In December 2021, Brian Kelly, head coach of the Notre Dame football team, resigned from his post and took the job as coach for Louisiana State University (LSU). Soon after his hiring, Kelly made his LSU debut speaking to an excited crowd during halftime of a home basketball game in Baton Rouge. His speech was hardly noteworthy, except that Kelly, who was born in Massachusetts and spent most of his career coaching in the Midwest, had suddenly developed a pronounced southern accent. Commentators on social media had fun at Kelly’s expense, and a video clip of him adding an extra twang to words like “tiger” and “family” went viral.
This example points out a very basic fact about human communication. We try to speak each other’s languages—both literally and figuratively.
What is code switching?
Kelly was engaging in what communication scientists call code switching. Code switching is a communication strategy where speakers vary their use of language in response to their social surrounding and context. For bilingual people, code switching may involve shifting between entire languages during a single interaction. Even speakers of a single language often code switch, by varying their word choice, grammar, and dialect during an interaction.
Why do people code switch?
People may code switch for a number of reasons. During unguarded or emotional moments, we often unknowingly revert to languages or dialects we learned earlier in our lives. We may also code switch when we cannot adequately express our thoughts or feelings using our current language or speaking style.
Other times, code switching can be quite strategic and intentional. We often code switch to express solidarity with other speakers by making our language more similar to theirs. At the LSU basketball game, Kelly was likely trying (quite intentionally) to ingratiate himself with the LSU fan base. Although some find such obvious attempts to be cringeworthy, it is important to remember that code switching is not limited to public figures. We all sometimes alter our ways of speaking to better fit in with those around us.
When we study human communication, we learn that language is not merely a vehicle through which we transmit information. It is through communication that we bond and connect with others. The situations and the audiences with which we modify and tailor our language tell us much about the social groups we care about, and those with whom we aspire to belong.
By: Dr. Eric Meiners,professor, EKU Department of Communication
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