RESEARCH | The Importance of Code-Switching in a Classroom Setting

09 December 2016

The Importance of Code-Switching in a Classroom Setting:

And how both written and spoken forms enhances bilingual student’s ability to learn and practice a new language, as well as, switch from one dialect to another



This paper will focus on the process of “code-switching,” how it is used and why it is important in a classroom setting. My main question for this research study is why code-switching is important for foreign students to use in ESL classroom? And why teachers should have the patience and pay close attention when a student code-switches in a single conversation, particularly in a written form? A lot of the times, when a student is learning how to read and write in English language, what they usually do (from my personal experience) is translate a sentence in their mind from their own native language, before writing it down in English. It can be though, because sometimes that sentence makes more since in your own language, then it read in English and vice versa.

Learning how not to code-switch from a native language to English in writing for bilingual, trilingual and multilingual students, takes time. It’s a long process. In a way, it’s not a bad thing at all. In fact, every foreign student who has taken ESL classes has gone through code-switching (as well as code-meshing and code-mixing) by moving to United States from other countries. My argument for this research is to prove that code-switching is a natural process not only for ESL students but also for American students who are born in the United States but are bilingual or use different dialects to communicate. No matter the ethnicity, race, or background, people code-switch at some point in their live (if not all the time), and it’s just a matter of doing it the right way and not confusing your brain. From my experience, either in Russian, Spanish or English classes, when a teacher approves code-switching and code-meshing in a proper way, it is easier for students to start making connections in their minds, because that way they start feeling much more comfortable and confident with analyzing and using both languages/dialects.

What is Code-Switching?

Code-switching involves alternating between two different languages or dialects (switching within the same sentence) either in a conversation at school or at work environment. In his book Other People’s English: Code Meshing, Code-Switching, and African-American Literacy, Professor of Linguistics Dr. Vershawn Ashanti Young, believes that code-switching is using one language or dialect and one context, using Standard English at school or work and using African-English with friends and family. According to Young, “This is an appeal to literacy educators to teach how the semantics and rhetoric of African American English are compatible/combinable and in many ways are already features of Standard English, and vice versa. This way, the rhetorical force of student’s written work and oral fluency will come from a combination of so-called home language and school language- not from translation one from the other, but from allowing them both to mingle together with vim and vigor” (Young, p. 75). When it comes to a classroom setting, Young prefers the approach of code-meshing, which brings both code-switching and code-switching together.

The Method behind Code-Switching

Code-switching is a natural process for ESL students, as well as, for American students who are born in the United States but are bilingual. When a student code-switches in a conversation, the process happens naturally.  In his research study “Implications For Language Diversity In Instruction In The Context Of Target Language Classrooms: Development Of A Preliminary Model Of The Effectiveness Of Teacher Code-Switching,” Jang Ho Lee descriptively defines the understanding of the conceptual and pedagogical issues of code-switching in the context of TS classroom. The article examine four ideas (which is, monolingualism, naturalism, native-speakerism, and absolutism) the monolingual approach to TL teaching, and discusses why these assumptions are important.

Lee’s (2012) study found the following: “Classroom CS studies conducted by Simon (2001), Canagarajah (1995), and Merritt, Cleghorn, Abagi and Bunyi (1992), which have analyzed classroom discourse from a micro-ethnographic approach, have found that these characteristics are also observable in TL classrooms. That is, these studies have shown that teachers and learners do share some knowledge of the particular constraints on the use of each language code under certain situations, occasionally shift between different frames, and consequently present dual identities as community members sharing the L1 and as participants in the classroom. Through a stretch of discourse, classroom members can shift frames from a “formal institutional learning” frame to “social” frame (Simon, 2001, p. 321), or signal “alignment and disalignment” between classroom members (Eldridge, 1996, p. 307) via code-switching, all frequently observed features from bilinguals in naturalistic settings. To put it differently, classroom CS is not a random phenomenon” (Lee, 2012). The purpose of this study is to clarify what contemporary classroom code-switching research, arguing that teaching code-switching should be permitted as a legitimate pedagogical practice. Lee does a wonderful job at discussing that code-switching can should be permitted as a legitimate pedagogical practice, as it is not only an example of natural bilingual behavior, but also has good potential in terms of contributing to the development of TL learners’ bilingual competence.

The Practice of Code-Switching

While working on this research paper, I stumbled upon an interesting and educating YouTube video on code-switching titled “Code-Switching” (2012). The video documentary discusses code-switching and how switching from informal speech to a formal speech (Standard English) can have an impact on things like where you work and what you earn. It talks about the different environments in which Standard English should be used. According to an Associate Professor of English, Hampton University Shonda Buchanan, “When you want to communicate affectively, verbally and in written form, you need to utilize your propositions well, so there is a way to use above and below and beyond. The proposition is a way that you can strengthen your language if you want to” (Buchanan. WHROTV, 2012). The main focus in this documentary is the understanding of how in certain situations one should code-switch and to do it in a way that is appropriate and understandable. School educators discuss the principles of code-switching and how it affects both bilingual and non-bilingual students. I found this documentary very informative on understanding the theory and practice of code-switching.

Code-Switching and Dialect Preservation

In TEDx Talk video Leaving Your Fingerprint on Society, Andy Rivière, who does clinical work with adults who speak Cajun French and English in Avoyelles Parish, and Shayne Kimble a pediatric speech-language pathologist, discusses code-switching and dialect preservation. They talk about the role that dialect plays in one’s identity and projection of one’s self to the world.

Riviere and Shayne state that, “What do we do as dialect users when we come in to a commutative situation, with someone who doesn’t share the same dialect? Well, we use a nifty process called code-switching. This is where you take certain sounds, grammar and even senses from one dialect and use it in another conversation. We don’t use these 100% of the time. We do this so that we sound more educated” (Shayne and Riviere, 2015). As speech specialists in Southern Louisiana, their study explores their personal struggles to preserve their native dialect, while presenting themselves as professionals, and the understanding preservation/use of personal dialect in today’s modern society. The relationship between our cultural landscape and our changing language, ways in which we use language: our accent, expressions, and the structure of our sentences, changes from region to region, and why we should listen to these differences and why language can act as a cultural barometer.

The Perspective of Register Theory

In her article An Analysis On Code-Switching In “Fortress Besieged” From the Perspective of Register Theory, Meihua Wang discusses the differences theories of code-switching, particularly in in Fortress Besieged, a critical novel written by a Chinese novelist Ch’ien Chung-shu. She focuses on varies approaches of codes-switching practice, such as, an overview of code-switching studies worldwide, register theory, field theory, tenor analysis and mode analysis. Wang analyses Fortress Besieged and how some characters in the novel frequently engaged in code-switching in their conversation.

According to Wang, “…people should consider how to communicate with others, in a casual way or in a polite way. For instance, when talking with a person of higher social status, the language that the participants use must be overcautious. While, talking with intimate friends, the language may be pretty casual. Thus, tenor of discourse often varies greatly with the differences of the participant’s social status” (Wang, 2015).

And when it comes to writing and speaking in code-switching, Wang states that, “The essential distinctions among mode variations do not simply lie in that between writing and speaking, but much more in sub-categorization. When real situation is taken into consideration, this clear-cut distinction between writing and speaking is far away from the truth. The real fact is that there is a lot of overlaps between the two modes, and the distinction is much changeable than might have been presupposed” (Wang, 2015). The main argument in this study is the importance of three factors, such as, field, tenor and mode upon the occurrence of code-switching. It gives helpful insists of the different characteristically registered theories that occur in conversations.


The Importance of Code-Switching in ESL Classroom Setting

Code-switching in ESL classroom setting can be beneficial to bilingual students. In their study Reviewing the Challenges and Opportunities Presented by Code Switching and Mixing in Bangla, Md. Kamrul Hasan, an Assistant Professor in English at United International University, Dhaka, Bangladesh and Mohd Moniruzzaman Akhand, an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Eastern University, Dhaka, Bangladesh, investigated important issues related to codeswitching and codemixing in an ESL classroom.

According to Hasan and Akhand, “The English words like: Confusion, Confused, Urgent, Confirm etc. are used by the Bangla monolinguals in such a way that the words seem to be Bangla, e.g. /ami confused/ “I am confused” On a typological point of view, our study and observation shows the predominant pattern while codeswitching/mixing employed by different sections of Bangladeshi society is insertional type of code-mixing proposed by Myers-Scotton though the other pattern, like; alternational by Poplack is also there. It is difficult to find the presence of congruent lexicalization by Muysken as the Bengali grammar is not largely shared with English grammar. For higher section of the society, code-switching/mixing is employed as communicative devices as well as for social function, pragmatic function more than these devices are employed by other sections of the society” (Hasan and Akhand, 2015). Thus, their study explores the concept of socioeconomic class of language and suggests the concerns regarding the language during speech in order to establish and/or to realize social function, pragmatic function, and metalinguistic function, and understanding foreigner’s analysis on codeswitching.


Dialect is Not a Disorder

It is completely normal to switch from one dialect to another dialect in both spoken and written form. In her TEDx Talk Don’t mistake a dialect for a disorder, a senior at Eastern Michigan University and McNair Scholar, studying Speech Language Pathology, Sadé Wilson discusses the reasons to why Speech-Language Pathologists (SLPs) often misdiagnose children using African American English (AAE) as having an articulation disorder. Wilson’s research, African American English: Dialect Mistaken as an Articulation Disorder has been published in the 2011 McNair Scholars Research Journal, Volume 4.

According to Wilson, “…students are learning two dialects. At home, there’s most likely a huge chance that they are using African American English as the primary dialect with friends, families, and other members in their community. So what’s really good for the students is to know that they have a culturally responsive SLP, who understands and motivates them to still be who they are, while going to through the chronological mile stones of learning Standard American English in the classroom or during clinical sessions” (Wilson, 2013). By this, Wilson means the importance of this issue, as well as provides recommendations for speech-language pathologists when working with children using African American English.

Why do People Code-Switch?

There are various different reasons to why people code-switch. The process happens naturally, and usually we don’t do it intentionally. In an NPR article on Code Switch (race and identity, remixed) Five Reasons Why People Code-Switch, journalist Matt Thompson discusses the five different reasons why people code-switch. According to Thompson, “The reasons people code-switch… While many people told us they code-switched to fit in, for example, several also told us they did it to stand out. What the stories reiterated most of all, though, is what our colleague Gene Demby pointed out in his inaugural post: No matter your race, ethnicity, class or cultural background, you probably do it” (Thompson, 2013).  It turns out that we switch from a different language or accent without realizing that we’re actually doing it. We do it unconsciously. Another reason is we want to fit in. We want say something in secret. And finally, it also helps convey a thought by expressing our ideas. The main argument in this article is that no matter what ethnicity you are, your race class or cultural background, everyone code-switches. And it’s absolutely normal to do it.

Personal Experience with Code-Switching

After working on this topic, it reminded me of my life experience with code-meshing and code-switching back in middle school. I was the only Russian speaking student in my ESL class. Most of my classmates were Spanish speakers. There was one Chinese speaker and one Japanese speaker. While all of us were in that class to learn the English language, the Chinese, Japanese student and I, learned more Spanish words in that class that year, than we did English words. Spanish students talked in Spanish most of the time, and so it was impossible not to learn the language. They would use code switching, talking in Spanish and then shifting the conversation to a dialect in English, when talking to the teacher and to us non-Spanish speakers.

My main everyday language is Russian, Armenian and English. For example, I speak in Russian and in Armenian at home, with my parents, relatives, Russian friends, and friends back home. At school, at work, when running errands, going to events, obviously I speak in English. My mom speaks very little English, and so we communicate in Russian most of the time. Sometimes, however, I encourage her to speak English and I switch from speaking to her in Russian to speaking in English in order for her to learn more Basic English words and sentences.

When communicating with my cousins, code-switching and code-meshing are involved most all the time. In a conversation, we usually switch from Russian or Armenian to English and from English to Russian or Armenian. We might say one sentence in Russian and the next one in English and vice versa, or switch in dialog from formal Standard English to non-formal Standard English. It’s not like we meant to say one sentence in English and the next one in Russian. It just happens naturally. I think when people move to the United States from other countries at the age of twelve (like me) or younger, that’s usually what happens. You switch from one language or dialog to another language when having a conversation, and somehow it sounds absolutely normal when talking to friends and family.

Language is constantly changing and that we should speak and write in a manner that is clear, accurate and right to the point. It’s important to teach the correct form of context, content and communication skills to students. I think it is important for students to communicate in a way that is not only “proper” English (which I think is not more or less but equally important), but also most importantly in a way that they feel comfortable with speaking and writing.

Speaking of writing, when I revise my essays, for example, I do struggle most of the time with writing descriptively and changing/adding more meaningful details that read clearly and catch the reader’s attention. I usually reread my essay two times before I start editing it. And once I edit, I edit and reedit two, three times, just to make sure every word, sentence and paragraph flows well together and makes sense. The changes that I think I should make with my revision strategies, is thinking more logically in terms of “should I include this word in this sentence?” “Does it need to be there?” “Will this sentence read better without this word?” And also, editing carefully to make sure that my punctuations marks are included where they need to be.

Since my first language is Russian; I sometimes translate in my head from Russian to English and vice versa, from English to Russian. It is somewhat difficult and can get very overwhelming, when it comes to the revision process, and analyzing in English in general. But I think, that is what makes me think more logically, and having these to perspectives from Russian to English is what makes my writing and revision process that much more interesting and challenging (in a good way). I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I remember my ESL teacher and the way she taught the class very-well. She used beginning English grammar and spelling textbooks to teach us how to write and read, and sometimes a computer software program called “Rosetta Stone.” It was challenging at first trying to learn the basics, but as the years went on, writing in English became easier for me to understand English in all terms (Speaking, analyzing, reading and writing). Since I’m an English (Creative Writing) minor student at MSU Denver, in the past four years I took creative writing classes such as, the arts and crafts of writing, fiction writing workshop, nonfiction writing workshop, poetry writing workshop. My English professors all had their own different approaches of teaching their students writing.

My nonfiction workshop professor once said to the class, “If you can talk, you can write.” In the beginning of every class period, we had to write little prompts (one page to two pages) on how our day was going so far, what we did on the weekend, what we’re planning on doing, what are plans for the summer, what are our plans after we graduate, our goals and dreams. This process really helped me, as a student, to think in a more creative and thoughtful way about my own writing. It helped me to become a better writer and not code-switch as much as I was used to.

Grammar is very important written and spoken forms. Whenever one is writing an academic essay or a nonfiction story, they have to use the correct form of grammar in order for the reader to understand their writing.


Conclusively, this study showed that code-switching is a normal process that occurs when switching from one language or dialect to another. Code-switching is not an articulation disorder nor is it considered to be a communication defect. Whether it is at a school or work environment, everyone code-switches. Whether they are bilingual and switch from one language to another, or use the same language but different dialects to communicate. It’s normal to code-switch. However, switching from African American English, Spanish English or Russian English to Standard English should be to a minimal, especially in profession work environment, such as at work or at a job interview.

It is important for teachers not to force students in analyzing, communicating or writing in a certain way that they think is right. They should have patience and play close attention on how the student code-switches in a single conversation or written form and guide them from there. For foreign students, when a student is learning how to write and read in English language, they translate a sentence in their mind from their own native language, before writing it down or saying it in English. It’s a challenging process, and teachers should pay close attention to how students express themselves in formal situations. Students should write and speak in a manner that is clear, accurate and what is considered to be “proper” English. However, it shouldn’t be the only way to communicate. They should communicate in a way that they feel comfortable with.

In the end, code-switch or code-meshing is matter of choice. First and foremost, you should feel comfortable and confident with analyzing, communicating and writing in both languages and dialects.

Works Cited

Hasan, Md. Kamrul, and Mohd. Moniruzzaman Akhand. “Reviewing The Challenges And Opportunities Presented By Code Switching And Mixing In Bangla.” Journal Of Education And Practice 6.1 (2015): 103-109. ERIC. Web. 22 Oct. 2016.

Kimble, Shayne,. Andy, Riviere. “Leaving Your Fingerprint on Society | Andy Riviere & Shayne Kimble | TEDxVermilionStreet.” Online video clip. TEDx TALKs. YouTube, 12 October 2015. Web. 06 November 2016.

Lee, Jang Ho. “Implications For Language Diversity In Instruction In The Context Of Target Language Classrooms: Development Of A Preliminary Model Of The Effectiveness Of Teacher Code-Switching.” English Teaching: Practice And Critique 11.4 (2012): 137-160. ERIC. Web. 22 Nov. 2016.

Thompson, Matt. “Five Reasons Why People Code-Switch.” NPR. Code Switch: race and identity, remixed. 13 April 2013. Web. 22 November 2016.

Wang, Meihua. “An Analysis On Code-Switching In “Fortress Besieged” From The Perspective Of Register Theory.” English Language Teaching 8.1 (2015): 134-141. ERIC. Web. 22 Nov. 2016.

WHROTV. “Code Switching.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 15 October 2012. Web. 04 December 2016.

Wilson, Sadé. “Don’t mistake a dialect for a disorder: Sade Wilson at TEDxEMU.” Online video clip. TEDx TALKs. YouTube, 28 April 2013. Web. 04 December 2016.

Young Ashanti Vershawn, Barrett Rusty, Young-Rivera Y’Shanda, Lovejoy Brian Kim. Other People’s English: Code-Meshing, Code-Switching, and African-American Literacy. New York: Teachers College Press. (2014), p. 75.