Arabic-English Codeswitching: Negotiating Social Networks in Jordan

Victoria Heckenlaible

University of Texas


The project tracks English’s status a lingua franca and a symbol of modernity within Jordanian society, specifically within educated classes living in Amman. I collected a data sample that includes 5 hours of public and business speech observations, Facebook data collection, 58 surveys of Jordanian college students and 6 45-minute interviews of Jordanians ranging from teachers, musicians to businessmen.


The project first sets to document the English used within the context of code switching. I then analyze how Jordanians use English to negotiate and position themselves within different social networks while creating their own identity.  I use the framework of audience design to show that the speaker changes his or her language code according to how the he understands the referent, bystander, addressee and setting.


I argue that the use of English maintains existing social networks as well as creating new ones when the speaker cannot place the interlocutor in an already identified network.  Jordanians often look for cues such as education, job occupational prestige, and setting context before determining the code mix of English he or she may use. Arabic is mostly used as a neutral language or when the interlocutor is grounded in traditional society.


The networks associated with the use of English appear to be in transition.  On one hand, my data show that English is association with modernity, while family-based social networks are not.  English-dominated academics constitute a heavily debated social network. Most universities and most academic content are English-based. The majority of Jordanians maintain the modern-status of the universities by promoting an English-only environment. However, a minority makes it their personal mission to produce Arabic content in order establish Arabic academics. The minority often cites their distress that English seems to be a more valid and helpful language than Arabic in research.  


My research suggests that the use of English is closely linked to the modernization of Jordanian culture and economy. As many Jordanians feel that English proficiency is linked to a more prestigious job, English is promoted by the education system, families and society, though Jordanians are conscious of using the language as it can be seen as pretentious and overtly Western.