English is changed into a lateral one with vowels added behind). 

In the scene above, it did not mean I had no idea at all how to say “file” in Mandarin, whereas for some reasons I did not think of the word in Mandarin at that moment. In the past, I did not pay much attention to my codeswitching, especially in spoken conversation. However, since I decided to pursue academic career in second language education, I have noticed quite frequent codeswitches in my daily spoken discourses, and many other “potential” codeswitching occasions. They were “potential” because given that my interlocutor did not speak Cantonese, I paused unnaturally to think of the intended word rather than codeswitching. In a previous article “My Mandarin-Cantonese experience”, the frustrating impact of Cantonese-Mandarin bilingualism on Mandarin writing was highlighted. Now I am more aware of its influence on my spoken Mandarin. The question that whether it sometimes hampers smooth conversation in Mandarin admittedly deserves my further research. 

Auer (2007) classified codeswitching (and transfer) into two categories, participant-and discourse-related. The former type provides cues for attributes of the speaker (language competence, preference and so on), while the latter one hints at the organization of the interaction, such as topic change. The scene is participant-related, mainly associated with my lack of proficiency in Mandarin sometimes. Lately I have been deepening my understanding of codeswitching from a variety of perspectives. All in all, it is always delightful and rewarding to investigate the interconnection between the two languages I love and feel proud of. 


Auer, P. (2007). The monolingual bias in bilingualism research, or: Why bilingual talk is (still) a challenge for linguistics. In M. Heller (Ed.), Bilingualism: A social approach (pp. 319-339). Palgrave.