"'Nous autres c 'est toujours bilingue anyways': Code-Switching and Linguistic Displacement Among Bilingual Montréal Students". Review


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Code-switching is generally identified as the alternation between two or more languages within one conversation or context. Many factors contribute to the phenomenon and just as many reasons underlie it. On a smaller scale, code-switching is primarily generated by the propinquity of two or more languages that are either all official or spoken by a vast majority of people within one community.

Montreal, being a mutilingual city where French and English are dominantly in use, is an example par excellence of such a community. The ease with which Montrealers switch from one language to the other in the same conversation, and for no apparent reason, may very well stump foreigners who are unfamiliar with the local linguistic overlap. Some qualify the phenomenon of code-switching as a sure testimony to a person`s high IQ--the capability to juggle a couple of languages within the space of a single utterance seems impressive. It is even acknowledged that, more often than not, people code-switch for an added stylistic effect, for the sake of variety so to speak, and not because they have a poor command of their native language.

Given the many language policies affecting the status of French and English over the course of Quebec`s history, Anglophones and Francophones have oftentimes found themselves at daggers drawn as regards language prevalence and prestige. It is important to note that the latter is only a superficial issue; the bottom part of the iceberg is all about identity and the way the two lingusitic groups position themselves based on their attitude towards either English or French specifically and bilingualism within the country in general.

"'Nous autres c 'est toujours bilingue anyways': Code-Switching and Linguistic Displacement Among Bilingual Montréal Students" is an article featuring a highly relevant study carried out by an American independent student, Eva Valenti, with the goal of gaining a deeper insight into the identity "shift" stipulated by the co-existence of French and English in Montreal.The author does a good job pointing out certain important aspects of the study`s participants` linguistic standing and personal identification, which are representative of the general views shared by the English and the French strata of the city.

Nevertheless, the fact that three of the participants were raised in either bilingual or multilingual households is confusing for the simple fact that multilingual individuals, even if they were raised in Montreal, fall under a separate category that is a lot broader than just bilingualism. Also, two of the participants were raised by a Francophone father and an Anglophone mother, thus being barely able to identify as either just Anglophone or just Francophone, which slants the study into a little bit of a different direction. In my opinion, it would be more appropriate, in the context of this specific study, to choose individuals who were raised in unilingual households but who became bilingual consciously and whose subconscious code-switching is not influenced by the fact that they speak, in equal measure, two or more languages at home.

The article revolves around the question of the English and French identities and how the Anglophone group regards its French counterpart in the context of language dominance and vice versa. Code-switching is observed by the author via interviewing the participants about the status of English and French in Quebec, the prospects of employment, whether, in their opinion, there is a preference as to which language a candidate must speak at any rate to suceed in the local job market and whether or not they consider bilingualism to be a deciding factor in successfully landing a desired position.

These interviews, conducted separately with a group of Anglophone and a group of Francophone students, shed light on how the representatives of both linguistic groups alternate English and French in their answers, what the potential reasons behind their individual, yet subconscious, code-switching may be as well as which of the two groups tends to code-switch the more and why.

For instance, as far as the study goes, the Francophone students used code-switching more extensively and actively than their Anglophone counterparts, which the author considers to be directly proportional to the former`s subconscious desire to participate on an equal footing in the so-called They code (Anglophones)--the Francophones felt the necessity to manifest their ability to do so by way of code-switching a lot and thus proving that they are perfectly bilingual. This pattern is, however, inconsistent since not all the Francophones had the same level of bilingualism. Conversely, the Anglophones had a tendency to code-switch sparsely and in very specific contexts, mainly to designate Franchophone phenomena and to set themselves apart from the They code (Francophones), as opposed to seeking participation in it.

The article is good in that it has a very clear-cut structure and effectively demonstrates the respective tendencies of code-switching in the Anglophone and the Francophone communities of Montreal and, by extension, Quebec, by means of choosing a very distinctive category of speakers--students. To begin with, Valenti uses clearly defined terms throughout her article; she starts off by providing an explanatory definition of code-switching: "Code-switching (CS) is a linguistic phenomenon in which a bilingual speaker switches freely between their languages (codes) within a single utterance, conversational turn, or conversation. Linguists can often pinpoint a "we" code and a "they" code based on the speaker's respective comfort levels with the two languages."

Already here we can see that she includes the notions of the "we" and "they" codes which she will focus on more closely in the actual study. Clear definitions of concepts or terms that may come out as unknown to the general public are key to the quality of a paper. As is pointed out by Laurence Behrens in his Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum, "the validity of an argument depends to some degree on how carefuly an author has defined key terms." (Behrens, 28).

For her study, the author had chosen five Anglophone students enrolled in a Francophone university (Université de Montréal), and five Francophone students enrolled in Anglophone universities (Concordia and McGill). That selection is important since it features individuals who are "linguistically displaced" per se and whose mentalities are adapted to the Anglo-Franco dichotomy on a daily basis; as opposed to Anglophones and Francophones who attend Anglophone and Francophone institutions respectively and who may be less alert to issues of bilingualism, at least as students.

The author based her study on some very clever principles: she interviewed the participants in two phases, which allowed her to observe a change in the code-switching pattern of some of the participants. First, she recorded the discussion between the Anglophones and then between the Francophones without being present herself--so as to prevent her Anglophone presence from influencing the direction the discussions might take and the patterns of code-switching they may involve (especially with the Francophones).

In the second phase of the study, on the other hand, she interviewed each group in person, which, as she notes, had a certain influence over the instances of code-switching of at least two of the participants: "Alexia and Andrea, who were less secure in their bilingualism, used more CS in their private discussion than in their individual interviews with me, possibly because they were intimidated by an Anglophone audience."

However well-conducted, the study also leaves room for ambiguity. The main confusing factor is, in my opinion, the involvement of three participants that were raised in either multilingual or bilingual households. The author herself points out the broader background of one of them specifically as opposed to the others who grew up speaking one language at home: "Ibrahim was raised in Francophone Outremont by a Turkish father and a Filipina mother. He never mentioned linguistic tensions in his interview. He recognized that Anglophone students were a minority at UdeM and expressed "solidarity"; still, rather than identifying as Anglophone, Ibrahim referred to himself as "an international type of guy" whose identity hinged on multilingualism--and, by extension, multiculturalism--rather than on English or French alone. The same ambiguity applied to [his] national identit[y]."

To begin with, in the case of Ibrahim, one could assume that English was the language of convergence for his parents neither of whom probably spoke the native language of the other. That is why, their son was, hypothetically speaking, raised mainly in English. Nevertheless, it was only natural that he could not fully identify as either Anglophone or Francophone because there is a certain probability that he was equally taught his parents` respective languages. The author seems to leave out of consideration this important factor whereas she should have expatiated upon it. Or else, she should have altogether avoided the participation of multilingual and multicultural individuals in this particular study.

Furthermore, as the study shows, Ibrahim was the one to code-switch the most: " Ibrahim used more pure CS than any of my other Anglophone participants. Sometimes he seemed to use a French word after an attempt to find its English equivalent [...] These examples are arguably not CS, since they appear to result from a lexical gap. Still, the lexical gap here is in Ibrahim's native language. Ibrahim, despite identifying as Anglophone, has a "native" vocabulary including both French and English terms; these examples further support the case for a "bilingual" language identity."

The last statement is quite gratuitous since, as we already know, Ibrahim comes from a background wherein more than just two languages were probably spoken. Also, since Ibrahim turned out to be the one who code-switched the most in the Anglophone group and since he has a multiethnic identity, it may be that he has a partial command of all the languages that he grew up speaking at home. As is obvious from the quote, he code-switched to French whenever he struggled to find an appropriate word in English, which does not at all mean that there was no such word--it is just that he could not think of it. That may be due to the somewhat miscellaneous nature of the participant`s language identity, which is further supported by the fact that the "pure" Anglophones code-switched for reasons other than simply not coming up with a word in their native language. They used code-switching to point out the "Frenchness" of this or that phenomenon as opposed to being at a loss for a word.

Also, in the quote, the author mentions that Ibrahim`s native vocabulary comprises both French and English words, which, according to the author, accounts for the participant`s code-switching. However, it is not specified at the outset which language was most spoken in his home. It could have been English--as his parents` language of convergence--it could have been French and it could have been either Turkish or Filipino or both. It could have also been a mixture of all those. That needs clarification and might even lend itself to a separate study.

In the final analysis, the article may definitely be of interest to those concerned with the topic of bilingualism in general and in Montreal in particular. The study featured reveals some really important facets of bilingualism and offers a valuable insight into the concept of code-switching within the frame of a bilingual language identity. Nevertheless, the author could have done an even better job and avoided certain ambiguities if she had chosen pure Anglophones and pure Francophones for this particular study. The presence of multicultural and multilingual individuals in a study that is supposed to be evaluating "bilingual language identities" makes it a lot more complex than the goal of the research seemingly was.


Behrens, Laurence and Leonard Rosen. Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum. New York: Pearson, Longman, 2007

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