Code‑Switching Isn’t a Shame or Pretense — It’s Survival
A new accent or dialect isn’t cultural betrayal, but cultural gain.
In an episode of Koffee With Karan Season 3 (2010), actress Kareena Kapoor asked rather meanly “where [actress] Priyanka Chopra got her [American] accent from?” Then, in a 2017 interview with People Magazine, Chopra recalled requests she received to use an Indian accent at a Hollywood audition “‘I am speaking in my Indian accent. This is how we speak in modern India!” she said.
Chopra, who’d both studied abroad and learned diction to prepare for Miss World, currently speaks globalized, accent-less English – far different from what most Indians in modern India use. For her Bollywood movies, Chopra spoke Hindi or Indian-accented English, and for her role in Quantico or other Hollywood movies, Chopra used slightly American-accented English. This sort of code-switching is employed by actors everywhere to adapt to a role, but Chopra gets flak for hers because her non-Indian accent is seen as an abandonment of her roots. Conversely, actress Deepika Padukone, who (with great pride) kept her Indian accent steady regardless of global or local projects, received flak, because she sounded ‘too Indian.’ For Indians in the global spotlight, this is routine criticism — there’s never a perfect way to sound Indian.
Although people in the spotlight often get harangued for sounding ‘too Indian’ or ‘not Indian enough,’ the practice of altering between multiple languages, dialects or accents according to context is no unique feat. Multilingual people routinely slip into their mother-tongues when they feel discomfort, danger or want to make a point without another party finding out.
Code-switching helps people navigate the world because using multiple, different ‘codes’ help people bond better, communicate better, and get what they need done. When NPR launched ‘Code Switch,’ a blog covering race, ethnicity and gender, they solicited stories on how people shifted the languages they spoke to express themselves better. One of the instances was about an American woman trying to fit in when she lived in Ireland.
She told NPR, “We lived in Ireland some years ago and noticed there were often two prices for goods and services: reasonable prices for the locals, and much more expensive costs for [Americans]. It was not easy, but I practiced my Irish accent until we qualified for ‘local pricing.’ Still, they would often ask me where I was from, as my accent was anything but flawless. But I’d come up with the name of some obscure town hundreds of miles away, which explained my ‘odd’ Irish accent and usually satisfied them. Once, to my “Ack, I’m from dahn twards Clara Bog,” the guy responded in Gaelic. I had no idea what he was saying. I continued to smile, laugh, and nod at what I hoped were appropriate times, as he excitedly talked on and on. I pulled my wallet out to pay for my my flowers, and he held up his hands, “No, me lass, keep yer money. ’twas a pleasure speakin’ to ya.”
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This particular use for code-switching is highly popular with those from marginalized backgrounds trying to make it in a professional atmosphere where the language and behavior is drastically different from what they are comfortable with at home. The Tampa Bay Times profiled young black Americans for whom code-switching helped break stereotypes that threatened to impede their career growth. Writer and poet AT McWilliams wrote in The Guardian that “from navigating job interviews to ingratiating oneself with clientele, there are countless reasons people of color code-switch in white spaces (though) historically, code-switching has served as a defense against linguistic discrimination: a form of bias that is partially implicit.”
In India, code-switching is rife, especially in metropolitan cities, where people alternate between languages at rapid fire speed, for good reason. Tones change from those reserved for parents to those reserved for the house help to those reserved for the friends, in a matter of minutes. While those who come from pedigreed educations manage this with ease, those transitioning into competitive workplaces or peer groups from vernacular-focused education find it harder, often being judged by the elites for starting their sentences with ‘myself,’ rather than saying ‘I am’ or typing ‘lyk dis.’
Often, when one code-switches to disguise class difference, it becomes a perennial act of catching up. In Amazon Prime’s Made In Heaven, the protagonist Tara assimilates perfectly among Delhi’s rich crowd, having been raised and trained her entire life to do so. Whereas another character, Jaspreet, is leagues behind while trying to accomplish the same goal. When she introduces herself as ‘Jazz’ in her very first scene, it is a clear tell at her attempt to code-switch, earning derision from her immediate boss, rather than positive interest.
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Though code-switching is one of the most prominent and positive displays of multiculturalism, it also seems to the be the most mistrusted by the cultures that use it the most. In Netflix romantic comedy Always Be My Maybe,Sasha Tran’s (Ali Wong) childhood friend Marcus accuses her of not being herself by serving ‘elevated Asian cuisine.’ The refurbishing of ethnic cuisines as ‘elevated,’ by virtue of plating and branding is also a form of code-switching. He says, “I don’t know why you’re doing this kind of stuff now…It’s not authentic. Asian food shouldn’t be served in a shot glass. It should be served in a big-ass bowl. You’re just catering to rich white people.”
While code-switching works extremely well at the workplace and at home, if someone is caught mid mid-code-switch, they’re immediately seen as a poser because the illusion of balance and control is broken. The code-switcher often cannot explain why they have subconsciously adapted, fueling further distrust. Revealing the truth — that either side is not good enough for the other — would cause defensiveness and further dislike.
The relationship between language and identity is perhaps the root cause for the dislike and distrust that stems from a code-switching discrepancy. Most often, language is a major identifier of who a person is, where they come from and what culture they see as home. Beyond this, language is also a socioeconomic factor, with some languages dominating how communication is carried out while others slowly die out. So, when a person chooses a dominant language like English and speaks it in a way that erases their cultural marker, it translates almost like a betrayal to those who grew up in the same environment as them.
This insecurity and dislike, though rooted in surprise and derision at having one’s own culture declared inferior, is no reason to lash out at those trying to fit in; the motives for code-switching are more nuanced and complex. Questions like “what accent is that?” or “why are you using your white voice” raise self-consciousness and then attach shame to a perceived implicit choice of one culture over another. This line of questioning is designed to condescendingly bring someone back to their roots, rather than to prompt introspection. It exists to make people feel as if they’ve made a mistake by assimilating. Even if the idea of being authentically ‘yourself’ sounds romantic, it also can present a subtle social or professional risk. In Always Be My Maybe, perhaps Chef Sasha Tran could only stop code-switching and embrace her roots fully because she was a celebrity chef with enough clout to get away with it.
Code-switching, while still controversial, has been a secret balm for the multiple anxieties of those who do not perfectly fit in. While it sometimes subconsciously pushes the idea that some cultures are ‘better’ than others, it also creates more diverse, globally mobile individuals. Maybe it is time to embrace the assortment of multiple languages, dialects and accents that make up an individual as a part of their journey, rather than yet another manifestation of age-old insecurities.
Aditi Murti is a culture writer at The Swaddle. Previously, she worked as a freelance journalist focused on gender and cities. Find her on social media @aditimurti.