Language Choice in Different Social Settings

Although the majority of the world’s population can only communicate in one language, a sizeable minority can do so in two or more. According to an article in the New York Times, 400 million people speak English as a first language, another 300 million to 500 million as a fluent second language, and perhaps 750 million as a foreign language (2007). When two or more languages are spoken simultaneously, a decision must be made on which language will be used. It may appear that the factors influencing language choice are simple, but this is not the case. Generally, there is no sufficient explanation to explain why speakers make the decisions they do, nor is it possible to predict with absolute certainty which language an individual will use in a particular situation. In trying to understand this area, sociolinguistics have long been fascinated by societal multilingualism and complex language switching patterns. In fact, many multilingual speakers can easily switch between languages, even mid-sentence. The terms diglossia, code-switching, language shift, and language death are all used in current research studies on this subject. This article will look at these terms in depth, focusing on individual decisions that might be institutionalized at a societal level in places where bilingualism is common.


Made popular by Charles Ferguson’s renowned article, the term diglossia describes a situation "where two varieties of a language exist side by side throughout the community, with each having a definite role to play" (Ferguson, 1959, p. 325). In other words, diglossia is a term used in sociolinguistics to describe the use of two separate languages in the same community for different purposes. High (H) and Low (L) are the two varieties, with the former being a standard variety used for 'high' reasons and the latter being a 'low' spoken vernacular. In such an area, the literary or prestige dialect is frequently distinguished from the common dialect spoken by the majority of the population. Ferguson (1959) describes a diglossic situation as follows:

Diglossia is a relatively stable language situation in which, in addition to the primary dialects of the language (which may include a standard or regional standards), there is a very divergent, highly codified (often grammatically more complex) superposed variety, the vehicle of a large and respected body of written literature, either of an earlier period or in another speech community, which is learned largely by formal education and is used for most written and formal spoken purposes but is not used by any sector of the community for ordinary conversation (p. 336).

In diglossia, the 'high' version of a language is not used in everyday speech and has no native speakers. Ferguson distinguishes between high and low varieties in his definition. Diglossic languages include Greek, Arabic, and Tamil, to name a few. Although English is not a diglossic language, it does have a wide range of dialects, colloquial forms, and formality levels. The distinctions between standard Arabic and Egyptian Arabic are a good illustration. Modern Standard Arabic, which borrows many of its normative principles from the classical Arabic of the Koran, is recognized publicly in Arabic-speaking countries such as Egypt, while the language spoken at home is likely a version of colloquial Arabic. The standard language is designated for 'high' activities like presenting a lecture, reading, or writing, whereas the home variety is used for 'low' functions such as talking with friends at home.

Figure 1: The Koran as an iconic example as the standard high variety of Arabic. - Koran. Caveman. 2015.

The high and low varieties differ not just in grammar, phonology, and vocabulary, but also in terms of function, prestige, literary heritage, acquisition, standardization, and stability. Low is often learned as a mother tongue at home and is retained throughout life. Its primary use is in familial and familiar situations. High, on the other hand, is only learned in school and never at home. Outside of the home, high, is connected to and supported by institutions.

Code switching

Code switching is defined as "the practice of moving back and forth between two languages or between two dialects or registers of the same language at one time" (Nordquist, 2019, para. 1). Also known as language mixing, it occurs in more contexts than only with bilingual speakers, and it is subtle. Most of the time, we code switch to identify with a specific social group, even when we are completely unaware of it. In a situation in which people are communicating with colleagues in the workplace, it is likely that their speech will become more formal. On the contrary, people's speech takes on a more casual tone while they are around friends due to the much more relaxed social setting. Depending on the social environment, these code switches become more visible. According to Romaine (1994), a speaker may switch for a variety of reasons, for example, to redefine the interaction as appropriate to a different social arena, or to avoid defining the interaction in terms of any social arena, through continual code switching. The latter function of avoidance is an important one, because it recognizes the function of code switching as often serving as a strategy of neutrality, or as a means to explore which code is most appropriate and acceptable in a particular situation (p. 60).

Figure 2: Interactions in different social arenas. - Black And Biracial Americans Wouldn’t Need To Code-Switch. Brockway, E. (2018).

When people who speak Language A interact with those who speak Language B, code switching occurs naturally. According to Fachriyah (2017), code switching in the community is frequently viewed as a conversational tactic. In this regard, linguistic code switching is commonly practiced in bilingual and multilingual groups for a variety of reasons, including the desire to fit in with the group and its habit, or the need to communicate thoughts and concepts that are easier to express in a particular language. Of course, speakers cannot just use any random words and ignore grammatical rules, and while to the untrained eye code switching may appear natural and straightforward, in reality several hidden unconscious factors such as practice and effort must be considered for code switching to be successful.

Another example of code switching occurs when children or adults transition between two or more languages. Beginning a statement in one language and then switching to another is the most common method used by young children to combine two languages. For example, a child could code switch when saying 'Gracias for the lovely gift,' mixing the English and Spanish languages. In the past, some people used to believe that children were confused and mixed their languages because of a fault in memory, while others thought that code switching was a disability or evidence of incompetence (Espinosa, 2010; Genesee et al., 2004; Hakuta, 1986). However, it is evident that when children code switch, they maintain the grammar rules of both of their languages (Genesee et al., 2004). For this reason, it is clear that children are keeping their languages separate.

According to Esen (2019), many linguists have emphasized the fact that code switching is a communication option open to a bilingual member of a speech community, just as switching between styles or dialects is for a monolingual speaker. In bilingual populations, code switching is an unavoidable occurrence. Although it can be perceived as unsystematic, it is seen as a natural feature in a multilingual language environment.

Language shift

Few bilingual situations last much longer than three generations. According to Kandler and Steele (2017), there are as many as 6,000 different languages spoken now, but this large number is diminishing quickly. Language shift, defined as the process by which individuals of a society who speak more than one language stop speaking their native tongue in favor of another, has caused recent language extinction events.

Figure 3: The ultimate process of choosing a language over the others. - Words of advice: Code switching. Meraji, S. (2020).

In this respect, bilingualism (sometimes accompanied by diglossia) is a common stage on the way to final monolingualism in a foreign language. Typically, a formerly monolingual population becomes bilingual as a result of an encounter with another group and becomes transitionally bilingual in the new language until their old language is abandoned entirely. A study of the use of German and Hungarian in the Austrian village of Oberwart provides a thorough picture of this. Villagers who were once monolingual in Hungarian have become more bilingual over the last few centuries (Romaine, 1994, p.51). According to Holmes (2013) "As Oberwart grew and industry replaced farming as the main source of jobs, the functions of German expanded. German became the high language in a broad diglossia situation" (p. 77). People are faced with deciding which language to speak, particularly in long-term language contact circumstances. Due to increased interactions between groups speaking different languages as a result of urbanization, globalization, and migration, a common language of communication is required. Consequently, the major language may be forcibly imposed as a conscious policy of its native speakers in instances of disaster, war or repression. In this scenario, the language that is viewed as more modern, more often used, or as providing greater social mobility and economic opportunity is usually chosen as the primary language, driving the process of shift.

In rare circumstances, indigenous languages might be completely replaced by invasive ones in a short period of time. This is what happened to Australia’s Aboriginal languages and the British Isles’ Celtic languages. Immigrant languages have vanished in other places, as its speakers have assimilated the language of the new environment. This is true in Britain for many speakers of south Asian languages such as Gujarati and Bengali. In addition, a number of researchers have commented on the significant instability of bilingualism in the United States (Romaine, 1994, p. 54).

Figure 4: An example of Celtic Irish vs English, an indegenous language that progressively lost its importance. - An Irish-English dictionary. Anonymous. 2018.

Regarding language in migration, it is common that the language of each new wave of immigrants has deteriorated. Native languages in North America have likewise changed dramatically since European contact. The tendency is the same from a global standpoint. Due to the growth of a few world languages like English, French, and Chinese, many smaller languages are vanishing. Romaine writes that "it is estimated that eleven languages are spoke by nearly 70 per cent of the world’s population" (1994, p. 50). The majority of the world's existing languages are minority languages in this regard. It is no wonder that some linguists estimate that the bulk of these languages have slim chances of surviving in the next century.

Language death

One final important linguistic aspect to consider is language death. Language death refers to the loss of a language. Both language shift and language death are caused by a variety of circumstances, including religious and educational backgrounds, migration, attachments to the homeland (in the case of immigrant bilingualism), attitudes of majority and minority language groups, government language and education programs, and more. Language death happens when a regressive minority language becomes the prevailing majority language in an unstable bilingual or multilingual speech community. “A language is said to be dead when no one speaks it anymore. Of course, it may continue to exist in documented form – traditionally in writing" according to Nawaz et al (2012, p. 73). To put it another way, for a language to survive, it must be spoken by fluent speakers. As a result, the destiny of a language is determined by its speakers.

In a multilingual community, there are social reasons for choosing a certain code or variety. In various speech communities, certain social criteria, such as the person spoken to, the social context of the conversation, the function and topic of the discussion turn out to be significant regarding language choice. However, there are often economic, social, and political factors that contribute to language shifts, and people have no choice but to change aspects of their speech in order to advance in their professional and personal lives. Language death can be seen in many communities due to various constraints on language choice, as well as the potential longer-term implications of these choices and although diglossia and code switching are widely cited as contributing reasons to language death, they can also be advantageous in maintaining multilingualism. In many cultures, switching between languages serves an important function, allowing people to avoid potentially difficult circumstances and find common ground through language. The same reasoning applies today, an individual employes all the above-mentioned strategy to define his relationship with different social arenas, thus deciding where to fit in society. As far as language is seen as abstract, it has a practical impact on daily life and its social interactions.

Bibliographical references

Buda, J. K. (1991). Language choice. Otsuma Review, 24, online.

Esen, S. (2019). Code switching: Definition, types, and examples. Owlcation.

Fachriyah, E. (2017). The functions of code switching in an English language classroom. Research Gate.

Ferguson, C. A. (1959). Diglossia. Université de Montréal.

Holmes, J. (2013). An introduction to Sociolinguistics. Books-Library.

Hudson, A. (2002). Outline of a Theory of Diglossia. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 157, 2–4.

Kandler, A., & Steele, J. (2017). Modeling language shift. Pnas.

Lopez Odango, E. (2015). Unravelling language shift and youth perspectives. Unravel.

Mydans, S. (2007). Across cultures, English is the word. The New York Times.

Nawaz, S., Umer, A., Anjum, F., & Ramzan, M. (2012). Language shift: An analysis of factors involved in language shift. Global Journal of Human Social Scienze, Linguistics and Education, 12(10), 72-80. .

Nordquist, R. (2019). What is code switching? ThoughtCo.

Romaine, S. (1994). Language in Society: An Introduction to Sociolinguistics (2nd ed.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

United Language Group. (n.d.). Linguistic code-Switching: What it is and why it happens. United Language Group.

Visual sources

Figure 1: Caveman. (2015). Koran [Photo]. Wallpapercave.

Figure 2: Brockway, E. (2018). Black And Biracial Americans Wouldn’t Need To Code-Switch [Artwork]. Thedailybeast.

Figure 3: Meraji, S. (2020). Words of advice: code switching [Artwork]. Npr.

Figure 4: Unknown. (2018). An Irish-English dictionary [Image]. Wikisource.

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Jessica Vizuette

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