Code switching: benefit or curse?

Code switching is a term widely used by linguists to denote the use of more than one language in conversation.  My children are already adept code switchers: they will start a sentence in English, finish it in Romanian and throw in a few Greek words too for good measure.  I used to think (and linguists in the 50s and 60s agreed with me) that this was a substandard use of language, that it makes children have a ‘smattering of everything, mastery of none’.

Lately, however, I have started to see cultural code-switching as something much more positive.  This is the ability to change smoothly from one range of cultural behaviours to another – in essence, being able to operate in multiple environments and adapt to different audiences and expectations.  A recent article in People Management referred to it in the leadership context as a ‘seamless gear change’.

Note: we are not talking about lack of authenticity here nor about putting on masks to please all and sundry. Instead, we are talking about someone who is comfortable with multiple languages, cultures, leadership styles, ways of thinking and can therefore act as a bridge and translator between the different points of view.  Yes, we may have a default ‘vision of the world’ or a preferred operating style, but the greatest leaders will have a wider repertoire of interpretations and behaviours to fall back upon.

There is one danger here, though.  That people will say: ‘We do not know what this person stands for.  He or she is not consistent. S/he is a slippery customer.  We cannot reduce him or her to just three keywords. S/he is a bit too different…’  And no culture will want to claim you as their own.  Unless you are Mesut Oezil, in which case they will be fighting over you.


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