After Babel

Perspectives on Language [Vera-Kögelmaier]

It happens faster than you’d expect

Everyone who already spent some time abroad probably made the same experience: You come home and it seems you forgot how to speak your mother tongue in a decent way. This is not just annoying for oneself, since you are desperatly trying to find the right words to explain something you are thinking of but you can’t and so you just use the english expression you have in mind.  It’s also annoying for the people you are hanging out with, because some of them may be thinking that you do it on purpose to show off your English skills.
The first time I found myself in a comparable situation was when I was 16 years old. The reason was Levi, a boy from Australia, who spent an exchange year at the boarding school I went t. Obviously he came to Germany because he wanted to learn German, but especially in the beginning we were always speaking in English with each other. Since we were spending a lot of time together, I slowly started to think in English and sometimes even some of my dreams weren’t in German anymore. Also the way I spoke German was affected by the permanent use of English. In some situations it was really hard to find certain German expressions and so, some English words found their way in my every-day language. It seems ridiculous and exaggerated, because usually something like this does only happens, if you are surrounded by more than just one person that speaks another language. But for me it shows, how fast code switching can emerge in a intercultural context.

Levi and me at the lake in front of the school.

The phenomenon of code switching (CS) can be found in different situations. Most of the time CS appears  in Bilingual
regions but also in immigrant communities, where languages get mixed, because of a lack of language-knowledge.
There are also other explanations for code-switching, than just lacking language skills; Group identity can also play a role. A perfect example for the process of dissociation through language can be seen in the German Rap community. Most German rappers have foreign roots and they (want to) represent a certain social milieu. The main message can be summarized as follows: We are not like you and you are not like us. This is also expressed through the use of language in their lyrics. You can find english, persian, slav, turkish, arabic, bosnian and romanian expressions in only one (!) Song (von Uslar, 2015).

Not just in German Gangsterrap, but also among students of the Maastricht University there is code-switching. As far as I can evaluate the Situation here, most people mix their mother tongue with english in the every-day speech. In terms of code-switching I would claim that I am in another postion than most students here. I am only for five months in Maastricht and the people I mainly spend my time with are from Spain,Italy or Turkey. I am seldom in a situation where I have to speak German and so the “risk” of code-switching is not very  high. But of course there are also moments in which I talk to other Germans and especially when the conversation is about something related to university, it is very  likely that I use English words in German phrases. Generally spoken, I think that code-switching is a widespreaded phenomenon here in Maastricht. It’s easy to comprehend, if you take into account that every student is permanently surrounded by english speaking people, since it’s the major way of communication here. The interesting thing is that in the specific case of Maastricht, code-switching only takes place in one direction; Usually people use english terms in their native language, but scarecly anybody uses notions of his/her native language when english is spoken. This could be seen as an indication for the high level of english that is spoken by the students here. So in the context of Lectures or Tutorials there is usually no such thing as code-switching, but purely spoken English. In every-day life conversations it’s different, because the concerned students probably don’t take care of their language as they do when the Tutor is listening. As already appealed, code-switching does mainly take place in conversations in which university is part of the topic. This is probably due to the fact that there are speech-patterns which lead to a habitual use of  certain notions and are reproduced in the language in which they are incorporated: “Warst du heute im Tutorial?” or “Ich glaube ich skip heute classes” are classic examples.  I understand if people think that it’s annoying when two different languages are mixed sometimes, especially if it’s done on purpose. On the other hand, I do not think that anyone will lose the ability to speak his mother tongue, because of code-switching. It’s all about habitus, context and maybe sometimes attitude, but as soon one of these aspects changes (i.e. moving back to home country) the language while alter or normalize again.

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