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Translanguaging and Code-Switching: what’s the difference?

One of the most frequently asked questions after a presentation on Translanguaging has been, what’s the difference between Code-Switching and Translanguaging? In fact, I have had members of the audience and students come up to me with transcripts of speech or writing that involve multiple named languages and ask: “Is this Code-Switching or Translanguaging?”


Code-switching refers to the alternation between languages in a specific communicative episode, like a conversation or an email exchange or indeed signs like the ones above. The alternation usually occurs at specific points of the communicative episode and, as linguistics research demonstrates, is governed by grammatical, as well as interactional (conversational sequencing), rules. The starting point of any analysis of Code-Switching is usually the identification of the languages involved; it then proceeds with either a structural or a functional analysis in terms of the process of integrating different grammatical systems into one coherent unit and the non-linguistic purposes switching from one language to another at a particular point might serve.

The term Code-Switching has been in academic discourse for decades; it is well established as a linguistic concept and has been studied by many scholars from different perspectives. There are books, journal special issues, hundreds of articles, and international conferences, devoted to the study of Code-Switching, and some people feel particularly precious when another concept emerges, seemingly with a vengeance, to take over the discourse space. So the first thing I normally say to people is that Translanguaging is not intended to replace Code-Switching at all. They are two very different theoretical and analytical concepts, coming from very different origins.


In contrast, is not an object or a thing-in-itself to identify and analyse; it is a process of meaning- and sense-making. The analytical focus is therefore on how the language user draws upon different linguistic, cognitive and semiotic resources to make meaning and make sense. The identities of individual languages in structural and/or socio-political terms only become relevant when the user deliberately manipulates them. Moreover, Translanguaging defines language as a multilingual, multimodal, and multisensory sense- and meaning-making resource. In doing so, it seeks to challenge boundaries: boundaries between named languages, boundaries between the so-called linguistic, paralinguistic and non-linguistic means of communication, and boundaries between language and other human cognitive capacities. Language in its conventional sense of speech and writing is only one of many meaning- and sense-making resources that people use for everyday communication.

A couple of years ago, I spotted this sign during a morning stroll, in Chungyuan, Taiwan.

Image credit: Sign courtesy of Li Wei.

It got my attention because it explicitly violates the standard grammatical rules of Code-Switching, which say that function words such as be and possessive markers such as the English ‘s are not to be switched. A Code-Switching analysis would probably not go too much further than identifying the two Chinese characters at the top as meaning “today;” the Japanese character underneath them is the equivalent to the possessive marker “‘s”, and the two Chinese characters in the middle mean “fruit.” In fact, it may leave out the parts that are represented by drawing and the colours. But beyond the surface of the sign, there is so much to be read. The single Japanese character brings in the colonial history of Taiwan, which was occupied by Japan between 1895 and 1945, and the cultural identification of young people of Taiwan now with Japan. And the Japanese word for “watermelon” is pronounced as suika, which sounds very similar to the Chinese term shuikuo (in Wade-Giles) for fruit.

Linguistics theories tend to focus exclusively on conventional language, and exclude gestures, postures, facial expressions, spatial display, font style, etc—hence the divides between linguistic and non-linguistic features. As part of the process of conventionalization, sets of linguist codes get named as English, Arabic, or Chinese, for example. Gestures and spatial positioning can also be culturally specific and conventionalised, though it doesn’t normally happen in linguistic theories. Translanguaging wants to challenge the divides between the so-called “linguistic codes” on the one hand and the “non-linguistic” means of communication on the other; they are all part of the repertoire of meaning- and sense-making resources. Likewise, Translanguaging wants to challenge the divides between named languages and view them as different cultural conventions and some people are socialised into moving between and across these conventions in their everyday communication; these are the so-called “multilinguals.”

Image Credit: Sign courtesy of Li Wei.

Here’s another sign from the same shop, photographed and sent to me a little while after my visit to Taiwan by a student who heard me talking about Translanguaging. Compared to the first sign, the space for the characters for fruit is occupied by a cut out picture of pineapples. Instead of is, the English word cut is written, and a hand sign is added with the Chinese word for special price and the English word cut repeated. The hand sign itself has multiple indexes—usually understood as the victory sign in the west, a popular photography pose in East Asia expressing a feeling of happiness or cuteness, and a traditional Chinese gesture meaning to cut. A Code-Switching reading of these signs can, of course, reveal certain aspects of the juxtaposition of the different linguistic codes. But a Translanguaging reading has the capacity to much more of the social semiotics of such signs that transcend the boundaries between named languages and between linguistic and non-linguistic cues.

Featured image credit: Hong Kong Night by Annie Spratt. Public domain via Unsplash.

Recent Comments

  1. Bhim Gautam

    Very clear and brief description of two inter related terms in modern sociolinguistic study.

  2. Tim

    This is a great article. Thank you for taking the time to write it. I’ve noticed similar phenomena in China, too. Serious academic stuff aside, these signs not just really interesting, but really funny. Makes you chuckle at the cleverness when you see them. One of my all time favorites was for a home-brew cappuccino machine being sold at a department store (at the time, it was the late 1990’s) that had the name “chabuqingchu” (i.e., “茶不清楚”). It’s clever and funny on several levels, and they all hit you at once in Chinese. Trying to explain it in English never does it justice. There’s the similarity in sound to the word “cappuccino”; then, there’s the fact that, at the time, cappuccino was largely unknown in China, and so, a marketer might instead convey the product as being along the lines of something the average Chinese consumer might be familiar with (that is, tea [cha, 茶] that just happens to be less clear [buqingchu, 不清楚]). And then, there’s the play on words with the similar expression “不太清楚” butaiqingchu (a polite way of saying in Chinese “it’s not very clear [what this thing is!]”). I don’t know if this is fits either code-switching or translanguaging, but I always have found this sort of word play impressive and entertaining. Thanks again for explaining it.

  3. Cody T

    Great article !

  4. […] heard this word translanguaging tossed around a lot on Twitter and among educators, but, honestly, not only does its spelling […]

  5. Risa Simanjuntak

    Thank you for the article, It covers a lot of important and often neglected aspect of communication through language: to embrace diversity and to transfer identity and interpersonal connections.
    Your article sums-up all of these aspects brilliantly.

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