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Good & bad code switching

Posted on: October 27, 2014

In the Singapore context, code switching might refer to a person’s ability to alternate between different forms of the same language.

For example, in a formal context like a meeting or presentation, a person might speak proper, standard English. In an informal context like lunch with colleagues or a neighbourly chat, that same person might speak Singlish.

This happens intuitively for those that actually have at least two switch positions. The problems that language purists might have are when users do not know when to switch according to context and if there is only one code to choose from (typically Singlish).

Those are problems for language experts to discuss.

There is behavioural code switching that all of us should be concerned about.

Oriental City Food Court by Route79, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License   by  Route79 

We used to clear our food trays after eating at fast food joints or other eateries. I am not sure when, but a generation of people have stopped doing it. This has become the norm so much so that signs and posters that urge patrons to return their trays are happily ignored.

Most schools require students to clear their trays when they are done in the canteen. The kids do it or pay a penalty of some sort. So it becomes normal or expected behaviour.

But these same kids nonchalantly leave their trays behind when they are done at fast food restaurants or food courts. There is no legal or social penalty for doing this after all.

They have learnt to code switch their behaviours. This is a sad thing.

What is sadder is that some adults justify or defend this behaviour. They might point out that this is how kids behave at home because their maids do the clearing.

They might also say that tray-clearing provides employment for the “aunties” and “uncles” at these places. But they fail to realize that these jobs would not be necessary if they cleared their own trays or that these folks could be better deployed.

Worse than this behavioural code switching is if there is only one not-clearing code or if the switch is stuck in that mode.

In the grand scheme of things, this sounds trivial. But the little things count because they all add up.

When we eat out, I make it a point to clear my own tray. I make sure my son does the same too. We can do our part in making our place a little kinder and cleaner.

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