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Review of  Code-switching

Reviewer: Valentina Carbonara
Book Title: Code-switching
Book Author: Baban Mohamed
Publisher: Peter Lang AG
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Linguistic Theories
Language Acquisition
Subject Language(s): German
Kurdish, Northern
Issue Number: 26.1817

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


The book is an empirical study on the phenomenon of code-switching, based on collected data from pre-school bilingual Kurdish-German children in Austria. The research, which is a modified version of the author’s MA thesis, focuses on both linguistic and sociolinguistic perspectives and it addresses two main questions: how do bilingual Kurdish-German children combine the two languages, and how do extra-linguistic factors influence code-switching? The next section provides a brief summary of the book’s ten chapters.

In Chapter 1, the author provides a historical review of different definitions and interpretations of bilingualism, from the stricter Bloomfield definition, which describes bilingualism as a native-like control of both languages (Bloomfield, 1933), but more recently scholars have formulated broader definitions. Grosjean (2008) defined a bilingual person as an individual with a unique linguistic and cultural configuration who has developed a communicative competence in two languages or in a third system of mixed speech that meets his or her everyday communicative needs. Bilingualism has been classified according to various criteria, such as age of language acquisition and proficiency level in both languages. By addressing the competence of the speaker in the two languages, we can distinguish between balanced bilingualism and semilingualism, which is the main focus of this study. Semilingualism refers to migrants’ children having only partial knowledge of both community and home language.

Chapter 2 introduces the key concept of the book, code-switching, providing several definitions and classifications. Broadly defined, code-switching (CS) is the alternating use of two languages in the same stretch of discourse by a bilingual speaker. The author compares CS to other language contact phenomena such as code mixing, borrowing, interference and transfer, in order to clarify to the reader what the study counts as CS. While CS is defined as intersentential switching from one language to another, code-mixing is defined as an intrasentential switching (Ritchie and Bathia, 2004). However the author underlines the disagreement in academic literature about the distinction between CS and code-mixing: some researchers prefer using the definition of CS for intrasentential switch instead of code-mixing (Romaine, 1989). Borrowing refers to the introduction of a single word, or a short phrase, from one variety and its assimilation into the grammatical system of the other language (Gumperz, 1982); interference involves morpho-syntactic structures from two languages, but lexical materials from only one of them (Musyken, 2004); and transfer can be regarded as the introduction of an unintegrated lexical unit not adapted to the phonology or grammar of the receiving language (Auer, 2000). The chapter presents a classification of CS into three types: tag-switching, intersentential switching and intrasentential switching (Romaine, 1989) and it ends by focusing on this last type and describing the processes of insertion, alternation and congruent lexicalization involved in intrasentential code-switching (Muysken, 2000).

Chapter 3-5 establish a theoretical background in order to provide readers some notions to interpret the outcomes of the study. The author explores the linguistic constraints on CS. Most investigators appear to agree that intrasentential code-switches are not distributed randomly in a sentence, but that CS is rule-governed and subjected to syntactic constraints (Poplack, 1988). The author provides some particular and general constraints and principles, based on word order or the morphological class of switched material. The chapter focuses in particular on one specific theoretical model of CS: the Matrix Language Frame Model by Myers-Scootton (1993). This model offers a framework to identify the Matrix Language and the Embedded Language in a sentence containing code-switching. The matrix language is the more dominant language, which sets the grammatical frame into which morphemes from another language can be embedded, and the embedded language is the less dominant language, which mainly supplies lexical elements.Then the author considers the social and psychological factors involved in CS. The author recounts the ‘we code’ and ‘they code’ concepts of Gumperz (1982), which refer to the ethnic language of a bilingual community and the language of the society within which the community lives, and the Markedness model, proposed by Myers-Scotton (1988), that provides a general theoretical explanation of the sociolinguistic and pragmatic aspects of CS. In Chapter 5 the author explains the term “speech community” and provides different definitions. In early studies, this concept referred to people who shared the same language, but, recently, sociolinguistics have emphasized social norms of the community related to the use of language and stated that speech community can also refer to a group of people who do not speak the same language (Romaine, 1994).

Chapter 6 introduces the case study of the book. The data source of the study is the Kurdish immigrant community in Austria, which is rather small compared to the other ethnic communities in Austria.The demographics of this population are unstable and difficult to quantify statistically, because Kurdish people come from different Middle Eastern countries (Backus, 2004). The author explains the main features of Kurdish language, focusing on the dialect on which the study is based, the Sorani sub-dialect of South Kurmanji, also called Sulaimaniya Kurdish. Since the study is on Kurdish-German CS, the chapter describes selected linguistic aspects of Kurdish in comparison to German, such as noun and personal pronoun inflection, verb conjugation, negation, word order, pro-drop parameter, gender distinction, and nominal, verbal and prepositional phrases.

Chapter 7 presents the methods of observation and the data collection process. The subjects of the study are 12 pre-school bilingual children, aged 2 to 6, born and raised in Austria by Kurdish parents. The type of observation applied is tape recordings of spontaneous speech, without assigning specific topics of conversation. The tape recordings took place in different situations, such as the family home during daily interaction or in the playground. The corpus of data includes five recordings of different length, from 40 minutes to 180 minutes.

Chapter 8 analyses Kurdish-German intrasentential CS. Data reveal that firstly, nouns, and then verbs, are the most frequently switched categories in intrasentential switches. In intra-word switches the most recurrent category is German nouns in combination with Kurdish inflectional morphemes, followed by German verb in combination with Kurdish operator. Many other studies on CS find that the noun is the most frequently switched category (Poplack, 1980; Romanie, 1989; Myers-Scotton, 1993) and the data confirms this assumption, since 55% of all the switches fall in this category. The data of this study show the addition of Kurdish suffixes to German lexemes. This process of Kurdish morphological affixation to German can be observed in number and definitiveness inflection and in possessive pronoun suffixes. The author highlights that, in this case, the German nouns cannot be regarded as borrowed words from German into Kurdish, because these words have not been phonologically assimilated into Kurdish; rather, the German nouns have been embedded in the morphological inflection pattern of Kurdish. In intra-word CS, the data reveal German lexical items in combination with the Kurdish operator ‘krdn’ –“to do”, which creates Kurdish-German compound-like verbs. Similar bilingual compound verbs have been found in the CS literature (Appel and Muysken, 1987), but what distinguishes these German-Kurdish compound verbs is the behavior of the operator as an inflectional morpheme. The operator ‘krdn’ has been used with German infinitive forms and with nouns, as well as creating productive constructions, which sometimes would be ungrammatical, even in monolingual Kurdish.

In Chapter 9, the data collected are discussed with respect to the main linguistics constraints and to the Myers-Scotton’s Matrix Language Frame. In the data of the study, 60% of all the intrasentential switches violate the free morpheme constraint (Poplack, 2000) as switches occurred between a free German morpheme and one or more Kurdish bound morphemes, and a great number of switches violate the equivalence constraint, where switches occur at points where the relative word order is not shared by the two languages. The data are analyzed to explain which constituents are switched, and the data confirm Joshi’s hypothesis (1985) that closed-class items do not switch. The author tested the Morpheme Order Principle and the System Morpheme Principle of Myers-Scotton’s Matrix Language Frame Model, providing evidence of the validity of these theoretical assumptions from the study data.

Chapter 10 provides analysis of functional factors on the CS data of the study. Data show that the common codes of communication within the community are Kurdish and German, with a slight dominance of Kurdish. In Gumperz’s terms, Kurdish is the ‘we code’ of the first generation of speakers, namely parents, and German is the ‘we code’ of the second generation, namely children. The data also indicate that, since each two codes are indexical of the speaker’s position in the right and obligation balance, speakers have two identities and want to make two different rights and obligations sets simultaneously.


The book is relevant for all those interested in bilingualism and language contact phenomena. With his research on Kurdish-German pre-school bilingual children, Baban Mohamed has made an original contribution to the field, considering the general lack of focus on children’s bilingualism and, in particular, on the two languages involved in the study, Kurdish and German, a combination which is rarely discussed in academic literature. What makes this research innovative is the discussion of the data with respect to the main linguistic constraints and with the hypothesis of Myers-Scotton’s Matrix Language Frame model. The author provides a significant number of switches which strongly violate both the universal Free Morpheme Constraints and the Equivalence Constraint, while he presented several examples which support the claim of universality of Myers-Scotton’s Matrix Language Frame Model.

Despite its strengths, I would make some observations about certain weaknesses of the book. The study encompasses diverse definitions and theories about bilingualism and code-switching from a linguistic and sociolinguistic point of view, but the theoretical introduction would have been more relevant if the author had provided more recent literature references. Indeed, the book is fairly short and the addition of a more consistent account of previous research would have made it more accessible to the reader. Chapters 4 and 5 are extremely brief and rather inadequate to sustain the subsequent sociolinguist analysis of the data.

The evidence offered in support of the author’s conclusions is significant, but he should have provided more data: the corpus of samples is formed by five recordings and, even considering the research as qualitative case study, the book would have been more relevant if Mohamed had provided more examples to corroborate his theories. In particular, the analysis of the functional factors in Chapter 10 could have been more emphasized and, even if the author himself states that the study is not devoted to sociolinguistic aspects.


Appel, Rene / Muysken, Pieter (1987) Language Contact and Bilingualism. Great Britain: Routledge.

Backus, Ad (2004) Turkish as an Immigrant Language in Europe, in: Bhatia, Tej K. /Ritchie, William C. (eds.) The Handbook of Bilingualism. USA, UK, Australia: Blackwell, 689-724.

Bloomfield, Leonard (1933) Language. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Grosjean, F. (2008). Studying Bilinguals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gumperz, John Joseph (1982) Discourse Strategies. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Joshi, Aravind K. (1985) Processing of sentences with intrasentential code switching, in: Dowty, David R. / Karttunen, Lauri / Zwickly, Arnold M. (1985) Natural Language Parsing: Psychological, Computational, and Theoretical Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 190-205.

Muysken, Pieter (2000) Bilingual Speech: A typology of Code-mixing. UK: Cambridge University Press.

Musyken, Pieter (2004) Two Linguistic System in Contact: Grammar, Phonology and Lexicon, in: Bhatia, Tej K. /Ritchie, William C. (eds.) The Handbook of Bilingualism. Usa, UK, Australia: Blackwell, 147-168.

Myers-Scotton, Carol (1993) Social Motivations for Codeswitching: Evidence from Africa. Unites States: Oxford University Press.

Myers-Scotton, Carol (1988) Code Switching as Indexical of Social Negotiation, in: Heller, Monica / Fishman, Joshua A. (eds.). Codeswitching Anthropological and Sociolinguistic Perspective. Amsterdam: Mouton de Gruyter, 151-186.

Poplack, Shana (1980) Sometimes I’ll start a sentence in Spanish y termino en espanol: Toward a typology of code-switching, Linguistics, 18, 581-618.

Poplack, Shana (1988) Contrasting patterns of code-switching in two communities, in: Heller, Monica /Fishman, Joshua A. (eds.), Code-switching: Anthropological and Sociolinguistic Perspective. Berlin, New York, Amsterdam: Mouton de Gruyter, 215-244.

Poplack, Shana (2000) Sometimes I’ll start a sentence in Spanish y termino en espanol: Toward a typology of code-switching, in: Wei, Li The Bilingualism Reader: Routledge, 221-256.

Ritchie, William C. / Bhatia, Tej K. (2004) Social and Psychological Factors in Language Mixing. In: Bhatia, Tej K. /Ritchie, William C. (eds.) The Handbook of Bilingualism. Usa, UK, Australia: Blackwell, 336-352.

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Valentina Carbonara is a first year Ph.D. student in the Linguistic and Teaching Italian as a Foreign Language Program at the University for Foreigners of Siena (Italy). Her research interests include bilingualism, bilingual education and early language learning.

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