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Japan Day 36: Code Switching

Code switching is the act of going between two methods of communication in one situation.

Being in Japan, there are two types of Code Switching that I have picked up. 1) Janglish—or a mixture of Japanese and English. 2) Formal and informal Japanese.


Being with a group of people who speak various levels of Japanese and English, it is very natural that we would start combining the two to communicate with each other. There are a variety of ways in which this happens.

1) Some of the time we add in Japanese words in English sentences or English words in Japanese sentences. For example, “That is so kawaii” or adding in words—usually adjectives and filler words—like “atusi” (hot) or “hazukashi” (embarrassing).
→ This type of code switching is mainly used among native English speakers, all of whom are learning Japanese but everyone having a different level of ability.

2) More than just substituting words, we sometimes switch in and out of Japanese and English sentence by sentence.
Example: I was talking with one of my language partners during lunch and I said: “土曜日、しぶやに行きます。I think I am going to dye my hair. どう思う?”(In English, “On Saturday, I am going to Shibuya. I think I am going to dye my hair. What to you think?”)
→ In this example, I used Japanese for the sentences I was 100% comfortable with, and when I didn’t know all the vocabulary and the correct grammar structure for the other sentence, I switched entirely to English.
→ This type of code switching is common between speakers who have high levels of both languages, and is a typical kind of structure I use with the students at Kanda University—as they are all learning English. Because both parties are not completely bilingual and are not able to completely converse in one language and both parties know the other speaks their native language, this type of code switching occurs.

3) Other times, Japanese words are made to seem like English words—or are abbreviated to seem more like an English word.
Example: “Daijyobs” instead of “daijyobu” which is much the way “probably” becomes “probs”
→ It is a bit unclear why this type of code switching—if it is that—occurs, but my guess is that it comes down to the brain assimilating the two languages into one system and being used in a relaxed manner. This type of Janglish also seems similar to the way young children learn how to conjugate verbs—at first they conjugate everything, even the irregular verbs, in exactly the same manner. After a while the children learn what is correct and what is incorrect. In Japan, even though we know this type of “conjugation” is incorrect, our brains are still trying to make sense of where words fit in which language.

4) The final and most entertaining is the combination of English and Japanese into one word.
Example: (and I really want to put this on a T-Shirt) “fun-shimasu” which comes from the English word “fun” and the Japanese verb “suru” which means “to do” → For us foreign students, “fun-shimasu” is a very natural and understandable word for “to have fun”
→ This is something that happens mostly with the students who are just starting to learn a language, and while they know some of the rules and words, their vocabulary is incredibly lacking so they make up things as they go—using the little they do know.

Code Switching within Japanese

If you have ever studied Japanese, you would know that Japanese has many levels of speaking, ranging from extremely casual to almost incomprehensibly formal. The first few years of Japanese class in the US, and probably everywhere else in the world, begins with using one level of Japanese—called the “des/mas” form, which is a middle level formality.

However, to be able to speak Japanese you need to know a variety of levels of Japanese for presentations, speaking with people “above” and “below” you, speaking with friends, and writing a wide range of materials. While some of this is learned in class, a lot is learned with a more hands on approach. Being in the highest level Japanese class, however, it is expected that students know and are able to use all levels of Japanese.

This week my class had a presentation. During the presentation and during the Q&A we were expected to use formal and humble Japanese, but after we were expected to talk with the people who were presenting to in regular Japanese. And of course when we talk to our friends it would be strange to use either of these levels, so we need to switch to casual with them.

It is incredibly easy to either get into one formality mode and stay there, or to constantly switch in and out of various levels without being aware that you are doing so. With my level of Japanese knowledge, I am at that point—especially when I am talking with my friends—where I try to stick to one level of formality, but I often find myself slinking back unconsciously to the more comfortably des/mas form.

This is a problem though, and it is necessary to learn how to properly code switch in order to successfully live in Japan. For example, if I continue to switch into des/mas form with my close Japanese friends, they will think I am “yosoyoso-shi” or distant with them. For now my speech style is given some lenience because I am a gaijin, but the longer I am here, the more it will be questioned whether I am being formal because I don’t know better or if I am being formal because I don’t want to be close to the person I am talking with. And the same goes for being more formal; if I am not formal enough in some situations if may be forgiven for now, but later on it could be assumed that I don’t respect the people I am talking to or about, and I could be taken as a rude person.

As always thanks for reading! Today’s post was a little different from usual, but I hope you learned something new. This topic is one of my favorites and is something I face every day here in Japan. If you have any interesting code switching stories or information, let me know! ^_^




  1. Narita says

    とても興味深い分析ですね。 次のサイトの中に、英語から発生しているギャル語はどのぐらいあるんでしょうね。http://matome.naver.jp/odai/2132452129616023701

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