Code Switching in Indonesian

Last semester, two of my students told me they wanted to interview me for one of their other classes. When we actually sat down for the interview, they told me it was going to be in Indonesian. For the most part it went all right, although of course I didn’t understand everything and had to stop them occasionally to ask for explanations.

Afterward, they told me that the point of the interview had been to study code switching in people who are learning Indonesian. Code switching is when someone who speaks two languages switches between them when talking to another person who also speaks those two languages. Unfortunately for my students, I didn’t exhibit any code switching because they’d told me to speak in Indonesian.

Even when I first got to Indonesia, I subscribed to the idea that if you’re going to speak in Indonesian, then you’re going to speak in Indonesian. It parallels the rule I have in my English classes: speak only in English, all the time, even in side conversations. Outside of class, even to my graduate students, I only use English because it’s my belief that the more they’re exposed to the language and the more they have to process it, the better they’ll be. It only makes sense to do the reverse for me trying to learn Indonesian. Only Indonesian, all the time.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that I definitely use English a lot. If my friends want to practice English, we use English. I figure it’s the only thing I’m good at; I might as well help them. However, I will say that most of my interactions with Indonesians occur in Indonesian (or Javanese), simply because it’s easier than trying to use English. This is the other reason why I don’t exhibit a lot of code switching: no one would understand me if I did use English.

All that said, I’ve realized recently that in certain situations I do do this code switching thing. A lot. I just need someone who can speak enough English. Technically, code switching occurs between two people who are bilingual. I definitely do not consider myself bilingual. I can get by, but hand me a newspaper and I’ll still only have a general idea of what’s going on. Take me to a movie and I’ll understand the plot primarily because of the visual cues. Talk too fast or slur your words too much and I’ll lose you.

So no, not bilingual. But get me someone who’s so good at English that they make up for my deficient Indonesian and this code switching thing starts to happen. The other day, I sent my dance teacher a text message that read, in part, “I’m malas to go alone.” This was not an isolated case. We talk like this all the time, switching out English words for Indonesian words or vice versa. She’s good about letting me use Indonesian if I want to, but often it just takes less words for me to say something in English, so I’ll do that before saying a sentence in Indonesian and then switching back to English again.

Our dance classes sound ridiculous. She’ll say, “No,” and then give me a correction in Indonesian. Or she’ll give me a correction mostly in English except for the adjective, which will be in Indonesian. From the outside, it seems like a crazy mishmash of languages, but the thing is, it makes perfect sense to the two of us. If something doesn’t make sense, the other person will ask about it. Then usually the first person will switch language to repeat whatever was said.

It’s bizarre, but it works. According to my brief internet reading, code switching actually shows a proficiency in the two languages in question, maybe because you have to understand grammar patterns and the more subtle definitions of words. I think in my case it has more to do with laziness. Instead of spending two sentences trying to circumlocute a word, I can just say it in English.

Still, I find it interesting how easy it was to break my only Indonesian rule in this one case. The only other time I find myself mixing languages is when I get too emotionally caught up in a conversation, when I have too many big thoughts to express (I’m still not good at talking about anything beyond the concrete) and end up inserting filler words in English (well, like, um) while I’m trying to process.

And so the language learning continues. Coming soon: What’s going on with my Javanese?


One thought on “Code Switching in Indonesian

  1. Very interesting Zoe. When I try to speak Spanish in my current class, I usually become very fluent in German. So what does that mean? Very exciting that Ian is coming for Christmas. I need your wish list immediately. thanks,a.carol

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