A look into the melange of language
‘Yo no se que vas a hacer but you need to get your shit together, because a mi no me vas a tratar como ninguna otra pendeja, estúpido!'[i]. This intuitive, smooth movimiento between languages is code-switching. In particular, this is what Shana Poplack terms ‘intimate’ or ‘intrasentential’ code-switching, when the switching occurs within a single sentence. Code-switching is a lovemaking of languages, it is a wet red bifurcated tongue, flowing, joyful, dangerous. Peligrosa for those who feel threatened by other languages and by linguistic change and merging; for xenophobes and purists. As Gloria Anzaldúa writes: ‘Even our own people, other Spanish speakers nos quieren poner candados en la boca. They would hold us back with their bag of reglas de academia‘[ii]. Pero code-switching is a linguistic reality that needs to be acknowledged and celebrated. All over the world, people are code-switching cada día: for instance between Tamil-English in Sri Lanka, Arabic-French in Morocco, Finish-English in Finland, Catalan-Spanish in Catalonia. This essay will focus on code-switching between English-Spanish using my own poetic practice and personal experience, specifically within the context of creative writing workshops in the UK, to comment on the practice and its reception.
I began code-switching between English and my native languages, Catalan (my mother tongue) and Spanish, in my poetry during my undergraduate degree. There was code-switching in my poetry dissertation and the feedback that I received troubled me. The marker suggested that I research the vocabulary spoken in my native valley (La Cerdanya), that I experiment with definition poems and hybrid words. To me, this suggested that I make code-switching the theme of my work, in this way making it more appealing and niche, understandable and non-threatening, for monolingual English speakers. Pero code-switching for me is how the speakers in my work most pleasurably express themselves as well as a language that is apt to address any topic. The feedback continued to argue that the meaning of the non-English words could have been more blended and precisely evoked in the English. En otras palabras, that I could have made the non-English language understandable for the monolingual readers so as not to challenge them significantly. Pero I am not interested in sustaining monolingual complacency. The marker believed that my native languages enlivened and enriched familiar English words. Pero, in my work, Catalan and Spanish are never there to serve the English language but rather to coexist with it.
Así que I began researching for works that code-switched and in this way came across Latina and particularly Chicana literature. I read Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands / La Frontera, where she examines the US-Mexican border, which she describes as ‘una herida abierta’, and uses it as a source to examine other types of borderlands, such as sexual, psychological and social. She argues for a third space, a new consciousness, which must be created between dualities, breaking them down and allowing for the straddling of two or more cultures. This is what code-switching is, choosing or allowing for both languages, both cultures, and in this way creating a third that contains all of you. La Frontera was banned by the Arizona Tucson Unified School District, which bans Mexican American studies from its public schools. Ay, the perceived threat. How Chicanas choosing all of themselves, being proud of who they are, finding strength in their cultures and choosing to brillar scares Anglo xenophobes, misogynists and racists. Anzaldúa writes:
Until I am free to write bilingually and to switch codes without having always to translate, while I still have to speak English or Spanish when I would rather speak Spanglish, and as long as I have to accommodate the English speakers rather than having them accommodate me, my tongue will be illegitimate [iii].
Spanglish, described by Ilan Stavans as ‘the verbal encounter between Anglo and Hispano civilizations’ [iv], is a linguistic reality that has been flourishing particularly in the US, which is expected to be the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world in a few decades. It is a language that is continually criticised particularmente by linguistic prescriptivists and purists. As the Venezuelan artist Willie DeVille indicates, ‘nuestro Spanglish no les gusta pero cómo les entretiene’. Es un lenguaje que manifests linguistic change, possibility and creatividad. But volviendo al extract, it is this felt need to accommodate the English speakers that can restrict the writing by bilingual authors, who might seek to please this monolingual audience as well as feel the need to accommodate for mainstream presses. For instance, we might feel pushed to use Spanish as a commodity in our texts instead of using it in a more intuitive manner. This can prevent the creation of exciting and freeing bilingual work, such as Giannina Braschi’s Yo-Yo Boing!, Susana Chávez-Silverman’s Killer Crónicas or Karina Lickorish Quinn’s ‘Spanglish’:
¿Have you ever alguna vez mordido your lengua? Duele like una mierda fucker. El impaling de tu tongue on your diente stings like una picadura de un maldito escorpión del infierno. ¡Madre mía! I did it el otro día while I was comiendo rice, totalmente oblivious to el hecho que mis dientes wanted to amputar my lengua from my head [v].
A space for works that code-switch needs to be made within mainstream presses. Porque I believe the potential audience is there: both the monolingual audience willing to meet us halfway and the millions of bilingual Spanish-English speakers living all over the world (nearly 12 million in the US) who are able to fully understand these texts. The extract above is an example of radical, unapologetic code-switching that can provide pleasure to the bilingual reader, who is able to read a literary text in their language. Reading the texts mentioned above, I was unaware of the switches between both languages porque mi brain functions already overlapping the grammars and lexicon of my languages and in this way code-switching becomes the most instinctive way of communicating. Así que we need to work for a literary scene and world at large where multilingual writers feel free to let their linguistic impulses be represented on the page, to tell our own stories in our own language if we wish to. As Tom Leonard affirmed, ‘all livin language is sacred’ [vi].
During my Creative Writing MA también, some of the feedback that I received for my work troubled me. It suggested that I ‘simplify [my] language, spell it out for the reader’. Pero I am not interested in chewing the Spanish language and cultural references in my work for the monolingual English speaker. That some readers expect to gain easy access to our languages and cultures, for their benefit and without being challenged, expresses complacent monolingualism and an imperialist way of engaging with other cultures. It was also suggested that my code-switching be more ‘controlled’ or, en otras palabras, that I should control my selves, focus on English, behave. Pero I choose to write genuinely, intuitively and freely, which means to write with all of my languages. When one thinks and speaks, as well as writes their diary and personal notes, code-switching between their lenguas on a daily basis, it becomes absurd and violent having to choose one as their writing language or having to force them separate in their writing. It was suggested that English and Spanish should become ‘two voices in conversation’ in my work. They are not two voices but one voice, my voice, together with Catalan.
Despite having discussed my languages in class, there was sometimes an unawareness of which languages I used as well as confusion with other languages, such as Portuguese, in the feedback. This lack of listening made me feel alienated in the workshops. També it was argued that some words and lines ‘could be in English’, that I should only use Spanish if ‘it’s just impossible to express any other way’, that sometimes the switch to Spanish felt ‘lazy’, as if I did not know how to express it in English and did not make the effort to translate. Ay. Here are two common misconceptions about code-switching: that it is a strategy instead of a mode and that it happens due to a lack of sufficient knowledge of one or both of the languages. Sí, some lines could be in English, and could be in Japanese, but they are not. When someone is communicating code-switching, they are not deciding every few seconds what to say in each language but rather they are switching instinctively. It is not a strategy to, for instance, enhance or exoticize one of the languages or to achieve specific linguistic effects. It is a mode, a language in itself, and, as Shana Poplack affirmed, it is ‘a verbal skill requiring a large degree of linguistic competence in more than one language, rather than a defect arising from insufficient knowledge of one or the other’ [vii].
Code-switching is a crucial political act. It is an act of resistance in an era where complacent monolingualism and nationalism linked to a single hegemonic language continue to grow. It is a way of challenging xenophobic movements such as the English-only movement in the US as well as language purists and prescriptive language institutions. A la mierda any language restriction, prescription or control. Vamos a continuar to respect, support and celebrate all living language on Earth, to welcome linguistic change and merging, to celebrate and support multilingualism and language learning. We will speak our languages next to you. We will let our wet vermelles tongues bailar. Aquí estamos y vamos a continuar codeswicheando.
i. website link
ii. Gloria Anzaldúa. 2007. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: aunt lute books)
iv. Ilan Stavans. 2003. Spanglish (New York: Harper Collins)
v. website link
vi. website link
vii. Shana Poplack. 1979. ‘”Sometimes I’ll start a sentence in Spanish Y TERMINO EN ESPAÑOL”: toward a typology of code-switching’.
Laia Sales Merino is a poet from the Catalan Pyrenees. She is currently based in London. In her poetry, the English language coexists with Catalan and Spanish. Her work can be found in Ambit, Anthropocene, I’ll Show you Mine Journal and the UEA 2019 Poetry Anthology among others.