How to be a better Code Switcher

When learning another language, it might take us some time to switch from one language into another. Though I’ve been multilingual for a while, I sometimes feel frustrated when words in another language don’t come as readily to me as they do in English. One such example was during my last trip to Italy. I was asked an easy enough question in Italian and though I knew what I wanted to say back, it felt like the words were stuck and I couldn’t remember how to speak in that moment, or even which gestures to use when saying, “Another mozzarella, please”. 20 seconds later, I remembered the terms and syntax (even an idiomatic expression!), but the moment had passed. I was 20 seconds too late.

Code-switching, (the practice of alternating between two or more languages or varieties of language in a conversation) can sometimes be more difficult during the initial stages of language acquisition, or after a period of time spent not using the language. During language processing, one of our mental lexicons, or bank of vocabulary, will be “on” while the others are “off”. When we code-switch, we have to “turn off” the lexicon of the language(s) we aren’t using and “turn on” the lexicon of the language we want to engage, similar to a light switch. As we are switching from one lexicon to the other, we may feel blocked, or stuck, and unable to express ourselves fully. The good news is that we can shorten how long it takes to code switch with some practice and a little bit of effort. 

Here are some tips to help you avoid the pain and frustration of code-switching:

  • Before a trip abroad, spend some time (hours, days, weeks) reading in the language of the country you’re going to, listening to music and practicing speaking, even if it’s by yourself. Practicing before rehearses the terms and phrases of that language and will help you speak more readily at the beginning of and during your trip.
  • If you have a meeting in your non-native language, take 15 minutes beforehand to review key terms and concepts in that language. This is a form of rehearsal and doing so will help alleviate any anxiety or nervousness about speaking up during the meeting, since you’ve already reviewed the concepts before and practiced explaining them.
  • Lower your affective barrier. The more nervous we are, the more difficult it becomes to fully express ourselves in the target language and our carefully-crafted, sophisticated monologue may suddenly turn into a 1-verb phrase. Practice deep breathing and other techniques to help you relax in the moment.
  • Keep practicing! 

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