Sociolinguistic Studies, Vol 7, No 3 (2013)

Chinese vendors’ code-switching in service encounters in Sarawak, Malaysia

Yih-Long Lau, Su-Hie Ting
Issued Date: 28 Apr 2014


The study examined the language of service encounters in a bakery operated by Chinese vendors in a Foochow-dominant town in Malaysia. Naturally occurring data of 100 service encounters were digitally recorded (83 with Chinese customers and 17 with non-Chinese customers). In intraethnic interactions, Foochow is the default language choice but Mandarin is emerging as a viable option. In interethnic interactions, the Chinese vendors accommodated by speaking either Bahasa Malaysia or Bazaar Malay. A majority of the service encounters took place in one language as code-switching was identified in only 19 encounters. In interethnic interactions, the vendors switched to thank customers in English but in intraethnic interactions, the functions vary with the staging of service encounters. The main functions are emphasis on attributes of goods in Sale Enquiry, attributes and quantity of goods to buy in Sale Request, and attributes, quantity and price of goods to sell in Sale Compliance. Code-switching in the Purchase Closure stage brings in expression of thanks which is not an integral feature of service encounters in Eastern settings. Using stages of service encounters to explain code-switching functions provides a less context-dependent framework which shows how code-switching brings about efficiency in service encounters.

Download Media

PDF (Price: £17.50 )

DOI: 10.1558/sols.v7i3.199


Ali, J. M. (2000) Verbal communication: A study of Malaysian speakers. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: University of Malaya Press.
Altehenger-Smith, S. (1987) Language choice in multilingual societies: A Singapore case study. In K. Karlfried, E. Werner and K. Annelie (eds) Analyzing intercultural communication 75--94. Berlin, New York and Amsterdam: Mouton de Gruyter.
Apte, M. L. (1974) “Thank you” and South Asia languages: A comparative sociolinguistic study. Linguistics 136: 67--89.
Attan, A. (1998) English in industry: A study of language choice in two electronic firms in Malaysia. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Universiti Malaya.
Bailey, B. (2001) Communication of respect in interethnic service encounters. In A. Duranti (ed.) Linguistic Anthropology: A reader 119--146. Malden, MA: Basil Blackwell.
Blom, J. P. and Gumperz, J. J. (1986) Social meaning in linguistic structures. Code-switching in Norway. In J. J. Gumperz and D. Hymes (eds) Directions in sociolinguistics. The ethnographic communication 407--434. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell.
Burhanudeen, H. (2006) Language and social behavior: Voices from the Malay world. Bangi, Malaysia: Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Press.
Callahan, L. (2007) Spanish/English code switching in service encounters: Accommodation to the customer’s language choice and perceived linguistic affiliation. Southwest Journal of Lingusitics 26(1): 15--28.
Clarke, R. J. and Nilsson, A. G. (2008) Business services as communication patterns: A work practice approach for analyzing service encounters. IBM Systems Journal 47(1): 129--142.
Department of Statistics Malaysia, Sarawak (2012) Monthly statistical bulletin Sarawak: May 2012. Kuching, Malaysia: Department of Statistics.
Dumanig, F. P. (2010) Language choice in interracial marriages: The case of Filipino-Malaysian couples. Boca Raton, Florida:
Eggins, S. and Slade, D. (1997) Analyzing casual conversation. London: Cassell Academic.
Gumperz, J. J. (1982) Discourse strategies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hall, E. T. and Hall, M. R. (1987) Hidden differences: Doing business with the Japanese. New York: Anchor Press.
Halliday, M. A. K. and Hasan, R. (1985) Language, context, and text: Aspects of language in a social-semiotic perspective. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.
Hamers, J. and Blanc, M. (2000) Bilinguality and bilingualism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hartman, K. B., Meyer, T. and Scribner, L. L. (2009) Retail and service encounters: The inter-cultural tourist experience. Journal of Hospitality Marketing and Management 18(2-3): 197--215.
Jalaluddin, N. H. (2007) Bahasa dalam perniagaan: Satu analisis semantic dan pragmatic [Language in business: A semantic and pragmatic analysis]. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.
Jefferson, G. (1985) An exercise in the transcription and analysis of laugther. In T. van Dijk (ed.) Handbook of Discourse Analysis 25--34. London: Academic Press.
Kong, K. C. C. (1998) Politeness of service encounters in Hong Kong. Pragmatics 8(4): 555--575.
Legal Research Board (1997) Federal constitution. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: International Law Book Services.
Liu, A. (2009) “She is kind of clueless but cute”: Politeness in sales communication in Hong Kong. Accessed November 9, 2012, from:

Mahadhir, M., Ting, S. H. and Tumin, L. (2008) Language use in different domains in a Kadazandusun Community. Paper included at the Proceedings of 6th International Malaysian Studies Conference (MSC6). Kuching, Malaysia (2008, August 5--7).
Merritt, M. (1976) On questions following questions (in service encounters). Language in Society 5: 315--357.
Nair-Venugopal, S. (2000) Language choice and communication in Malaysian business. Kajang, Malaysia: Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Press.
Omar, A. H. (1979) Language planning for unity and efficiency: A study of the language status and corpus planning of Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.
Omar, A. H. (1982) Language and society in Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.
Orr, W. W. F. (2007) The bargaining genre: A study of retail encounters in traditional Chinese local markets. Language in Society 36(1): 73--103.
Pan, Y. L. (2000) Code switching and social change in GuangZhou and Hong Kong. International journal of the sociology of language 146: 21--41.
Platt, J. T. (1975) The Singapore English speech continuum. Anthropological Linguistics 17(7): 363--374.
Platt, J. T. and Weber, H. (1980) English in Singapore and Malaysia. London: Oxford University Press.
Schau, H., Dellande, S. and Gilly, M. (2007) The impact of code switching on service encounters. Journal of Retailing 83(1): 65--78.
Tan, A. K. (1993) Language choice and social class in the transaction domain in Singapore. Unpublished Master thesis, National University of Singapore.
Ting, S. H. (2001a) Language choice in multilingual organisational settings: The case of Sarawak, Malaysia. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Queensland.
Ting, S. H. (2001b) When is English not the right choice in Sarawak, Malaysia. English Today 65: 54--56.
Ting, S. H. (2010) Impact of language planning on language choice in friendship and transaction domains in Sarawak, Malaysia. Current Issues in Language Planning 11(4): 397--412.
Ting, S. H. and Chong, N. M. (2008) Making language choices based on appearance in intercultural communication: Fruit seller-customer interactions. Paper presented at 15th International Association of Applied Linguistics (AILA 2008, August 24-29), Essen, Germany.
Ting, S. H. and Lau, K. Y. L. (2010) Languages crossing ethnic boundaries in transactions at photo shop. Paper included at the Proceedings of International Conference on Minority and Majority: Language, Culture and Identity, Kuching, Malaysia (2010, November 23--24).
Ting, S. H., Lau, Y. L., Soong, G. P. and Chong, N. M. (2012) Greeting and thanking in retail transactions in Sarawak, Malaysia. In D. Chen (ed.) International proceedings of Economics Development and Research: Knowledge, Culture and Society 23--27. Singapore: IACSIT Press.
Ting, S. H. and Mahadhir, M. (2009) Towards homogeneity in home languages. Australian Review of Applied Linguistics (ARAL) 32(2): 11.1--11.22.
Ting, S. H., Mahadhir, M. and Ting, S. Y. (2010) Language choice in enquiries about accommodation in hotel telephone service encounters. Paper included at the Proceedings of Languages for Specific Purposes and Professional Communication International Conference, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia (2010, July 15--17).
Ting, S. H. and Nelson, T. (2010) Language attitudes of Foochow Chinese undergraduates towards Bahasa Melayu. Paper included at the Proceedings of 7th International Malaysian Studies Conference (MSC7), Pulau Pinang, Malaysia (2010, March 16-18).
Ting, S. H. and Yeo, J. J. Y. (2010) The language of educational consultations: Identifying higher education with English? Paper included at the Proceedings of International Conference on Minority and Majority: Language, Culture and Identity, Kuching, Malaysia (2010, November 23-24).
Togher, L., Hands, L. and Code, C. (1997) Measuring service encounters with the traumatic brain injury population. Aphasiology 11(4-6): 491--504.
Togher, L., McDonald, S., Code, C. and Grant, S. (2004) Training communication partners of people with traumatic brain injury: A randomised controlled trial. Aphasiology 18(4): 313--335.
Torras, M. C. (1998) The organization of bilingual service encounters: Code alternation and episode structure. Working Paper No. 97. Lancaster: Centre for Language in Social Life. Accessed May 14, 2013, from:
Torras, M. C. and Gafaranga, J. (2002) Social identities and language alternation in non-formal institutional bilingual talk: Trilingual service encounters in Barcelona. Language in Society 31(4): 527--548. Accessed May 20, 2013, from:

Wong, J. K. L. (2000) The Sabah Malay dialect. Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia: Universiti Malaysia Sabah Press.


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Equinox Publishing Ltd - 415 The Workstation 15 Paternoster Row, Sheffield, S1 2BX United Kingdom
Telephone: +44 (0)114 221-0285 - Email:

Privacy Policy