Code-Switching Between Mandarin Chinese and English: Do You Use “lol” or “xswl”?

Wenqian Guo, Sum Yi Li, Yichen Lyu, Sok Kwan Wong, Yingge Zhou

Code-switching has become increasingly common as globalization allows international exchanges across cultures to take place more frequently. And as studying abroad becomes more accessible to students around the world, more speech communities with distinctive code-switching patterns are being formed. As we pondered the topic for our research project, we looked around and realized that not only are the majority of our group members native Mandarin speakers studying in the US, but collectively we also belong to this wider speech community that tends to code-switch between Mandarin and English. We could not help but wonder — do local students in China talk like us at all? And is there a reasoning behind the way we talk? It is these questions that formed the basis of our research.

For the project, we narrowed down our research to focus on just Internet slang used on WeChat, China’s answer to WhatsApp. Through our proprietary survey and by combing through chat history we collected from our participants, we discovered some very interesting findings. Continue reading to find out how and why Mandarin-speaking international students in the US code switch on WeChat.

Introduction and background

Chinese students who study in the U.S. often code switch between Mandarin and English and our project was aimed at examining the motivations behind the phenomenon.

We specifically looked into our subjects’ texting patterns on messaging app WeChat and compared them to Chinese students either residing in China or other non-English speaking countries in an attempt to confirm our assumption that code-switching is prevalent among Chinese students in the US. We also surveyed the students and asked for reasons behind their choice of words. We hypothesized that convenience as well as a desire to appear foreign-educated are what motivated the code-switching.

We based our project on Luke’s (1984) study on language mixing in Hong Kong, where English words are often inserted into Cantonese conversations. Luke (1984) concluded that code-switching in Hong Kong is partly pragmatically motivated (when the objects being discussed do not have Chinese translation) and partly socially motivated (when the individuals want to identify as better educated and westernized).

We extended Luke’s (1984) study to cover Mandarin Chinese, which is spoken in Mainland China. Presumably English mixing is more prevalent in Hong Kong because it is a former British colony. Code switching is not common among locals in China, but it is observed among individuals who have exposure in English-speaking countries.

Methods

The target population for our project consists of two major groups: college students who study in the US and college students who study in their home country China. Both groups of students are native Mandarin speakers. Our data collection was divided into two parts. First, we created a survey to ask both groups of students to select from provided word choices under different text conversation scenarios and provide us with a reason behind each choice. The participants were also asked to specify how frequently they would code-switch in their daily conversations with friends and family on WeChat. Second, we collected a series of chat history based on three main topics, namely schoolwork, casual conversations and sensitive topics. For the survey, we interviewed a total of 17 students from UCLA as our sampling for the groups of students who are foreign educated. We also interviewed a total of 6 college students who are based in China.

Results

For the purpose of discussion, our project referred to college students who study overseas as “US students” and those who study in China as “local students”.

School Work Survey Question 1: Which word would you use when you want to talk about a homework assignment that will be due soon. For example, “我明天有个作业___”. (Tomorrow I have some homework__)

For the first survey question regarding homework assignment, all of the US students chose the English word “due”, while the majority of the local students chose the equivalent Chinese words “要交”. Even though most students from both groups attributed their choice to a similar reason, which is language habit, from the perspective of the US students, “language habit” refers to a way to try to assimilate into the American culture, while in the context of the local students, it is more of an innate and natural habit.

School Work Survey Question 2: Which word would you use when you want to unenroll a class you have registered before? For example, “这节课不符合我的时间表, 我想__这节课”. (This class doesn’t match my schedule, I want to __ this class.)

For the second survey question relating to unenrolling classes, all of the US students chose the English word “drop”, while the majority of the local students picked the Chinese equivalent “退选”. However, both groups have different reasons behind their word choice. The majority of the US students said they chose the word “drop” because there is no equivalent translation in Chinese. On the other hand, the local students preferred using Chinese due to language habits influenced by their friends and family.

Based on the reasons the participants provided, it appears that being in different environments and different speech communities are the main reason students develop different language habits. Besides, the source of learning also influences their word choices. The US students tend to find it hard to find Chinese translation for words related to schoolwork since they learned these words in an English-speaking environment.

Casual Conversation Survey Question 1:  Which word would you use if you want to express laughter or something that is funny when you are chatting with your friends.

When asked how they would express laughter when texting, the majority of the US students chose the Chinese words “哈哈哈哈” (“Hahahaha”), while the majority of the local students picked another Chinese phrase “笑死我了” (“I laugh to death”). Even though both groups of students used Chinese to express laughter, each side has their own reason for the specific choice. The US students said they preferred “哈哈哈哈” (“Hahahaha”) as a language habit, while the local students preferred “笑死我了” (“I laugh to death”) because they believed the expression could better demonstrate their emotions and the situation. The results showed that Mandarin-speaking college students preferred to use Chinese when expressing laughter regardless of where they are studying.

Casual Conversation Survey Question 2: How often do you often replace words in a sentence from Chinese to English when you are chatting with your friends? For example, “我一会儿有个meeting or presentation”, “让我来表演一段rap”.

When asked how frequently they code-switch between Chinese and English when texting their friends and family, the majority of the US students said at least once every one to two days. Meanwhile, half of the local students said they seldom code-switch — only at least once every few weeks or months during their daily conversations.

Sensitive Topic Survey Question 1: What kind of curse words would you use most frequently when you are chatting with your Mandarin speaking friends?

When asked which curse words they most frequently use, both groups of students chose “卧槽/我操/我靠” (roughly translated as “Damn it/Fuck”) but for different reasons. The US students said this option best describes their feelings, while the local students said it sounds less harsh than the other choices.

Sensitive Topic Survey Question 2: Which word would you use when you need to discuss something that is related to the issue of sexual assault. For example “你上个月有听说那条新闻吗?有个女生被__了”. (Did you hear the news? A girl was __)

When asked what words they would use to say “rape”, the majority of both the US and local students chose the Chinese words “强奸”, instead of “rape” in English or the abbreviation “QJ”. Most local students said they did not worry whether the word sounds too direct or inappropriate but would rather want to just say what really happened. Similarly, the US students said they felt more comfortable with the Chinese words.

Our survey: English version and Chinese version

Chat History Analysis

The chat history was obtained from Chinese students studying in the US. The words marked red were originally in English, while those in black are translations from Mandarin.

This is a conversation between two participants about the recent US election. P1 said they expected people to stop protesting in two days. Instead of using the Chinese words (“游行”) for protest, P1 code-switched from Mandarin to English. Since protests are rare in China, and the Chinese words for protests are rarely used, presumably it is easier for the participant to just use the English word when texting.

Marked code-switching is observed when P1 expresses a slight disagreement with P2. As P2 feels empathetic to Trump, P1 emphasizes with English to express that they don’t feel sad for Trump’s loss.

Another interesting point is that P2 referred to Trump as “Grandpa Trutru”, his Chinese nickname. Chinese people sometimes use nicknames to refer to important politicians, which is likely stemmed from China’s censorship on sensitive topics. Discussions about certain politicians are considered highly sensitive, so to avoid censorship, they come up with nicknames for the politicians. For example, Trump is also known as “懂王” (“the king who knows it all”), while Biden is “睡王” (“the sleepy king”). The use of nicknames exudes a sense of humor as well as dials down the seriousness of the discussion of political issues.

In casual conversations, code-switching again lends convenience and gives emphasis. It also constructs a common identity among people in the conversation. In the above conversation, the participant is telling a story about their roommate being forcefully taken away to the hospital after answering routine behavioral questions wrong, which is a well-known cultural shock among Chinese students studying in the US. As this routine is not performed in China, the participant constantly code-switched on noun and verb phrases for convenience. Also, all participants of this conversation are Chinese international students. The code-switching builds a common identity among them because the participant expects everyone to know the consequences of answering yes to routine behavioral questions. The last two sentences are examples of marked code-switching that emphasize on the participant’s disbelief: The participant is surprised that his roommate answered yes. It is a final revelation of the ending to this anecdote.

Similarly, in the above conversation, code-switching again serves as building a common identity among Chinese students in the US. The participants constantly chose to use short English vernaculars, such as “yes,” “go,” and “yea.” This indicates that they have been immersed in an English-speaking environment, so when expressing agreement and excitement, they tend to code-switch to English. Also, P1 ignored all English spacing in the conversation. This is because when typing English with the Chinese keyboard, adding spacing can be time-consuming. For convenience, P1 simply ignored the spacing during texting. Even so, P1 chose to respond in English, demonstrating that it is more natural for them to use these English vernacular phrases.

In academic scenarios, code-switching almost entirely occurs in jargon. By using English jargons such as “peer interaction” and “mutual engagement”, the participants demonstrated their educational background as foreign.

Discussion and Conclusion

From the aforementioned data findings, it can be concluded that Chinese students who study abroad and those who only study in China show different patterns in their language usage. When it comes to schoolwork and casual conversations, insertions of English words into Chinese sentences and code-switching between English and Chinese are mainly observed among students who study abroad, while less so is seen among the domestic students. This difference can likely be attributed to a lack of translation equivalence, as many school work-related words are only applicable in the US. The same goes for casual conversations. It is therefore not difficult to understand why the US students would tend to code-switch to English when there seems to be a lack of translation equivalence in Chinese.

Besides, the needs for social and emotional expressions evoked by surrounding cultural environments and contexts also contribute to the different language patterns and code-switching. In China, a conservative country both culturally and politically, pro-government language is encouraged, while the freedom of speech is repressed. This repression has in turn cultivated stronger needs for expressing emotions among the local students, leading to their choice of more confrontational and direct wordings when discussing sensitive topics. On the other hand, a higher frequency of code-switching among the US students revealed their needs to be identified as foreign-educated and share common identities with other speech participants of similar backgrounds.

Our findings point to the important roles that social surroundings and the kind of language encouraged within these environments could play in one’s speech patterns and code-switching. That being said, the language choices that the participants made are not entirely dependent on their own characteristics but are rather choices commonly negotiated by one’s surrounding social context as a whole. This contextual-based understanding therefore sets a reminder for future conversation analysis and sociolinguistic study, that one’s speech patterns could not be analyzed and identified without incorporating the nature of the surrounding speech contexts and cultural environments.

 

More on the topic:

Video about attitudes toward code switching in China

Paper on Chinese-English code-switching in conversations

References

K.K. Luke (1984), Expedient and Orientational Language Mixing in Hong Kong, York Papers in Linguistics 11, 191-201

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Fun, Cool, Hip Title Here: AAVE Usage in Twitter Memes

Nick Ushiyama, Stella Oganesyan, Ava Boehm, Rachel Lee, Alesha Vaughn

Love them or hate them, almost everyone active on social media has come into contact with memes at some point. Chances are, one or more of those memes used a variety of English called AAVE, or African American Vernacular English. This variety originated from working-class African Americans and displays words (lexicon), word order (syntax), word pronunciation/spelling (phonology), and word combination (morphology) different from the Standard American English (SAE) taught in schools (Rickford et al., 2015). In our study, we tried to better understand how and why meme-makers switch between AAVE and SAE in their posts. We expected meme-posting Twitter users to use switching as a way to signal to readers that their posts should be read within the unique guidelines of meme-culture humor. For our research, we collected hundreds of memes and distributed a survey to see how people interpreted the switches. The results confirmed our expectations.

Introduction and background

A meme is a piece of cultural information that holds certain ideologies or behavioral concepts and is transmitted from person to person. The word ‘meme’ stems from the Greek word ‘mimeme.’ The root mim- means to mimic and the English suffix –eme is used to imply a unit of linguistic information, as seen in words such as phoneme and lexeme. The term ‘meme’ was coined from ‘gene’ and similar to a biological gene, the nature of a meme is to mutate or replicate when being transferred from person to person. The world of social media is full of memes as they are seen as a major part of today’s popular culture.

We noticed that a good handful of popular memes contain AAVE regardless of whether or not the original poster was a member of the Black Community. These memes were quite popular, too, which makes the use of AAVE within memes apparently index ‘coolness’ or ‘hipness’. There also wasn’t just one part of AAVE that memes utilized, but instead integrated syntactic, lexical, phonological, and morphological aspects of the dialect.

Figure 1a: An Example of AAVE Switching Involving a Syntactic Feature (“he b getting yelled at”)
Figure 1b: An Example of AAVE Switching Using a Lexical Feature (“the class was wildin”)

AAVE has been studied pretty extensively by linguists in the past. Of the studies that are relevant to our project, most of them show different ways that AAVE contributes to identity. That is, they show that people use it to communicate things about themselves to others. Those things could be anything from membership in social groups (Rickford et al., 2015; Anderson, 1999; Labov 1973; Sweetland, 2002), to particular attitudes (Ilbury, 2020). However, almost none of this research looks at AAVE on social media, let alone in Twitter memes.

For youths, social media is quickly becoming one of the richest sites for creating cultural connections. As such, the linguistic norms that are founded there can quickly become widespread. Our work addresses this understudied, but extremely significant, domain of AAVE usage. We set out anticipating that meme-creators would incorporate AAVE in their posts to tell readers that those posts should be read and interpreted as memes.

Methods

Occurrences in Memes

Before we tested our hypothesis, we first had to figure out what kinds of switches were occurring between SAE and AAVE. As such, we collected instances of AAVE usage in memes by visiting meme-posting pages on Instagram. We recorded whether these AAVE features were syntactic, lexical, phonological, or morphological in nature, and we also considered what topics the memes addressed. Figure 2 below explains which topics we observed.

Figure 2: Topic List and Definitions

Survey

Upon gaining a lay of the land, a survey was designed. We sent it out in order to receive data that would allow us to address our hypothesis. In the survey, participants first provided consent to publish their (anonymously-attributed) data. They then stated their age and level of experience with memes.

Following this demographic collection portion, the participants were exposed to examples of memes in which one AAVE feature (and therefore one switch) was used. They were then asked…

    • Whether they believed the usage of AAVE was ironic (disingenuous) or not given a poster’s race (African American and non-African American).
    • What they believed the posters were trying to do by switching from SAE to AAVE
    • Whether they believed their answer to (2) would change if the poster’s race was the opposite of that presented in (1).

At the end of the survey, we asked them to respond to the following question if they had identified any switch as ironic: “If you said that some usages were ironic, do you think that irony is meant to indicate something about how the humor in the posts should be interpreted?” This allowed us to directly address our hypothesis.

Results/analysis

Occurrences in Memes

The meme data consisted of the type of linguistic feature involved in the switch from SAE to AAVE and the topic that the meme addressed. We calculated the number of occurrences for syntactic, lexical, phonological, and morphological features per topic, and the results are presented below in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Raw Number of AAVE Occurrences per Topic

We then calculated the percentages of each occurrence per topic, and these results can be seen below in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Raw Percentages of AAVE Occurrences per Topic (NOTE: overall here means all topics combined)

In terms of the overall number of AAVE features observed, the data showed a clear preference for AAVE syntactic features, followed by lexical, phonological, and morphological features. This order of preference occurred in 4 out of the 11 identified topics. The most popular topic of memes was daily routines, while the least popular was the occupation topic.

From our survey, we received a total of twenty seven completed responses. Twenty six participants were in the age range of 19 – 29 (approximately the same age as meme-posters), and one older participant (age 38) was also included in the data given their experience level with memes. Out of the four possible meme experience levels, only 3 were observed (options 2, 3, and 4). Figures 5a and 5b summarize their meme experience:

Figure 5a: Breakdown of Participant Meme Experience
Figure 5b: The Meme Experience Levels we Observed

We then averaged irony scores for each example among meme-experience groups, age groups, and overall. The irony score represented how strongly participants believed the poster’s switch would occur as a natural tendency as opposed to a conscious choice. Except for the fourth example (which participants did not view as having a switch at all), irony scores were greater when the poster was assumed to be non-African American. The meme-experience group who chose option three had higher irony scores than those who actually made memes. That said, this difference was not statistically significant according to an F-test and a ttest between the two groups. This data can be seen below in Figures 6a and 6b.

Figure 6a: Irony Score Per Participant Age
Figure 6b: Irony Score Per Meme Experience Group

We then analyzed short answer responses, which consisted of what participants believed switches indicated about the humor of the examples. We boiled down their statements into ‘themes’ of explanation and counted how many responses fell into these themes. We specifically focused on themes relating to humor and noted how strongly these were represented among the three present meme experience levels. A summary of the response data can be seen below in Figures 7a-e.

Figure 7a: Short Answer Data Summarized – How Many Different Themes (Dispersion) and How Many Rejected Responses (n/a portion)
Figure 7b: Short Answer Data Summarized – Ratio of Humorous Themes to Total Entries Under Varying Poster-Race Assumptions for Each Example
Figure 7c: Short Answer Data Summarized – Different Meme Experience Levels’ Ratio of Humorous Themes to Total Valid Entries for Each Example (NOTE: red cells are option 4 group, white cells are option 3 group)
Figure 7d: Short Answer Data Summarized – Mode (Most popular Theme) and Values of Mode For Each Example
Figure 7e: Short Answer Data Summarized – Disagreement in What Switches Meant for Each Example

As seen in Figure 7e, we calculated the degree of disagreement on what switching meant for each example. Generally, there was less disagreement when participants were told that the poster was not African American, and overall disagreement increased in later examples considerably.

Finally, we sorted responses to the final question, regarding what ironic switching was meant to indicate about how humor should be interpreted. Not every participant was instructed to answer this question, only those who indicated that ironic code-switching to AAVE was present in the previous examples. Out of the 21 responses that were eligible, 85.71% of participants believed ironic switching indexed something about how the humor of the meme should be evaluated.

The most popular response was a positive confirmation of the question. The most popular elaborated response stated that switching to AAVE signaled to read the post as a meme. To be read as a “meme” is best explained by one participant’s response:

“Yes, I believe that switching to AAVE shows to users that it is not a formal post but instead casual, humorous, and meant to be related to.”

Discussion and conclusions

Our most significant finding was the general consensus that meme-posters use AAVE to indicate how the humor in their posts should be interpreted. And indeed, our hypothesis was confirmed: participants directly stated the switch to AAVE was done so the humor of memes would be evaluated along comedic standards specific to memes (as opposed to stand-up or sketch comedy). This would suggest that AAVE has become associated with humor. And to be sure, there are negative consequences to this association. The variety could be portrayed as something humorous, lighthearted, and not to be taken seriously. One of our participants in fact commented that AAVE’s appearance in memes is justified because “certain vernacular have a playful connotation that doesn’t imply seriousness.” Obviously, this would pose a problem for those who use the variety in their daily lives, in that their speech would be trivialized and even seen as unfit for participation in larger economic and civil institutions.

Our raw data also suggested that neither age nor meme experience significantly affected the likelihood to see irony in AAVE usage. At least one of our examples however was flawed and may have skewed the data. And in fact, given final question responses, it’s likely that being in the higher meme experience group did make participants slightly less likely to view switching as ironic. It is tempting to draw the conclusion that greater experience with memes in turn translates to lower likelihood to view AAVE usage as cultural appropriation. One participant in the option four group actually recognized that SAE to AAVE switching could constitute appropriation. However, they also noted that it is unlikely that there are ill intentions around the usage itself. They believed that though meme culture may inadvertently stigmatize the variety, the community itself is not systematically “anti-black.” All of this said, we cautiously state here that the negative consequences of AAVE usage in memes do not escape some members of the meme community but also that they don’t view their actions as malicious. As such, it’s unlikely that AAVE usage will cease any time soon.

The greatest number of AAVE features found in memes were syntactic features, the first three survey examples (containing the two syntactic switches) displayed greater numbers of humorous entries, and these first three also included lower levels of disagreement towards the meanings of switches. This suggests that AAVE syntax is not only more heavily associated with memes but is also the most used type of feature in communicating information about humor. And indeed this aligns with what Sweetland (2002) claimed regarding AAVE usage: AAVE syntax was the primary means of linguistically indicating a belonging to the AAVE speech community. Meme posters are arguably not, however, trying to indicate belonging to the AAVE speech community, so there are two likely implications this finding could have. Perhaps the users are trying to imitate and evoke stereotypes regarding African Americans. Conversely, the users could be attempting to signal in-group status of their own. That is, they could be trying to say “I’m a member of the meme community, too!” by switching. We make no conclusions here since we lack evidence to prove either, but leave readers with the understanding that, regardless of humor, there are real world consequences to this type of usage.

 

References

Anderson, E. (2000). Code of the street: Decency, violence, and the moral life of the inner city. W. W. Norton & Company

Ilbury, C. (2020). “Sassy Queens”: Stylistic orthographic variation in Twitter and the enregisterment of AAVE. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 24(2), 245-264. doi:10.1111/josl.12366

Labov, W. (1973). The linguistic consequences of being a lame. Language in Society, 2(1), 81- 115. doi:10.1017/s0047404500000075

Rickford, J. R., Duncan, G. J., Gennetian, L. A., Gou, R. Y., Greene, R., Katz, L. F., Kessler, R. C., Kling, J. R., Sanbonmatsu, L., Sanchez-Ordoñez, A. E., Sciandra, M., Thomas, E., & Ludwig, J. (2015). Neighborhood effects on use of African-American Vernacular English. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(38), 11817–11822. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1500176112

Sweetland, J. (2002). Unexpected but authentic use of an ethnically-marked dialect. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 6(4), 514–538. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9481.00199

 

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