If you’ve been in Manchester for a while, you’ve probably noticed those two people sitting in the bus, speaking some English and then speaking some gibberish. They are bilinguals and they are not showing off. Nowadays, 50% of world population is bilingual. Bilinguals are the norm, and not the exception. In Manchester alone in fact, there are about 200 languages and dialects spoken.
I’m an Arabic-English bilingual and by bilingual, I mean anyone who can speak two languages fluently, to an extent. My research sample is a group of adult Arab speakers who came to the UK as immigrant students about seven years ago. Half way through, I’ve started noticing that we ‘code-switch’ a lot and by Code-Switching I mean: ‘using two languages or codes; in this case Arabic and English, in the same sentence or conversation’. I’m mainly recording group interactions including myself. So far, my research has shown that CS is the ordinary way of speaking for most of us. There is not as a big difference between the functional role in a conversation between the use of Arabic and English as previously thought. Importantly though, we do not just use English to fill a linguistic need for a word or concept. We also use it to express our emotions and promote self-image, because CS has a lot to do with identity and indicating values that bilinguals tend to associate with a certain language community.
Bilingual immigrants don’t necessarily have dual identities or divided loyalty where they associate each identity with a specific language or culture. So, we cannot take it for granted that a bilingual is doing ‘Arabness’ when she’s speaking Arabic or she’s claiming an English identity when switching to English. Instead, speakers have fluid and multifaceted identities that they negotiate through switching languages. For example, through switching codes, I can perform being an Arab or Muslim at some point, then switch to my PhD student character, which does not mean I’m no longer Arab. Then, I am that bilingual, female immigrant who is fluent in English and likes living in England. So, a good way of communicating all of this and making you perceive me that way is through my linguistic practice. We don’t only speak to say who we are, but also to perform our identity and talk it into being.