25 Code-Switching

Adding a Tool to the Toolbox: Code-Switching

Written By: Trenice Durio


Learning Targets:

Upon reading this article, the reader will be able:

1.) To know the three types of code-switching: borrowing, calque, and intersentential.

2.) To use strategies/ activities to increase their students’ abilities to code-switch effectively.

3.) To recognize the negative and positive aspects of code-switching.


What is Code-Switching?

Definitions of Code-Switching

“consciously modifying speech to slip from one culture to another.”

(Haddock, 2008)

“change from lexical register to another”

(McCoy, 2006, p. 24)

“Shift in language that is guided by a shift in context”

(Knestrict & Schoensteadt, 2005, p. 177)

“use of complete sentences, phrases, and borrowed words from another language”

(Hughes, Shaunessy, and Brice, 2006, p.8)


Code switching is the ability to recognize that different scenarios require a change in speech among multilingual groups. A person must identify that a change in a social situation has occurred in order to switch codes. Codes refer to different contexts of speech, such as formal vs. informal language or Spanish vs. English. Students who are bilingual or who come from different cultural backgrounds are noted for their ability to code switch. Since standard English is not their primary language, it takes these students added efforts to speak according to the standard Some are able to code switch fluently from one language to another, while some are unable to switch back and forth with ease. Unless a proper understanding of when and how to code switch is attained by the student, a lack of understanding will sometimes translate to a lack of knowledge. (Wheeler, 2008) For African-American students this lack of knowledge means “persistent over-representation in special education and remedial basic skills classes to under-representation in honor classes, to lagging SAT scores, to low high school graduation rates” (Wheeler, 2008).







Types of Code-Switching

Types of Code-Switching

Borrowing: Saying “Bueno bye” (Spanish and English) instead of “Goodbye” (English) or “Buenos dias” (Spanish)

Calque: Saying “El lote deparquear” (Improper Spanish Translation) instead of “Parking lot” (English) or “Campo de estacionamiento” (Proper Spanish Translation)

Intersentential: Saying “Sientense, students” (Spanish and English) instead of “Sit down, students” (English) or “Sientense estudiantes” (Spanish)


There are three types of code-switching: borrowing, calque, and intersentential. The first type refers to using words from the secondary language in the same grammatical format, but words unavailable in the primary language (Hughes et al., 2006). Calque is literally translating a phrase without regard to proper context (Hughes et al., 2006). Third, intersentential is inserting an entire phrase from the secondary language into a conversation using the other language (Hughes et al., 2006). All types refer to switching back and forth from one language to another to communicate to others based on the situation.










Code-Switching As A Valuable Tool

For bilingual speakers, code-switching is a valuable tool for various reasons. It offers another language to use when words in the primary language are insufficient due to the speaker or listener’s limited English proficiency (Hughes et al., 2006). Since code-switching is motivated by situations, the speaker may use it to identify with a particular group of people (Hughes et al., 2006). Also, it can be a sociolinguistic tool, used for clarification, emphasis, separation from feelings, and achievement of a dramatic effect(Hughes et al., 2006). By giving the speaker more ways in which to communicate, code-switching is a useful tool in the bilingual community.

Code-Switching As a Negative Tool

Although code-switching can add to a student’s toolbox, it can also be a sign of delay in language ability. Bilingualism can be viewed as either a subtractive or an additive language process. Subtractive refers to increasing the fluency and vocabulary in one language while the ability in the other decreases(Hughes et al., 2006). Therefore, this process involves the replacement of one language for the other. The additive process is when the speaker holds on to the knowledge of the first language and adds on the skills of the second language(Hughes et al., 2006). Some people view code-switching as negative because they view it from the subtractive perspective, believing that the addition of a second language shows lack of knowledge. Also, a bias of which language is inserted into English is evident. For example, if a French phrase such as “je ne sais quoi” is used it shows academic achievement, while Spanish phrases such as “adios” signifies a lower status (Hughes et al., 2006). If a language is not used at a proper time or place, a student’s ability to communicate effectively may be misunderstood.

They’re Not Speaking Incorrectly!

A child says to his teacher, “I be doing my homework” or “Hola! How are you?” These examples both represent using vernacular language in an improper setting or lack of code switching (Wheeler, 2008). Teachers often identify this as speaking incorrect standard English. However, these students are not in fact making errors, but are simply speaking in their vernacular language. They were not attempting to communicate in Standard English, therefore the problem does not lie in correcting their speech, but teaching students an alternative means of communication (Wheeler, 2008). By knowing the focus of education, teachers are able to more effectively meet the students’ educational needs. To help teachers meet the needs of struggling students, Rebecca S. Wheeler designed a three-step strategy, including: Scientific Inquiry, Comparison and Contrast, and Code-Switching as Metacognition (2008). The first step, Scientific Inquiry, is to build a code-switching chart identifying grammar patterns in the student’s writings. The chart is divided into five sections: examine sentences, seek patterns, define the pattern, test the hypothesis, and write informal English pattern. This step identifies the area of struggle for students and the pattern they use in informal language. For example, instead of using “owner + ‘s + what is owned” (i.e. Leon’s ball) as in formal language, students may use “owner + what is used” (i.e. Leon ball) in their informal language (Wheeler, 2008, p. 56). After the pattern is defined, the next step, is to compare and contrast the Formal English with Informal English, using the chart. Now, the students can visually and audibly know the difference between the two forms of language. Lastly, in Code-Switching as Metacognition, the child practices code switching between the two. Students will identify the appropriate language for a given setting. Students can understand the two choices of formal and informal language and know the appropriate time to use each. (Wheeler, 2008) By giving students an alternative form of language and not changing their primary form of communication, teachers give students an additional tool in their education toolbox.

From the Perspective of a Teacher

In William McCoy’s article, “Helping Students Find A Voice, by Giving Them the Words,” a teacher gives a personal account of how he succeeded at teaching 26 “at risk” students how to code-switch effectively. He believes it is the lack of understanding of their expectations and an insufficient academic vocabulary that causes students to fail in school. The first step in using the right words for a given setting is to know the audience (McCoy, 2006). He uses code-switching activities in his class, such as:

– Simulating a job interview with two applicants, one using slang and the other formal language. Through this activity, students understand that the type of language used has a strong impact on other’s perceptions of that person (McCoy, 2006).

– Writing a conversation in informal language on the board, and asking students to translate into the language used by professionals, such as a lawyer or professor (McCoy, 2006).

McCoy reports that at the beginning this exercise is a struggle for his students, but with practice their performance improves. After identifying the proper audience for a situation, students are to acknowledge the difference in situations and appropriate word usage. To teach this lesson, McCoy gives them a phrase like “I want some money,” and has them discuss how their speech would differ when robbing someone at a bank, asking for a raise at work, and requesting money from a parent. It is easy to see that each situation merits a different set of words by the speaker. Finally the students can use their knowledge and apply it to writing, focusing on having a purpose for their work. The goal is for the writer to have a thesis, support it with details, and recognize the opposing side’s argument. As a result of McCoy’s work, he stated “I was reminded that students can succeed when given the tools and experiences to do so” (McCoy, 2006, p. 25). Without first identifying that students did not possess the skills to succeed, he would not be able to give them the tools needed for success.

Quiz Yourself

1. The term code-switching refers to

A. changing your password when you forget it

B. modifying your speech when changing cultures/situations

C. speaking in one language at all times

D. switching from one school to another
2. “Sientense students” is an example of what type of code-switching?

A. Borrowing

B. Calque

C. Intersentential

D. Mixing
3. Identifying that in informal language students will say “Him goes to the store” and in formal language students will say “He goes to the store,” is what step of Rebecca S. Wheeler’s strategy?

A. Comparison and Contrast

B. Metacognition

C. Scientific Inquiry

D. All of the Above
4. When speaking to the President, which form of language should be used?

A. Foreign language

B. Formal language

C. Informal language

D. Unwritten language


1.) B

2.) C

3.) A

4.) B


Haddock, Captain. (2008). Obama’s “code-switching” on education. Ed News Colorado. Sept. 12, 2008, http://ednewscolorado.org/blog/index.php/2008-04-15/obamas-code-switching-on-education/

Hughes, C. E., Shaunessy, E. S., & Brice, A.R. (2006). Code switching among bilingual and limited English proficient students: possible indicators of giftedness. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 30 (1), 7-28.

Knestrict, T. & Schoensteadt L. (2005). Teaching social register and code switching in the classroom. Journal of Children & Poverty, 11 (2), 177-185.

McCoy, William. (2006). Helping students find a voice, by giving them the words. California English, 24-25.

Wheeler, R. S. (2008). Becoming adept at code-switching. Educational Leadership, 65 (7), 54-58.



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