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Coded conversations

  • Published at 05:32 pm October 2nd, 2017
Coded conversations
We live in an increasingly globalised, therefore multi-cultural and multi-lingual, world. For most of the globe, this means speaking English as the second language. Even for the former French, Dutch and other colonies, this holds true. They too speak English. The stubborn Japanese are relenting as well. What results from acquiring two or more languages is what is called ‘code-switching.’ The term in general refers to speaking two or more languages within the context of a single conversation. It’s distinct from merely using foreign words or phrases. Code-switchers seamlessly go back and forth between two languages.

Why people do it

Ten year old Rabib was running around inside the fast food restaurant KFC when he yelled excitedly at his younger brother: “C’mon! We’re gonna chase the bad guys.” His accent and enunciation was purely American as he instructed his sibling to go after invisible villains. Anyone living in Dhaka must have experienced this. The next moment, he switched to his native tongue and spoke in clear Bangla. Code-switching is actually very common among multilinguals. From Puerto Rican New Yorkers to Sylheti Londoners, this is part of their being. Things that motivate code-switching includes a need to fit it and conveying particular thought that is more easily done in one language than the other. But most importantly, it is because when someone internalises a second language, it becomes almost a necessity to communicate through it. Code-switching doesn’t necessarily have to be using two different languages, it can be switching between dialect.

Code-switch shaming

Just as there is always a way when there is a will, there are always puritans when there is diversity. We are all too familiar with the “hoy Bangla bolo, noy English bolo” argument. That kind of conservative logic tells us little about the reality of the situation. A lot of the time, this is misplaced anger and a failure to understand the underlying reasons behind the phenomenon. Apart from anything else, you cannot shame someone out of being multilingual. Linguists found out that someone will learn and speak another language if a) there is a need for it and b) there is an environment in which that language can be spoken. In other words, as long as we learn and internalise English and there are other people alike around us, we will code-switch, no matter how much it annoys the self-appointed vanguards of the Bangla language.

But does it harm our native tongue?

Merely speaking a second language does not marginalise the first language in itself, although in reality, English is not merely a second language. It is the language of our education, it is the language of our entertainment, it is the language of our political commentary, it is the ultimate redeemer from the shame of being 'backwards'. Ultimately, the problem is not how people speak once they go through the mindless system. The question is why we couldn’t create an education system where English can be learned effectively without resorting to rebuilding ourselves in our colonial master’s image.

What is the future?

The future is clearly more and more people comfortably slipping into code-switching, unless we change something. The fact that English can be learned and practiced and even mastered without pushing Bangla completely to the margin is sadly unappreciated by the vast majority of the parents sending their kids to English medium schools. It is undoubtedly the failure of the traditional Bangla medium system, which has failed to teach the English language properly for decades due to its incredibly inefficiency. It should be beyond ridiculous that the Bangla medium schools cannot teach the English language after 12 years of coaching and examinations. Unless we can overhaul the (lack of) schooling system, we are going to end up committing linguistic suicide, when the tragic reality is that we don’t have to.
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