Code-switching emerged from the field of linguistics and has spread into the mainstream. The main concept of code-switching is using multiple languages or communication styles to transition smoothly between cultures and subcultures in your environment. For instance, we use a different tone and cadence when talking with our three-year-old versus our mother. Our language choices when communicating with a professional colleague are different than those we use with our best friend.

Most of the time, adjusting language to ages and stages is intuitive and effortless, requiring little thought. Other time code-switching can be intellectually jarring, for instance when someone struggles to learn a language and tries to participate in a new culture.

Consider John who may become frustrated if he travels to Mexico and expects to get along on his high school Spanish. Let’s say he becomes lost. While asking a local woman for help he translates her Spanish into English in his head. Then he generates an appropriate English response and translates this into Spanish. Meanwhile the Spanish speaker has continued her side of the conversation and John has lost the flow. They are lost in the code-switching gap and are both frustrated.

Sometimes code-switching is inconvenient. Often it is funny. Thankfully, it is rarely tragic. In multicultural relationships code-switching gaps tend to ebb and flow. When a couple is feeling connected small code-switching miscommunications which can cause confusion or frustration are easy to catch. Eventually couples become so tuned to each other that code-switching is easy and natural. They recognize when a partner is having a bad day, is lonely or homesick, and don’t take little pricks or irritations personally. Now imagine John and the Spanish speaking woman are a committed couple. Their frustration takes on a new intensity because more is at stake.

In very stressful times the most fluent code switcher can unravel. Illness, stress at work, visits with relatives, marital conflict, or just about any unexpected life circumstance can bring on a lapse. When communication gets rough for one or both partners, it’s time to talk.

Consider Klaus, from Austria, and Lisa, born and raised in the United States. Klaus had worked in the U.S. five years before they married. He considered himself bilingual and bicultural. Lisa enjoyed vacationing in Austria with Klaus’s family. She felt embraced by the culture although she wasn’t fluent in German. When Klaus’s father died unexpectedly he and Lisa took bereavement leave and stayed on in Austria. Klaus became short-tempered and retreated into his native culture. He had trouble tracking in-depth conversations with Lisa in English. Lisa felt hurt and frustrated at not being able to comfort Klaus in his grief. It took some time for this couple to realize that in addition to being affected by grief, Klaus’s code-switching facility disappeared with the shock of the sudden loss.

Most couples find it imperative to risk being vulnerable with each other when they feel misunderstood. For instance, Lisa was able to talk about her feelings of helplessness in the face of Klaus’s suffering. Klaus was able to find the words to talk about his pain.

During challenging emotional moments bilingual couples need to remember that problems with language are different than problems caused by insensitivity. Taking time to problem-solve and get the words right makes all the difference.

Accuracy in code-switching is not only switching back and forth between languages. It’s related to having a deep understanding of both cultures including those concepts that can’t be translated. It takes patience and a good sense of humor, and even then you can lose your cool.

Anna Maria and Eduardo bonded as immigrants. They acknowledged they were raised with different cultural worldviews but nonetheless fell into the trap of minimizing their differences. Anna Maria was from a farming community in Mexico and Eduardo was the son of a surgeon in Buenos Aires. They were successful in sensitively blending their cultures, and yet their bliss unraveled whenever family from either side visited.

Anna Maria and Eduardo’s solution was to develop a personal code signaling when each needed a time out. Anna Maria would wipe her brow; Eduardo would blow his nose. Once this plan was established it was agreed they would talk about the issue later, but for now, move on. They came to understand they could switch between cultures without becoming defensive when extended family came to town.

Individuals offer unique talents. Some learn new languages quickly while others need more time. One partner might embrace a new culture while their partner requires more energy for the process. When partners talk about code-switching and communicate when they feel misunderstood it is easier to close the code-switching gap. The risk of making yourself vulnerable leads to the reward of deeper connection and trust.

Things to Consider:

  • For an interesting activity that facilitates code-switching, take a look at the Personal Qualities exercise in the Resource section.
  • For more on what happens when extended family visits upset marital harmony, see the chapters on Acculturation and Ethnocentrism.

Part Two: Angie and Francois Chapter