The perils of code switching: a cautionary tale

I am just back from France where I keep my extended family. Presumably, they live in closets and boxes for eleven months of the year and, just before my arrival, they jump out and start living regular lives. At least, that’s what I would like to believe but I suspect that they live rich and fulfilling lives even when I am not around. Amazing.

My family has many interesting characteristics such as a tendency to wake up at 2am and have an extended chat about ghosts. They also talk a lot in the daytime and they do that talking in a charming charabia of English and French (more technically, code switchery).  Among themselves, they speak a version of English that was common (pun intended) in the Greater London area some thirty years ago interspersed with Parisian French. It’s a mess to any sane listener but it sounds like home to me. And it is occasionally hilarious.

Case in point: my sister Baroline (this happened to her, but honestly, it could have been any member of my family) had just purcahsed a brand new cell phone. One evening, we sat drinking tea and watching as her incredibly patient and tech-savvy daughter Blaura did the set up (where did she learn that stuff? She’s a law student for heaven’s sake).  Blaura told her mother that she should get a nice hard shell for her phone to prevent it getting broken. My sister replied that she thinks that shells make the phones too clunky and that she prefers her nice phone without a shell. My husband helpfully pointed out that my phone has a nice big purple rubber shell. Blaura mentioned that you can get a nice thin bumper shell that just protects the edges of the phone. Adamant, Baroline stuck to her guns. No shell would disfigure her beautiful phone.

So, why was this funny? Well, Blaura was talking in French and her mother was responding in English but using the French word for shell:

“Tu devrais mettre une cocque sur ton portable pour eviter de le casser.”

“No, I hate cocques. Cocques make your phone big and clunky.”

“Oui, mais si tu le fais tomber, c’est fini. Il faudra le remplacer.”

“I don’t care. Cocques are ugly.”

“Rebecca has a nice big purple cocque on her phone” (helpful interjection from my husband).

“Ou alors, tu peux essayer un bumper. C’est moins gros.”

“I’ve seen the bumper cocques and they are too big. This phone is just too beautiful to put a cocque on it.”

On the plus side, my husband, the only person in the room to notice a certain ambiguity, had a very entertaining time.






One thought on “The perils of code switching: a cautionary tale

  1. I enjoyed this tale. It reminded me of my crazy teenage days, when I lived in Quebec. There was a nearby roasted chicken establishment, Au Roi Du Coq Roti. Amazingly, the King of Coq delivered until 4 am, much to the delight of the local university students.

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