Departing from Doctor-Speak: a Perspective on Code-Switching in the Medical Setting

J Gen Intern Med. 2019 Mar;34(3):464-466. doi: 10.1007/s11606-018-4768-0. Epub 2018 Dec 10.


"Code-switching"-the mixing of languages, dialects, tones, or lexicons within a single conversation-is a prevalent linguistic phenomenon that has been described thoroughly in the social science literature. However, it is relatively unknown to the medical community despite its clear implications for clinicians as they navigate their role in the physician-patient relationship. As multilingualism and other forms of mixed speech become increasingly common in the urban and globally minded populations of America's modern cities, physicians must be cognizant of how they use their language skills-such as code-switching-to communicate with their patients in an ethical, supportive, and non-offensive manner. Multidisciplinary literature, case studies, and thought experiments on the subject provide an actionable framework by which health professionals can work toward achieving this goal of cultural competence.

Keywords: communication; cultural competency; doctor-patient relationships; patient centered care; social science.

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Communication*
  • Cultural Competency / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Race Factors*