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Greg O. Obiamalu & Davidson U. Mbagwu


Code-switching and code-mixing are known to be universal
switching/mixing was seen as evidence of “internal mental
confusion, the inability to separate two languages sufficiently to
warrant the description of true bilingualism” (Lipski 1982:191).
Studies have shown that code-switching is not a manifestation of
mental confusion but a rule-governed behaviour among bilinguals
which is motivated by various socio-psychological as well as
linguistic factors. It has been observed that code-switching is more
predominant among Igbo-English bilinguals compared to any other
linguistic group in Nigeria. This paper seeks to explain why the Igbo
people code-switch a lot by looking at the history of the Igbo
language contact with English, the socio-psychological factors as
well as the Linguistic factors that contributed to the predominance of
code-switching among Igbo-English bilinguals.

1.0 Introduction
Code-switching is a linguistic behaviour that arises as a result
of languages coming into contact. Other phenomena that could result
from languages coming in contact with one another are:
bilingualism, borrowing, pidginization and creolization. Code-
switching which is sometimes referred to as ‘code-mixing’, ‘code-
shifting’ or ‘code-changing’ has been defined as the act of
“alternation of two languages within a single discourse, sentence or
constituent” (Poplack 1980:583). However, some people have used
the term ‘code-switching’ and ‘code-mixing’ to distinguish two
types of alternation in the use of two languages. Code-switching
refers to the alternate use of sentences from two languages in a
single discourse, while code-mixing refers to the alternate use of
constituents from two languages within a sentence. 1 and 2 below
illustrate the difference between the two.

28 Motivations for Code-Switching

1. Ab ara m be g nyaah . I did not meet anybody.
‘I came to your house yesterday. I did not meet anybody
2. Abiara m na your house yesterday but o nweghi onye m
‘I came to your house yesterday but did not meet anybody’

While 1 illustrates code-switching, 2 illustrates code-mixing.
This paper is interested in both types but we shall use code-
switching to refer to both.
The objective of this paper is to investigate why code-switching
is predominant among the Igbo-English bilinguals. Onumajuru
(2007:67) notes that ‘every Nigerian speaker (literate, semi-literate
and non-literate) is involved in the phenomena of code-switching
and code-mixing of English and the native language. But Ogbonna
(1985) observes that code-switching is more predominant among the
Igbo people than any other ethnic group in Nigeria. According to
him, “unlike the Hausa and the Yoruba, the Igbo man does not
discuss with a fellow Igbo man in Igbo language without adding
English words”. If Ogbonna’s observation is true and we believe it
is, why is it so? Before we go into seeking for answers to this
question, let us examine two related and most times confused terms:
code-switching and borrowing

2.0 Code-switching or Borrowing?
It is important at this juncture to make a distinction between
‘code-switching’ and ‘borrowing’. This is because the two
phenomena are closely related and most times confused. Pfaff
(1979:295) quoting Gumperz and Hermandez-Chavez (1975) speaks
of “code-switching (even that involving the whole sentence) as a
type of borrowing”. The distinction between the two terms is usually
hinged on phonological and morphological adaptation. Haugen
(1956:40) describes borrowing as “the regular use of material from
one language in another so that there is no longer either switch or
overlapping except in a historical sense”. He, however, describes
code-switching as a situation “where a bilingual introduces a
completely unassimilated word from another language into his
speech”. Bentahila and Davies (1983) suggest two criteria for
distinguishing code-switching from borrowing. One, borrowing

Greg Obiamalu & Davidson Mbagwu 29

could be used by both monolinguals and bilinguals since borrowed
items have become part of the lexicon of the host language, whereas,
code-switching features in the speech of bilinguals only. Two,
borrowing involves phonological and morphological adaptation of
the lexical items into the host language while code-switching does
not. However this criterion has been criticized. Studies have shown
that code-switched elements can undergo phonological and
morphological adaptation into the base language (cf Pfaff 1979,
Bentahila and Davies 1983, Obiamalu and Mbagwu 2007)
Obiamalu and Mbagwu (2007) classify the so-called code-
switching into three types: borrowing, quasi-borrowing and true
code-switching. Case of borrowing arises when lexical items from
one language are inserted into another and the items undergo
phonological and morphological assimilation into the host language.
This is mostly done when there is lexical gap in the host language. 3
illustrate cases of borrowing in Igbo.

3a maakigo ule ah (mark)
‘He has marked the examination’
b d na tebulu (table)
‘It is on the table’

The words ‘mark’ and ‘table’ had been borrowed and
assimilated into Igbo because there are no readily available
equivalents in Igbo. The case of quasi-borrowing arises when the
host language has equivalent but the intruding language equivalent is
more often used by both bilinguals and monolinguals. It may or may
not be assimilated into the host language. This is illustrated by 4 and
5 below.
4a Obi z r car h r 5a Akwa ya na-acha red
‘Obi bought a new car’ ‘His cloth is red in colour’
b Obi z r gb ala h r b Akwa ya na-acha bara bara
‘Obi bought a new car’ ‘His cloth is red in colour’

Even though Igbo has words for ‘car’ and ‘red’, most people
use the English equivalents. The third situation is what we could
refer to as true code-switching. In this situation, the Igbo equivalents
are readily available but the speaker chooses to use the English. This

30 Motivations for Code-Switching

is found only among bilinguals with different degrees of
bilingualism in Igbo and English. 6a and b are good examples

6 a Fela na ecriticize onye b la
‘Fela criticizes everybody’
b Jesus turn r water gh r wine
‘Jesus turned water into wine’

The cases in 6 are true code-switching because the Igbo words
for ‘criticize’, ‘turn’, ‘water’ and ‘wine’ are readily available in
Igbo, but the speaker chooses to use the English equivalents. Those
who do these are the subjects for this research.
This is done only by bilinguals. This paper seeks to explain why
it is more common among Igbo-English bilinguals.

The data used for this study were recorded surreptitiously at
locations and at different times. The recordings were in form of
paper jottings. There was no audio cassette recording because the
researchers never at any time set out to go looking for instances of
code-switching, but rather had to note them as they occur in the
spontaneous speech of different individuals at different occasions.
The occurrence of code-switching was noted in the speech of more
than hundred Igbo-speaking people; both young and old, educated
and uneducated, male and female. The data were collected over a
period of eight months at different places, formal occasions like
meetings, informal occasions, conversations with friends and
colleagues, discussions among different groups: school children,
university students, workers, traders, etc. The researchers always
noted down instances of code-switching immediately they heard
them if pen and paper were available. In the absence of pen and
paper, the researchers had to wait until they got home to jot down as
much of the utterances as they could still remember.
Since this study is socio-psychological, the researchers needed
to find out what goes on in the minds of the speakers when they
code-switch. Many of our subjects were interviewed on why they
code-switch. Surprisingly, some are not even conscious that they do
code-switch. In the course of carrying out this study, one of the

Greg Obiamalu & Davidson Mbagwu 31

researchers raised the issue of code-switching that is seen to be very
common among the Igbo at a gathering of his Town Union (Nnewi
Development Union) where Igbo is supposed to be the only medium
of discourse. The researcher stressed the negative effect of Engligbo
as it is commonly called on the development of the Igbo language.
Most people who spoke at that meeting made conscious effort to
avoid code-switching. Their speech became slower, but amazingly,
nobody was able to make five sentences without unconsciously
bringing in one or two English words and pausing to correct himself.
All these were noted.

3.1 The Data
We present here sample of Igbo-English code-switched
utterances from our large corpus of data. English is written in plain,
while Igbo is italicized. The gloss in English is written below each
utterance. Each utterance is numbered for easy reference in the

1. Amagh m ihe kpatara na Nigerian governments are
insensitive to the plight of the people
‘I do not know why Nigerian governments are insensitive to the
plight of the people’
2. Fela na ecriticize government b la
‘Fela criticizes every government’
3. Nigerian problem enweghizi solution
‘Nigerian problems have no solution’
4. A instruct go m lawyer m ka o sue ya to court
‘I have instructed my lawyer to sue him to court’
5. preparera maka exam a very well
‘He prepared for this exam very well’
6. Di any , how kwan ?
‘My friend, how are you?’
7. Why na b agh yesterday
‘Why didn’t you come yesterday’
8. d mma, never mind
‘It is okay, never mind’
9. My wife ga-eje ah a tomorrow
‘My wife will go to market tomorrow’

32 Motivations for Code-Switching

10. Ife nwaany a na-eme is becoming too much
‘what this woman is doing is becoming unbearable’
11. Lote kwan na oge onye n before him n na n s r na
b a dictator
‘Remember that when the person before him was there, you called
him a dictator’
12. O nwelu ife d interesting na ya
‘Is there anything interesting in it?’
13. O nwelu very good article in that journal
‘he has a very good article in that journal’
14. E dissolvego board ah
‘the board has been dissolved’
15. The HOD j r hand over to the newly appointed person
‘The HOD refused to hand over to the newly person’
16. ga-ewe nnukwu ego to repair
‘It will cost a lot of money to repair’
17. A n r m that na the man d very tough
‘I heard that the man is very tough’
18. It is not possible that na mmad ga-esi na twenty-five
storey building daa ghara nw
‘It is not possible that somebody will fall down from a twenty-five
story building and still live’
19. This is how somebody si abanye na trouble
‘This is how somebody gets into trouble’
20. Ebe two months from taa
‘About two months from today’

4.0 Discussions
There are universal motivations for code-switching as well as
motivations for particular code-switched language varieties. Not
until recently, code-switching was seen as evidence of “internal
mental confusion, the inability to separate two languages sufficiently
to warrant the description of true bilingualism” (Lipski 1982: 191).
Studies have shown that code-switching is not a manifestation of
mental confusion but a rule governed behaviour among bilinguals
which is motivated by certain linguistic as well as socio-
psychological factors. These factors could differ from one code-
switched variety to another. This could explain why some linguistic

Greg Obiamalu & Davidson Mbagwu 33

groups do code-switch more than others. Previous scholars of code-
switching have noted that the rate of code-switching is more among
the Igbo when compared with the other two largest linguistic groups:
Hausa and Yoruba. It has also been seen as one of the factors
militating against the development of the Igbo language. In this
section we shall discuss the linguistic and socio-psychological
factors responsible for the predominance of code-switching among
the Igbo. Before we go into that we deem it necessary to review the
history of Igbo contact with English which will also provide us with
reasons why the Igbo code-switch a lot.

4.1 Historical background to Igbo contact with English

The European colonization of Africa brought about the
imposition of English, by Britain, as a lingua franca on a largely
fragmented ethnolinguistic groups that make up what is today
known as Nigeria. English became the language of colonial
administration and education. Developing some level of competence
both in written and spoken English became necessary to secure
employment especially in the civil service. The importance of the
English Language became overemphasized (even up till now) to the
detriment of our indigenious languages. In the case of English in
Igboland, the ability to speak and write English was so much valued
that a competent user of English was accorded so much respect and
recognition among his people. The Igbo people are known for their
astuteness, dynamism and receptivity to change. They were so much
fascinated by this foreign tongue that everybody strove to learn it or
strongly admired those who were able to speak the ‘whiteman’s
language’. Nwala (1985:23) describes the Igbo man receptivity to
change in the following words: ‘It … was paradoxical that the group
that most resisted the whiteman’s rule and the whiteman’s way of
life, eventually turned around to be the most anglicized and the most
Europeanized among Nigerians.’ Other people have rather criticized
the Igbo peoples’ desire for foreign things. Afigbo (1979:3)
describes the Igbo as people “who more than most other Nigerian
people tends rather recklessly to abandon their indigenous culture for
European culture”. These assertions could be seen most obviously in
their desire to speak English at any available opportunity even in
their homes. This desire to speak English leads to frequent code-

34 Motivations for Code-Switching

switching. Many writers have viewed code-switching among the
Igbo from a negative perspective. Ogbonna (1985) quoted in
Ahukanna (1990:180) describes code-mixing among the Igbo as
‘linguistic sabotage’. According to him,
Unlike the Hausa and the Yoruba, the Igbo man does
not discuss with a fellow Igbo man in Igbo Language
without adding English words. For example, the so-
called educated Igbo man speaks thus: Gwa your
brother na m ch r ih ya; Gwa Okeke to bring my pen
to me.
We very much agree with Ogbonna and others that code-
switching is very much predominant among the Igbo. Let us
examine some of the motivations for this speech pattern.

4.2 Socio-psychological Motivations for Code Switching Among
the Igbo

Our observations and interviews reveal that Igbo-English
bilinguals are motivated to code-switch by the following factors.

Language Attitude: Most Igbo speakers of English accord
more prestige status to English. Sometimes, there is conscious
display of knowledge of a supposedly more prestigious language by
some Igbo-English bilinguals. The utterances in numbers 2,4,5,9 for
example seem to have been motivated by conscious display of the
knowledge of English. We say this because the English verbs used in
those utterances have readily available equivalents in Igbo. For
example, it is more natural for the person that uttered 4 to have
rendered it thus: A gwago m lawyer m ka gbaa ya akwukwo na
The use of the verbs ‘instruct’ and ‘sue’ in 4 seems to us to
have been motivated by a conscious display of the knowledge of

Subconscious Linguistic Behaviour: To some Igbo-English
bilinguals, code-switching has become a habit and most times occur
subconsciously when speaking with another Igbo speaker whether
bilingual or monolingual. You may find such situation in a public

Greg Obiamalu & Davidson Mbagwu 35

address, formal discussion in Igbo, informal conversations with
fellow Igbo people. It is subconscious because most people may not
be aware that they have switched or be able to report, following a
conversation which code they have used to utter particular phrases or
words. In the course of carrying out this investigation, which we
have earlier mentioned, one of the researchers raised the issue of
code-switching at one of the general meetings of his town union
(Nnewi Development Union) where the language of deliberation was
supposed to be Igbo. The speakers at the meeting became conscious
of their language use. They strived to use only Igbo and that affected
the pace of their speech. It became slower but amazingly, nobody
was able to make five sentences without bringing in one or two
English words or expressions. This is an indication that code-
switching has become a habit for most Igbo bilinguals, and habits
are not easy to change.

Cultural Disloyalty: The desire for foreign things among the Igbo,
could also account for the predominance of code-switching.
Language is culture. Afigbo (1979) as earlier quoted, has described
the Igbo people as those who recklessly abandon their indigenous
culture for foreign ones. When compared with the Yoruba and the
Hausa, it seems that the Igbo man is not proud of his language and
culture. A Yoruba man could borrow words of English and quickly
assimilate them into the phonological structure of Yoruba. For
bread - bùr di
pan - paanu (‘p’ pronounced like Igbo ‘kp’)
rice - ir si

These terms are found in the speech of Yoruba-English
bilinguals and monolinguals alike. In the case of Igbo, the use of
such adapted terms is seen as an indication of lack of competence in
English and therefore marks one as uneducated. They are rather
stigmatized. Such forms are therefore avoided as much as possible
by those who have acquired even very little level of competence in
English. We view this as an indication of lack of love for one’s
language and therefore a form of cultural disloyalty.

36 Motivations for Code-Switching

4.3 Linguistic factors
Undoubtedly, there are certain linguistic factors that contribute
to the predominance of code-switching among the Igbo.

Lexical Gap: There are many concepts and expressions that do not
have readily available equivalents in Igbo. Igbo speakers in this kind
of situation have no choice than to switch to English. The utterance
in number 12 is a good example. The equivalent of the verb
‘dissolve’ gbaze does not capture the intended meaning ‘to dissolve
a board’. The difficulty in getting an equivalent expression could
have motivated the switching. There are various attempts to develop
terminologies for Igbo, but most of them are done by individuals
with no proper coordinating bodies. Even the ones developed by the
Igbo Standardization Committee are still known only in the Igbo
language classrooms. This is unlike Yoruba and Hausa, where such
developed terms have permeated every facet of the society and have
become part and parcel of everyday language use. For example,
most Yoruba people know and use the term ile epo for ‘fuel station’
whereas in Igbo, ‘filling station’ is commonly used.

Low Level of Competence in Igbo: A balanced bilingual is one
who has attained equal level of competence in both languages. This
seems to be an ideal situation that is rarely achieved. Most people
have one language dominating the other. Ahukanna (1990) argues
that English has become dominant over Igbo for most educated Igbo.
According to him, “it is usually speech based on the weaker
language that is more flooded with expressions from the more
dominant language”. We do not quite agree with Ahukanna that
English has become more dominant in the brain of Igbo bilinguals.
A closer look at Igbo-English code-switched expressions show that
the syntactic structure is basically Igbo, even where the lexical
content may be mostly English. This shows that Igbo is still
dominant. Therefore, the tendency to code-switch among Igbo
bilinguals could not be explained in terms of dominance but rather
due to some of the factors mentioned above.
However, we cannot rule out the cases of people who have not
acquired enough competence in Igbo to enable them effectively use
Igbo for communication. Such people easily resort to code-switching