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Arabic-English Code-Switching: a Useful Means of Communication Arab Students at

Universities Resort to in Conversations among Each Other

Samir M Rammal, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor of English

The Department of Languages and Translation

Birzeit University, Palestine

Presented at

Zarqa University, Jordan

March 28-29, 2012

Arabic-English Code-Switching: a Useful Means of Communication Arab University
Students Resort to in Their Conversations


Arab students at universities often find code-switching between Arabic (L1) and English
(L2) a useful means of communication. This phenomenon has been always easily
distinguishable, especially whenever two or more Arab students descending from
different Arab countries converse. Trudgill (1984) discusses language mixing and cites
examples of Mexican-American communities that are bilingual whose verbal repertoires
comprise Spanish and English.

This paper discussed code-switching provided definitions, kinds, intentional and

unintentional causes, and how it can serve as a useful means of communication among
Arab students descending from diverse dialectical Arabic backgrounds. Finally, the paper
will provide illustrating examples from authentic code-switching situations to clarify all
anticipated ambiguities.

Samir M Rammal, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor of English
The Department of Languages & Translation
Birzeit University
E-mail: srammal@birzeit.edu

Arabic-English Code-Switching: a Useful Means of Communication Arab Students at
Universities Resort to in Conversations among Each Other

I. Introduction & Review of Literature

Arab students at universities, in general and “prestigious universities” in
particular, often find code-switching between Arabic (L1) and English (L2) a
useful means of communications to which they usually resort in their
conversations, discussions, and debates. This phenomenon is always easily
distinguishable, especially whenever two or more Arab students coming from
different Arab states converse, or when two or more students studying at a
university, school, or college that uses English as a language of instruction for
all or most of the taught courses. Birzeit University is a vivid example where
this study has been conducted. The aforementioned is not, of course, the only
situation where code-switching and language mixing take place.

The selection of the language the speaker uses in conversation or online

chatting is a vital decision. Such decisions usually leave their impacts
speakers’ performance in all conversations including both face-to-face and
online interaction. Arab university, college, and private schools students alike
are most often affected by code-switching and code-mixing.

In bilingual educational environments like the aforementioned, using code

switching is a frequent practice. Extensive research has been carried out on
using code switching in the classroom as a contextualization cue, as Martin-
Jones (2000) pointed out that such contextualization cue range from
phonological, lexical, and syntactic choices to different types of code
switching and style shifting.

According to Amin (2009) Science education is carried out in the Arab

region in the absence of research-based policies and recommended practices.
Amin added that there are small body of research has considered code
switching in relation to the learning and teaching science.

This study is an investigation into the language attitude and preference

among Birzeit University students toward code switching in normal
conversations using Arabic/English as a medium of communication in day-to-
day interactions between university students especially on campus. The
investigation highlights the speakers' language attitude, including their
perceptions toward the effects that differing language attitudes can have on the
manner they resort to while carrying out such interactions. The medium
currently adopted by a high percentage of Birzeit University students is the
English/Arabic code mixing and code switching.

Code-switching occurs in face-to-face conversations, online chatting, and

on phone calls. Moreover, code-switching is performed both intentionally and
unintentionally depending on a number of factors such as: (1) full knowledge
of and fluency in both languages, (2) the speakers’ social stratification, (3) the
state of being not able to find the appropriate word in L1, (4) the speaker’s
educational background, and many other factors.

Trudgill (1984) discusses language mixing and cites examples of Mexican-

American communities that are bilingual and whose verbal repertoires
comprise Spanish and English. Trudgill quotes the following passage, which
demonstrates the “Presumable subconscious switching” from Gumperz and

I didn’t quit, I just stopped. I mean it wasn’t an effort I made Que voy a
dejar de fumar porque me hace dano o this or that. I used to pull butts out
of the wastepaper basket. I’d get desperate, y ahi voy al basurero a buscar, a
sacar, you know? “The Spanish passages can be translated as: that I’m
going to stop smoking because it’s harmful to me and there I go to the waste-
basket to look for some, to get some.” (Trudgill, 1984: 123)

Ferguson (1959) distinguishes two major varieties of Arabic. Being a highly

diglossic language these varieties are classical Arabic* (=H) ‘al-fusha and
colloquial Arabic (=L) al-‘ammiyyah.
*According to Ferguson’s classifications ‘H’ stands for the high variety
(classical) and ‘L’ stands for low variety (colloquial)

Since most of the conversations take place in informal settings
consequently, Arab students tend to use each their own vernaculars, something
that other students from other Arab states find great difficulty to comprehend.
Hence, code-switching is the only means available to resort to in order to
overcome this hindrance in daily language interaction among them. Mixing
takes place, according to Sridhar (1978), frequently and almost unconsciously
within a single social event. Weinreich (1963: 73) confirms that the ideal
bilingual is an individual “who switches from one language to the other
according to appropriate changes in speech situations (interlocutors, topics,
etc.), but not in unchanged speech situation and certainly not within a single

Thus, it seems that the speaker, simultaneously, activates his knowledge of

the two languages and, skillfully utilizes this knowledge to serve his
communicative purposes during his conversation with others. The examples
below clarify how, unconsciously, two students talking about the spring
semester registration at Birzeit University, code-switch:
S.X.: “biddi as’alak, I’militi registration la-semester el-qadim?”
“I’d like to ask you: have you registered for the coming semester?”
(i.e., Fall Semester, 2011)
S.Y.: “aiwa, i’milt e-registration online la-three courses, bas baa’I
corsein ba’milhum registration el-leili hai ala ritaj.
“Ya, I’ve registered three courses online and will register the remaining two
tonight on RITAJ.” (Ritaj is the University Online Link)

The above examples show that code-switching is not random but rather
rule governed and that it has a communicative purpose. As we can notice from
the examples, the use of the colloquial Arabic sound ‘La-‘ in “la-semester”,
‘e-‘ in “e-registration”, and ‘la-‘ in “la-three” serves to substitute the definite
article ‘the’. In code-switching this kind of shift serves to clarify the intended
or “illocutionary” meaning (Crystal, 1983: 179). Moreover, it smoothens both
the structure and tone of the utterance.

Thus, as a rule governed phenomenon, code-switching cannot be applied at

any place within the utterance. There is a tendency to switch at boundaries of

major syntactic categories, such as noun phrase, verb phrase, and prepositional
phrase (Sridhar& Sridhar 1980; Poplack, 1979). However, if the two languages
involved in code-switching differ with respect to the order of placement of
items, switching is not allowed between these items. In Arabic, for example, an
adjective modifier of noun usually, is placed after the modified noun, while in
English the case is extremely the opposite. This means that adjective + noun
combination are always spoken in L1. Therefore, speakers do not produce
code-switching which may involve similar situations.

II. The study:

In the following case-study, I shall try to analyze a transcribed extract
excerpted from a tape recorded conversation which takes place among three
Arabs. Two of them are students at BZU and the third is a Palestinian-
American studying Arabic in the Palestinian Arabic Studies Program at BZU
as well. The Palestinian-American and student ‘1’ have spent enough longer in
the USA than student ‘2’ who has never left the West Bank except to visit her
relative for a short duration in Jordan. The three of them speak both Arabic and
English quite fluently. The former, being their native language, is their medium
for communication; the latter, being a second language, serves as an auxiliary
vehicle to which they frequently switch. The setting is S.I.’s apartment. The
data have been covertly
Obtained, and I have played the role of the participant observer all through. To
be honest, I had to reveal the whole process at the end of the recoding.
Consequently, I have been requested to delete every word after transcribing the
extract which I am going to use for this project.

III. Definitions of Code Switching:

There are different definitions for code switching suggested by researchers,
for example Gemperz’s (1982, p. 59), defined code switching as “the
juxtaposition within the same speech exchange of passages of speech
belonging to two different grammatical systems of subsystems." Myers-
Scotton's (2006, p. 239) general definition of code switching is “the use of two
languages varieties in the same conversation”. A related concept to code
switching is code mixing. Researches often distinguish between the two terms.

One of the differences between the two terms is the way each of them is used
as proposed by Muysken (2000) in that code switching is used for cases in
which the two codes maintain their monolingual features, while code- mixing
is used for cases where there is some convergence between the two languages.
On the other hand, Myers-Scotton (1993) differentiates between the two terms,
stating that code switching occurs when bilinguals alternate between two
languages during one interaction with another bilingual person while code
mixing is the use of words, affixes, phrases and clauses from more than one
language within the same sentences. In this study a frequent occurrence of
code switching is evident in the context of the normal conversations between
English and Arabic among students on Birzeit University campus and in online
chatting, in which English is the common foreign language for the students.

I. Data Analysis:
1. Quantitative Categorization
In analyzing the data, I have adopted basic statistical computations
presented in simple tables that are meant to serve as concrete references to be
consulted while reading this paper. The statistics used in this project also shed
light on the quantitative analysis of code-switching in conversations of Arab
students who study at universities, a situation that may quantitatively vary if
the same persons were conversing with uneducated people or family members.
This difference will be dealt with later in this paper under the title ‘Social
Constraint’ imposed on code-switching. Mixture of Arabic and English,
whether in isolated loan words or in code-switching of clauses and sentences,
while socially motivated, is subject to clear linguistic constraints. Quantitative
analysis of switching in conversations as measured by the number of words of
Mexican-Americans suggests specific functional constraints to express tense/
aspect/ mood and subject/ object relationships (Pfaff, 1976). As shown in table
1, the majority of the talk has been carried out in ‘L1’ and less quantity in ‘L2’.
For example, (74.20%) of the conversation occurred in Arabic and (25.80%) in


Speakers Total Words # Speeches # Arabic Words # English
Words #
S.1 78 4 59 19
S.2 29 2 25 4
S.3 48 4 31 17
Total 155 10 115 40
Percentage 74.20% 25.80%

III.2 Syntactic Categorizations

In an analysis of Spanish-English code-switching of eighteen bilingual born in the

USA from Mexican origin, (Lindholm and Padilla,1978) computed the distribution of the
shifts over various parts of speech, ( i.e., nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions,
etc.). Table 2 shows two major types of categories where I identify: single-word shifts
(called lexical partial shifts) and phrasal shifts (noun phrases, verb phrases, and adverbial

Lexical words involve the introduction of a single word from L2 into the utterance
in L1, while phrasal shifts include the insertion into an utterance of a phrase from L2 into


A: Lexical Shifts B: Phrasal Shifts

Category Shifts # % Categories Shifts # %
Nouns 6 30 Noun phrases 5 25
Verbs - - Verb phrases 5 25
Adjectives 1 5 Adverbial phrases 1 5
Articles 2 10
Total 9 45% Total 11 55%

III.3 Discussion of the Above Categories

A close scrutiny of table 2 above shows that phrasal shifts (55%) occur more
frequently than single-word shifts (45%) and that in both categories nouns and noun
phrases are the most frequent (30%) and (25%). This result shows that noun categories are
the most frequent target for code-switching users. Moreover, the analysis presented above
confirms that code-switching is not random; on the contrary, it is rather rule-governed.

These findings partially contradict Lindholm and Padilla (1978), whose sample
indicates that one-word mixes are more common than phrasal mixes, but it lends support
to their findings that nouns and noun phrases are the highest frequency followed by
adverbs and then other categories such as connectors. Sridhar & Sridhar (1980) found that
adult subjects use noun mixes most frequently.

II. Constraints on Code-switching:

According to Bokamba (1988), the ultimate objective of syntactic constraints in

the code-switching research paradigm that began in the mid 1970s is to provide a
characterization of what a possible ‘grammatical sentence’ is in code-switching
speech. Several hypotheses have been advanced to account for the production of well-
formed code-switching sentences. The general agreement here is that the production
of such sentences is governed by certain rules that have careful consideration for the
structure of both ‘L1’ and ‘L2’. These rules are assumed to apply at the syntactic level
and may extend to the morphological level. Studies of code-switching (Trudgill, 1986;
Pfaff, 1979; Sridhar & Sridhar, 1980; Poplack, 1980; and Bokamba, 1988) present
several constraints on code-switching. These constraints vary from the size of the
constituent constraint, the conjunction constraint, the adjectival phrase constraint, the
free morpheme vs. bound morpheme constraint to the social-cultural constraint.

IV.1. Size of the Constituent Constraint:

This constrain derives from a more general prohibition that restricts the occurrence
of code-switching to phrase structure boundaries (Poplack 1980). It states that higher-
level constituents or smaller constituents other than nouns, e.g. verbs, adjectives and
adverbs, Poplack (1980).

As we have noticed from the simple computation presented in tables 1 & 2, the most
frequent code-switching occurs on the phrase and noun phrase levels- something
which totally agrees with Poplack’s statements.

IV.2. Conjunction and Definite Article Constraints:

The extract that I have analyzed does not comprise any examples that violate the
conjunction constraints, but it does include two examples where there is a violation of the
definite article constraint.

1. Yimkin irhaq aw ‘3dam akil khusu:san al-breakfast…

“It could be fatigue, or not having breakfast.”


2. huwi kan yuhduth ma'3i qabil ma aji min li-States.

“This used to happen to me before I came from the States.”

In the case of conjunctions they can occur in code-switching utterances such as:

3. bnuhdar muhadarat at 8 o'clock and bnoktob notes.

“We attended the 8 o'clock lecture and we wrote notes.”

Bentahila & Davis (1983) found examples from Arabic-French code-switching data that
support this constraint and others that violate it.

IV.3. Adjectival phrase constraint:

This kind of constraint does not give space to switching of adjectives and nouns
within a noun phrase. Adjective/noun switching 'must match the surface word of both the
language of the adjective and the language of head noun." Pfaff (1979:306)

The following example from the analyzed text clarifies how an English adjective (serious)
modifies an Arabic noun (Hadeeth), meaning ‘talk’.

4. yithar il-hadeeth sar kteer serious.

“It seems that the talk is getting very serious.”

IV.4. Free/Bound Morpheme Constraint

The constraint states that "codes may be switched after any constituent in a discourse
provided that the constituent is not a bound morpheme." (Poplack 1980: 585-86)

It is true that the most frequent shifts occur on the free morpheme level, but still we can
find a number of violations for this constraint in situations where code-switching takes
place between Arabs and English. The following are representative examples of the above

5. ….3nd ma arrooh 3li-classes…

“... whenever I go to classes ...”

6. li-breakfast

“The breakfast”

7. qabl ma aji min li-States

“Before I came from the States”

The three examples illustrate how bound morphemes in 'Ll' are mixed up with free
morphemes in 'L2'.

IV.5. Translation constraint:

This constraint has always been a debatable issue between Arab traditional and
modern linguists who have never agreed on a unified formula in which foreign terms
could be easily accommodated in Arabic. For example, technical and many others have
always been rejected by traditional Arab linguists to be adopted in "H" Arabic.
Consequently, Arab linguists have, desperately been trying to find suitable equivalents for
such terms. For example, the word television has been translated in different Arabic
forms; none of these forms, successfully, expresses the exact connotation of the original
"tilfaz", "al- jihaz a masmoo'", "al-mar'I" etc.

Speakers of Arabic resort to the transliteration process in their day-to-day conversation.
Examples from the analyzed text are:

"daktoar" for "Doctor"

"asbireen" for "aspirin".

IV.6. Social Constraints:

Table 1 reflects how effective the social constraints are. For instance, we notice that S.1
takes the lion's share in the conversation (78 words). He, also, initiates the conversation,
while the others' participation proportionally increases or decreases according to the
degree of intimacy that may exist among the group. The Palestinian-American, who
knows the host before, feels more at home than S.2 does. Therefore, the social and
cultural environments as well as the relationships which are based on social contact have a
great role in conversations.

Table1 also shows that 25.80% English words have been used in the conversation, a
relatively high percentage indicating the great influence of L2 on the speech of students
who, being at Birzeit University where English is almost the language of instruction, feel
freer to resort to code-switching than at other universities where Arabic is the language of
instruction. If one imagines these students having the same conversation in another
environment, the results would be extremely different, (i.e., code-switching would
perhaps be avoided so as to avoid social criticism by other members in the society). I
recall that, I have been criticized twice by my colleagues in the Arabic department at the
university where I previously used to teach for the simple reason that I used code--

III. Conclusion and Suggestions

This research paper is a mild attempt at shedding light on certain categories in code-
switching that takes place in everyday interaction among Arab students studying at

Birzeit University. As it has been illustrated from the analyzed example, code-switching
does not occur randomly. On the contrary, it is a rule-governed process which is intended
to serve a communicative purpose. Whether it occurs on the single-word level, the phrase,
level, the clause level, or at the sentence level, code-switching remains a regular
phenomenon that we notice in Arab students' conversations.

One may conclude that: (a) nouns and noun phrases are the most frequent in
Arabic-English code-switching, and (b) there are a number of constraints that are imposed
on code-switching. Some of these constraints have been maintained and others have been

In spite of the, somehow, enthusiastic research works that have been conducted in
the phenomenon of code-switching, more could yet be done, especially with regard to
Arabic-English code-switching. Finally, I wish to see more research done on the influence
of the social, cultural, and may be religious constraints on Arabic English code-switching.


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