Code Switching in Global Relationships: A Brief Conversational Analysis


Part one of this two-part series set down some useful theoretical concepts for understanding the dynamics of power and authority in language use between international couples. This post reports on some preliminary data collected on myself and my wife. While the methodology isn’t completely pure (more on that below), I was happy to find that the concepts I had been learning about do seem to appear not just in my speech but in my wife’s as well.

This post will get right into it. First, I’ll set out the specific questions I started this project with and then give a bit of background information on the language history of my wife and myself and briefly describe conversational analysis as a tool for description. I will finish with a description of our conversations, with some examples and the conclusions they elicit. But first! Here is a brief and useful image that explains briefly code-switching in Singapore.

Credit to Huihan, Jing Ying, Pei Ting and Yunig at

Political Economy of language Use and South Korea – Some Questions

In the Korean context, no specific research of the sociolinguistic language use in intermarriages has been conducted as of yet, though it has been documented to a certain degree by demographic, sociological and anthropological researchers (Lim, 2010). Particularly important for the Korean context is the recent explosion of international marriages. Due to the long history of sexual exploitation of Korean women, the social attitudes towards intermarriages with Korean women ranged from explicit discrimination to ambivalence. Lim (2010) notes importantly that the children of these relationships were seen particularly as “non-Korean” and they probably belong more appropriately in the foreigner male’s country (p. 64).

Since the 1990s however, migrant marriages from Southeast Asia with rural Korean men has increased dramatically to as high as 11% of all marriages in South Korea in some recent years.  Little is said about the linguistic context of these marriages, but given the demographic context, it is unlikely the language-at-home is anything other than Korean. With the migrant wives expected to fully adapt and adopt the Korean language and culture (Lim, 2010, p. 66).

Little has been said however of the relationships related to the English mania in South Korea. To address this gap, this study attempt to add to the comparative literature by examining the language use of an international couple in South Korea. The research questions for this particular study are:

  1. How does code-switching change between private and public use in an international couple in South Korea
  2. How does the code-switiching and language use in this international relationship demonstrate or address the relative sociocultural power of English and Korean? 



The participant couple in this narrative research is myself and my wife who will be called Kim for the purposes of this study. The researcher is a 29 year old Caucasian male from the United States and the partner is a 27 year old Korean female who grew up in the Gwangju area during her elementary school years before moving to Seoul to attend high school. The researcher is a Native English Teacher at a private Elementary in Seoul and has been teaching for nearly three years in South Korea and Kim works for a large pharmaceutical corporation in Seoul as a marketer and has done that for one year and a half.

This case study thus presents a fairly rare situation in the history of linguistic exogamy research, where the focus in western situations has been on the migrant woman (Gal, 1978; Walters 1996; Piller 2008; Piller & Takahashi, 2011) and in the case of some South American cultures, has been based on culturally codified principles of linguistic exogamy in which marriages required to be made between cultural groups, and where cultural identification is done through language code (Campbell, 2010). The present case study however will focus primarily on the male-as-migrant international couple situation.

Data Collection and Analysis

Following the standards set forth by Nunan and Bailey (2009), the primary data that was examined for code-switching were three 15-minute conversations, one in a public setting (going to and eating in a popular district of Seoul), a private conversation in our home and a final conversation with family.

Conversations were recorded with the knowledge of the participants. My wife had to listen to me talk about this project for many months. Before every recording, I showed the participants that I was recording and then i put the device away in an area that would pick up sound well enough, but out of sight.

Conversation Analysis Coding

The recorded data will be coded by distinguishing between different motivations for code switching along with who is doing what switching in which situations. For the purposes of this study, cases of code-mixing was based on the primary language being used in the previous utterance.

The recordings were first transcribed by hand into a word document file. Because the question here is not at the level of phonetic detail, the transcription was in standard written forms for both English and Korean, accounting for common spoken variations such as “nothin” or “야!”. Elipsises were included to indicate breaks in the normal flow of speech, but their duration were not explicated calculated. Because the conversations occured between two people (for the most part), interjections were quite rare and so each speaking turn has been given its own line in this analysis. Further research might be more interested to examine the rate of speech in international couples or L2-speaking couples and how their pauses may facilitate or hamper communication.

After the transcription, I read through each result, the public and privates, individually. Instances of code switching were marked on a separate file and categories for the kind of code-switch were created and given a digital marker such as “#” or “@” to help counting total instances of each type of code-switch. Some types of code-switching occurred rarely in the data and were therefore not included in the analysis. Though, because the sample was small to begin with, it’s not clear that those specific code-switches were not systematic.


History and the truncated repertoires of international couples         

Before moving forward with the analysis of private vs public talk between the couple, it is important that we establish the history of the individuals in the relationship and what their experience with English and other languages may reveal about how we communicate in either setting (Bloomaert, 2010, p. 103 ). According to Bloomaert, it makes little sense to talk about speaking a language, or at the very least, it obfuscates the reality. No one person speaks all of English or any language (unless you happen to be the last remaining speaker, which is devastatingly common).

Instead of speaking a language, in a society and in particular a global society, it makes more sense to talk about language as a resource that we control. From this view, we may or may not be highly proficient in most ways of using our languages. The graphs follow Bloomaert’s own example, dividing language use into six categories: oral vernacular, oral standard, literacy, informal contexts, formal contexts and domains of use. For a fuller description of these, please refer to Bloomaert, 2010, pg. 103.

My Repertoire

A visual representation of my language repertoire. These graphs serve as representations of intuitions, not quantitative analysis.

As an American, I was born in the global center, but in peripheral locality of that center. The view of Utah within the United States is often one of weirdness due to its Mormon history and long-standing isolation in its foundation. Within that peripheral, I am from a rural town about two hours from Utah’s center, Salt Lake City. The local dialect of my home area is highly stigmatized with Utah and displays features such as “were / was” merging.  My family comes from a fairly long line of educators and entrepreneurs, such that my personal dialect lacks these locality indexing features and approximates more closely the local center, or Salt Lake dialect. Within Utah, the Utah dialect is also routinely denigrated as “Utah talk”, indexing discomfort from the speakers of the peripheral center with their peripheralness to the nation.

In high school I studied Spanish for one semester before giving up. It wasn’t until I moved to Brazil at the age of 19 that I began learning languages again. The experience was one of utility: intense language learning with only the necessary cultural learning. I was able to talk with comfortably with individuals on the street or in their homes and this gave me a very false sense of language learning accomplishment. But in reality my Portuguese is highly truncated, with a much higher level of ability in casual personal communication in very specific genres.

At 21 I moved back to Salt Lake City to attend university and study Theoretical Linguistics. After completing a bachelors, I immediately got a job in South Korea, Gyeonggi-do, Yeoncheon-gun, a very rural farming town. My attempts at learning Korean were frustrating compared to Portuguese. I studied Korean mostly via self-study textbooks and formal language-exchange partners. It was through such an exchange with a mutual friend that my partner and I were introduced, in a university study-room style building in Seoul.

Kim’s repertoire

Kim’s repertoire

Kim, as a Korean, was born in a global periphery, especially during her childhood in the 1980s and early 90s when South Korea really began to build its economic structure and stabilize its democratic politics. Additionally, Kim was born as a lower-middle class second child in the local periphery of South Korea, Gwangju. Due to her parent’s divorce, Kim was able to leave the Gwangju periphery and move to the Seoul center at a young age to go to high school, and live with her friend’s family while she attended school.

This mobility is not common for most Koreans born in the local peripheries and led to Kim self-identifying more as a Seoul Korean than a Gwangju Korean, though she personally doesn’t see much meaning in that. Kim’s English education was, however, fairly typical of most Koreans in her socio-economic range. She began learning English in the 3rd grade and did not attend after-school English programs until she began preparing for university. She had native English teachers, primarily from Canada, all throughout her primary education. Her memory of English education was one of repetitious memory drills and vocabulary learning; typical of the ELF-focused English education still seen today.

Before university, she didn’t place much interest in English, as her primary interest was interior design, when she entered university she decided to study international business. At this point, her interest in English was much more real, but still primarily academic. Kim studied English in small study groups, private hogwons like Wall Street English and did a short 3 month sojourn two years ago to Baguio City in the Philippines to an English language school.

Kim, like most Koreans her age, had been studying English for at least 13 years by that point in her life, though primarily as an academic subject and not as a tool for communication. We met during her process of job-hunting because job interviews often ask interviewees to speak in English in a casual, but formal, style for 2 or 3 minutes and she was interested in improving her ability to function in that capacity.

Code-Switching in public and private conversation

The Super-Addresse

Much of the previous research has found that many international couples use one language either entirely or for specific genres or registers, such as affection, or in the home (Bartzen, 2013). The conversational analysis of my partner and I however initially showed that one feature that changed between private and public conversation was the amount of code-switching. In private, I particularly can spend long stretches of conversation in English, often behaving in a way more similar to Campell’s (2010) observation of exogamic Argentinians, Kim jumping between English and Korean and me staying entirely in English.

Mark: So like go fish.. kind of thing
Kim: “Go fish” 뭐야?
                           [what is?]
Mark: card game… anyway, you- you ask, you hold up your card and you hold up your color .. and then you make the animal sound.
Kim: ah, only I can see?
Mark: Yeah- well.. this is how you communicate.
Kim: 자기 어떻개 했어?
[How did you do it?]
Mark: How did we do it?

 My refusal to switch into Korean strikes me as odd at first, especially when considering that in public, when one of us switched languages, we were both equally as likely to also switch our response to match the language of the other person (me = 53% of the time, Kim = 47%). In private however, this changes drastically, and I only switched to match Kim’s language use, either English or Korean, 38% of the time, while she remains consistent.

It seems likely to me that Bloomaert’s (2010) “super-addressee” may answer part of the reason we are more likely to match each other’s language use in public, but not in private. Like the husband in Jackson’s (2008) study, I struggle with the English teacher stereotypes that exist in South Korea and it seems to me that I make efforts to distance myself from these stereotypes. When walking in a crowded district in Seoul, while talking with Kim, there is another “addressee” towards which we are both communicating, the collective stereotype of American men and Korean women couples. By code-switching in and out of English and Korean, and in particular by matching the language use of the other, we demonstrate intimacy not only to each other, but also that we break stereotypes and English isn’t the only language we use together.

Function word code-switching

How we each code-switch, however is slightly different from each other. Overall, Kim code-switches much more often than I do, due to code-switching between function words and anaphor. That she was switching specifically function words was not something she was aware of, though in discussing this with her, she says she does it to help comprehension. For example:

Kim:    자기 자기
          [honey, honey]
Mark: The sticker?
Kim: the sticker. 그.. 나…  나.. 다른 co-worker
                                    [that.. I… I… another]
Mark: uh-huh
Kim: 근데 약간 awkward. 그 사람 work manager. So I asked her where she got           [but it was a little]    [that person]
[the sticker]. suddenly she gave it to me…
Mark: 아 진짜?
[ah, really?]

It is interesting to note that function word code-switching is asymmetrical across languages. When either I or Kim perform this type of language use, it is always Korean function words, mixed with English nouns and adjectives with a final English or Korean verb. This formula is almost absolute in the small data sample examined here. For Kim, it is not probably the case that her repertoire is limited in such a way that she needs to use Korean function words. She displays ability to use several such English function words in the above example. Additionally, this mixing is done both in private and public. It appears to me that the mixing of languages indexes certain intimacies between us regarding our identities as both English and Korean speakers.

The asymmetry of usage then, becomes an interesting phenomenon of order. Why the primary content words are English and the function words Korean suggests a sort of asymmetrical relationship between the languages themselves in our usage. It’s possible that because our combined repertoires favor English over Korean, that English has an even more privileged position in our relationship in terms of content words. For Kim this makes a certain amount of sense. In order to communicate effectively with me, the contentful words might need to be in English more often. It is however, interesting that I also demonstrate a similar pattern between function and content words..

A final word on repertoire from the example given, my final reply is typical of my code-switching throughout: formulaic. To my mind, this indexes the highly text-book oriented way I began learning Korean through phrasal memorization and my very truncated repertoire, even though I knew that was a sub-optimal strategy. Throughout conversations, in both public and private recordings, opportunities to use simple phrases like “really” in Korean are almost always done in Korean.

Private conversation and locality

Kim’s function word code-switching is basically regular whether in private or public settings and much of my code-switching, such as topic-switching or function word use, is also regular. There were two areas however, where the amount that either of us was likely to code-switch changed very much: expressing intimacy and switching languages with the other person.

In public, Kim expresses intimacy regularly in a playful way familiar to most Koreans, known as aeigyo. When discussing how often she expresses intimacy, she described herself as a “flatterer” though she rejected the idea that she was flattering me. Instead she draws a distinction between the use of flattery with her boss and using similar genres with me based on the idea of intentionality. It is interesting then, that the rate of intimate language is much higher in public, suggesting again perhaps the super-addressee.

It seems to me that Bloomaert’s (2010) idea of polycentricity and orders of indexicality are perhaps helpful in this situation. Although I am from the global center, the United States, my history of peripheral living and my status as an English teacher in Korea keeps me aware of my relationship with the local center, Seoul. When in public, I am much more aware of what intimate language may perhaps index to others around us and that meta-awareness may perhaps censure what I am comfortable saying, so as to not propagate the “ugly foreigner”.

In private, and in particular in my own home, there is a recursive center now, where the authority listening into our conversation is now much more limited. I would argue there is still a super-addressee, such as the people Kim is likely to talk with about me, such as her mother and close friends, however the censuring authority of the local center and my position relative to it is not present in my home, freeing me to some degree to express more intimacy. For Kim then, if her expressions of aeigyo are at least partially addressed to the super-addressee, it would make sense for it to be limited in the home, where other forms of intimacy are then expressed.

Kim: 자기 안녕!
[honey, hi!]
Mark: You smell good.
Kim: I smell?
Mark: mhmm.
Kim: 야! don’t smell me!

The lack of code-switching to the partner’s language however, represents an interesting act of agency and perhaps identity. Like in Piller (2008), the use of a language in public and one in private can give the spouse outside of their home culture some level of power and expertise when their language is privileged in the home. It would be a mistake I think to compare my lack of switching to the language my partner uses to the multiplicity of language use observed in Campbell’s (2010) study of Argentinian exogamy.

The first reason being that I acknowledge and often do switch freely into Korean with my partner, which is not the case for Native Argentinian exogamy. Secondly, I also recognize that I can speak Korean to some degree. South American exogamy represents several interesting code-switching phenomena that seem to also occur in other exogamous relationships, however, it does not seem like the same principles of language economy are being displayed in each.

 Conversational Burdens

A final thought however, relates to what Piller (2008) has described as the “conversational housework” in the relationships she examined. While it’s not clear this is a product of international relationships, code-switching couples generally have one dominant partner who is in control of the code-switching. In my relationship, this person is Kim. And in Piller’s (2008) study, she found it was also the female generally tasked with conversational upkeep. In every code-switching category, except “not switching to match partner’s language use”, Kim has a much higher count, revealing that she also does most of the talking in our relationship.

Whether or not this is a function of personality, or implicit gender roles that have been learned from both of our youths, is not entirely clear. However the pattern found in previous work of conversational workload, also appeared in the conversational analysis here.


Comparing to past research, it appears that this relationship patterns fairly similarly with others already examined, particularly to Jackson’s (2008) Japanese-American family. Bloomaert’s (2010) globalized sociolinguistics helps shed even more light on why the private and the public show the differences they do in ways that previous language ideology research has not fully explored. Particularly useful explanatory ideas found in this study were the polycentric localities, which determined the frequency and types of code-switching observed in public and private. And the orders of indexicality, with their super-addressee, helps us understand  individual differences and preferences such as my own and Jackson’s (2008) husband’s distaste for certain stereotypes that neither he nor I actually face in day-to-day communication.

A Bloomaertian approach to the sociolinguistics of international relationships is, as far as I am aware, an undeveloped area. While Bloomaert’s (2010) ideas are built around the world that globalization has created, it would be interesting, and perhaps necessary to unify the sociolinguistics of exogamic and international relationships. At the present moment, it appears that the phenomena found in each case, of traditional societies and modernized centers of the globalized world, that each are quite different from each other.

However, this study has found that similar effects appear to occur even in modern globalized international relationships. Additionally, understanding the repertories of mobile resources in terms of voice between these two types of relationships would present interesting comparisons.

Finally, This work has examined, as far as I am aware, the only account of a TESOL educators experience of language use in international relationships. Considering that it is becoming more widely known, as the commodification of English continues to grow, the communities of practice that will grow will represent opportunities to examine what appears to be possibly the quintessential globalized relationship between global centers and peripheries.

Featured image: h/t NPR’s Code Switch


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