Code-switching in One Day at a Time

In this essay, I will be focusing on code-switching and bilingualism in scenes from the TV sitcom One Day at a Time. This sitcom is about a Cuban-American family that code-switches between English and Spanish on a regular basis. To demonstrate how regularly the characters use code-switching, I will be only focusing on the first episode of this sitcom. I will be analysing different conversations between the family members and pointing out how the speakers construct their identities.

Code-switching has more than one definition. One definition is from Gumperz (1982, p. 59), which states that code-switching is ‘the juxtaposition within the same speech exchange of passages of speech belonging to two different grammatical systems or subsystems’. This definition puts more of an emphasis on switching between grammatical systems of one language, although when people refer to code-switching, they usually mean a mix use of different languages. The definition by Milroy and Muysken (1995, p. 7) claims that code-switching is ‘the alternative use by bilinguals of two or more languages in the same conversation’. Macswan (1999, p. 37) states that ‘code switching is a speech style in which fluent bilinguals move in and out of two (or conceivably more) languages’. The last two definitions refer specifically to bilingual speakers and switches between different languages. 

The use of code-switching in spoken discourse has often led to disgrace and prejudice from society. It has been associated with poor linguistic competence and illiteracy as well as earning certain derogatory labels, for example “Tex-Mex” or “Spanglish”. There has been a lot of research done over the years on this topic and it has been proven that code-switching actually ‘serves a number of social and stylistic functions while also following distinct grammatical patterns’ (Montes-Alcalá, 2012, p. 125). Studies done by Gumperz (1982), McClure (1981), Valdés-Fallis (1976) and Zendela (1997) and others, have pointed out socio-pragmatic functions and discourse that demonstrates this phenomenon. ‘Most of these researchers have identified similar functions, such as quotations, repetition, exclamation, addressee specification, emphasis, clarification and elaboration, focus, attention retention, and topic and/or role change, just to mention a few’ (Montes-Alcalá, 2012, p. 125). Poplack (1980), was one of the first researchers that claimed that code-switching was not a sign of imperfection, but it was in fact an indication that children were learning languages normally. She stated that ‘Code-switching, rather than representing deviant behaviour, is actually a suggestive indicator of a degree of bilingual competence’ (p. 73).

One Day at a Time is a sitcom that started in 2017 and it has four seasons so far. As I stated in the first paragraph, it focuses on the lives of a Cuban-American family. It’s in English for the most part, but it often switches from English to Spanish when the family members talk to each other. The reason as to why the family members code-switch from English to Spanish, might be to reinforce their common heritage (Gardner-Chloros, 2009, p. 5-6). Lydia, the oldest member of the family, uses Spanish the most. She often remembers her times in Cuba, before she immigrated to America. Because of that, it’s very likely that she code-switches to Spanish because she misses her homeland. She also teaches her daughter and grandchildren to be proud of their heritage and insists that they know the Spanish language. Elena, one of the grandchildren, doesn’t know Spanish very well. She’s not really connected to her family heritage, because she was born and grew up in America. Her grandma wishes that she could change that, as can be seen in the first example.

Example 1

LYDIA: You need to do something about this little sinvergüenza.

ELENA: What does that even mean?

LYDIA: It means…that you do not know enough Spanish to know that I am insulting you. (she goes over to Alex) Oye, tu hermana no sabe la palabra sinvergüenza.

ALEX: Oye, ¡qué tonta!

ELENA: Abuelita, I’ll learn more Spanish when you learn English.

Although Spanish is used by the family members to feel closer to each other, here it’s used to exclude one of the family members for not knowing enough Spanish. Lydia insults Elena and then laughs at her when she doesn’t understand her. Elena, to get back at her, tries to alienate Lydia for not knowing English well enough. This demonstrates that although code-switches can make bilingual people closer, it can also distance the speaker from the person they are talking to (Holmes and Wilson, 2017, p. 36). This switch also demonstrates that Lydia aligns with her Cuban heritage and Elena, on the other hand, is signalling her alignment with her American heritage and distances herself from her family by doing that. However, in the last line of this example, Elena refers to her grandma in Spanish. By doing that, we can assume that she’s trying to prove her Spanish heritage and align herself with her family. It is also possible that she’s trying to prove it by tag switching with Lydia. Tag switching is ‘an interjection or a linguistic tag in the other language which serves as an ethnic marker’ (Holmes and Wilson, 2017, p. 36). Bandia (1996, p. 140) states that it ‘involves the insertion of a tag in one language into an utterance which is otherwise entirely in the other language.’ Lydia uses a Spanish tag at the end of her utterance and Elena uses it in the beginning of her utterance to signal to Lydia their shared ethnic background. ‘Tags are freely movable constituents which may be inserted almost anywhere in the sentence without fear of violating any grammatical rule’ (Poplack 1980, p. 21).

Example 2

PENELOPE: Oh, God, just accept it. You’re Cuban, you’re 15, you’re going to have a big party, with a poofy dress and a bad photo. It’s what we do.

ELENA: ¡Te odio! ¡Oy, no me escuchas! ¡Esto es tan estúpido!

LYDIA: She can speak Spanish.

This second example is a scene from the same episode that comes a little bit later in the episode. In this example, Elena does prove her bilingualism, but it feels rather unintentional. She says a Spanish utterance in a moment of anger. By using Spanish as an emotional response, she puts an emphasis on the meaning and her emotion. Although her knowledge of the Spanish language does not come across very well in the first example, when she uses language to express her emotion rather than her objectivity about the topic in the second example, we can see that she speaks quite well and that her emotions bring out her knowledge of the Spanish language.

Example 3

LYDIA: So, there is some ropa vieja in the mantequilla thing if you don’t want to eat that…sad meat.

In this third example, we can see a lack of knowledge in vocabulary. ‘When speaking a second language, for instance, people will often use a term from their mother tongue or first language because they don’t know the appropriate word in their second language’ (Holmes and Wilson, 2017, p. 44). Lydia uses the word mantequilla instead of butter, possibly because she can’t remember how to say the word in English. It is also possible that she doesn’t know the word in English at all. It is a switch that is triggered by the lack of the word in her vocabulary. This is not the case when she uses the word ropa vieja. Although this word does literally mean ‘old clothes’, it is a name for the national dish of Cuba. It is a name for a meal and therefore it’s not translated. She’s borrowing the word from Spanish, because the name of this dish is not translated in English. ‘People may also borrow words from another language to express a concept or describe an object for which there is no obvious word available in the language they are using.’ Holmes and Wilson (2017, p. 44) also state that borrowing, unlike code-switching, is motivated by lexical need. ‘It is very different from switching where speakers have a genuine choice about which words or phrases they will use in which language.’ Lydia pronounces the name of the dish naturally in Spanish, even though she’s speaking primarily in English in this conversation, which is natural since borrowed words are mostly accustomed to the first language of the speaker. 

Example 4

PENELOPE: Remember when we all moved in together and you said, “If you ever want me to go away, just say, ‘Go away.'”

LYDIA: Yeah. (pause) Oh! Ah, bueno. ¿A mi qué me importa? Esta familia esta llena de dramáticas, teatros… ¡Yo tengo amigos que me quieren muchísimo y que me dan respeto!

This is another example where the code switch stems from an emotional response. Penelope (Lydia’s daughter) insinuated that she wants Lydia to leave her alone. When Lydia speaks, she doesn’t get it at first, but after a pause in her speech she switches a language and becomes angry. Even the non-Spanish speakers can comprehend from her response that she understands what Penelope was trying to say, because the switch in language is so rapid and unexpected.

Example 5

PENELOPE: No, come on. Come on. No. You know you’re the only non-Latino I trust to fix stuff. Oh, is that racist? Oh, who cares, it’s just us.

SCHNEIDER: Orale güey!

PENELOPE: Yeah, don’t do that.

In this fifth example I want to point out the character Schneider. Although he does not have the same Cuban heritage as the family that is the main focus of the show, he wants to be included in the family. He switches to Spanish with the family on a frequent basis to feel included and hopes to be accepted by doing that. 

Example 6

LYDIA: Oh! Hello, Schneider.

SCHNEIDER: Hola, señora.

In this example he does it again. He uses tag switching in hopes to be included in the conversation and the family. ‘A speaker may similarly switch to another language as a signal of group membership and shared ethnicity with an addressee’ (Holmes and Wilson, 2017, p. 35). Schneider signals to Penelope and Lydia that he understands Spanish and that they can include him in the conversation and use Spanish around him.

As I mentioned before, Elena is not very fluent in Spanish. However, there are terms that every member in this family uses, including Schneider.

Example 7

SCHNEIDER: Hey, girl. How you livin’? Your abuela wants to throw you a sick kick-back on a Saturday night. You know, keep it hundred. You down?

In this example, we can see the Spanish word abuela, which Elena also used in the first example. This word is used frequently throughout the show and it means grandmother. The characters in this show use it every time instead of the English term. By doing this, the participants in the conversation signal their ethnic background, and/or their group membership. 

In conclusion, the main purpose of this essay was to show that even though bilingual speakers have been shamed for their code-switching in conversations in the past, it is becoming more and more acceptable. Not only in scriptwriting, but in literature as well. Aparicio (1994, p. 797) states that ‘while some prescriptive linguists, editors, and authorities in education would judge the interference of Spanish and English as a deficit, a postmodern and transcreative approach would validate it as a positively creative innovation in literature.’ Shows like One Day at a Time are important, because they normalize and portray code-switching as a completely normal everyday thing between bilingual speakers.


Aparicio, F. (1994). On Sub-versive Signifiers: U.S. Latina/o Writers Tropicalize English. American Literature, 4, 795-801

Bandia, P. (1996). Code-switching and code-mixing in African creative writing: Some insights for Translation StudiesTTR: traduction, terminologie, rédaction, 9(1), 139–153

Gardner-Chloros, P. (2009). Code-switching. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Gumperz, J. J. (1982). Language and Social Identify. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Holmes, J., & Wilson, N. (2017). An introduction to sociolinguistics (Fifth ed., Learning about language).

Macswan, J. (1999). A Minimalist Approach to Intrasentential Code Switching. In L. Horn (Ed.), Outstanding dissertations in linguistics, a Garland series.New York, NY: Garland Publishing. 

Milroy, L., & Muysken, P. (1995). One Speaker, two languages: Cross-disciplinary perspectives on code-switching. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Montes-Alcalá, C. (2012). Bicultural Dramas: Spanish-English Code-Switching in Bilingual Plays. Bilingual Review / La Revista Bilingüe, 31(2), 125-140. Retrieved December 5, 2020, from

Poplack, S. (1980). Sometimes I’ll start a sentence in English y termino en español: Towards a Typology of Codeswitching. Linguistics, 18, 581-618

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