Code-switching: The Effects for Students and Teachers


In the current global economic climate, the ability to speak English has become an important business tool. English has essentially become the “universal second language” of the international labour market, and the socio-economic significance of this cannot be overstated (Light, 2007: 9). It is now commonplace for many universities across the world to teach courses in English as well the native language of their country. One of the most apparent consequences of this has been the widespread use of code-switching, where multiple languages are spoken in everyday communication. As such, code-switching is often seen as a social as well as a linguistic medium. This paper will attempt to demonstrate the causes and effects of code-switching in bilingual classes.

The Definition of Code-switching

Code-switching involves the use of multiple languages, where speakers of additional languages incorporate alternate linguistic elements into their source language. As such, two or more languages may be spoken alternately during a conversation. Chan et al (2009) usefully describe code-switching as “the intra-sentential switching of two different languages in a spoken utterance” (Chan et al, 2009: 281).

The Causes and Effects of Using of Code-switching in an Academic Context

The academic use of code-switching involves a more complex and random effect than can be fully explained by a students ability to speak in a certain language. Recent (debatable) research has identified reasons behind the occurrence of code-switching and the extent to which the process of learning has been affected. A large number of situations are considered to be causes of code-switching, one of which is linked to gaps in students’ linguistic ability. As a result, students may engage in code-switching in order to overcome linguistic shortcomings; however this cause may be considered a weak justification. In other cases, a lack of one or more words in either language may lead to code-switching. That is to say, bilinguals make clear that they code-switch when they cannot find the correct expression or term. Often the target language simply does not have the exact word needed in order to maintain a discussion smoothly, and code-switching is necessary.

In addition, code-switching can have a positive impact in an academic context. An important teaching skill is the ability to transfer knowledge to students in a clear and efficient manner, and so code-switching can be a useful tool in the classroom for both teachers and students (Bista, 2010: 1). Code-switching may also be used to emphasize a point, or to add more force to a phrase. On a psychological level, learners often code-switch when they feel tired or angry. For example when the speaker is in a good mood, the appropriate word or expression in their second language is easily identified. However if the speaker is distracted in any way, they may find it difficult to grasp the correct word.

In a purely linguistic capacity, code-switching may be used to compliment a statement, where it can particularly reinforce an intention or meaning of the speaker. Although sometimes viewed as linguistic incompetence this is not always the case. Code-switching will often occur when the speaker wishes to compensate for a lack of a verbal equivalent in the second language. Baker (2007) describes this well: “Words or phrases in two languages may not correspond exactly, and the bilingual may switch to one language to express a concept that has no equivalent in the culture of the other language” (Baker, 2007:108).

There are also personal and social reasons for code-switching in that one’s choice of words can represent an expression of their personality. Allatson (2007) suggests factors that can lead to code-switching as location, class, gender and age. In addition the relationship between the speakers; the formal or informal nature of the conversation and the social status of the speakers can also be factors (Allatson, 2007: 73).

Another social explanation is that speakers tend to code switch to attract attention. In Saudi Arabia, for example, code-switching is often used among teenagers to draw the attention of their colleagues. Furthermore they switch from Arabic to English to show that they are confident about themselves.

In general, code-switching effects are widely perceived as negative. Namely, there is a tendency to view code-switching as and as being disruptive to the learning environment. Accordingly, the practice has been considered as a sign of linguistic deficiency. Li (2008) notes that despite code-switching being commonplace in both the speech and writing of multilingual societies (often with English as the second language), it is usually frowned upon by multilingual speakers within these societies. (Li, 2008: 76). In an academic context, studies by Arrifin and Husin (2011) have observed that learners with a greater linguistic ability often see code-switching as and obstacle to becoming fluent in a second language. Their findings indicated that students with a degree of competence in English found it difficult to make progress in an environment of code-switching (Arrifin et al, 2011: 221). Other studies have reached similar conclusions. Bista (2010) conducted a study in the US which found that code-switching not only had a negative impact on the linguistic learning ability of students, but also highlighted lack of ability in the second language as a primary cause of code-switching (Bista, 2010: 1).

Others have a different view however, in particular that code-switching may be perceived as ‘linguistic resourcefulness’. Baker (2007) argues that users of code-switching show impressive cognitive, linguistic, and social skills. In his view code-switchers may be preserving the meaning of their original statement by overcoming the lack of a suitable word in the second language (Baker, 2007: 56-57).

Surveys of a number of English language students have reported that they view code-switching as having a considerable influence on the learning process. From their perspective, code-switching assists in understanding the more complex linguistic elements of the second language. It may also help in the translation from their first language to the target one.


It may apparently be concluded that the impression of code-switching as a barrier to learning seems to be the prevalent view amongst both learners and teachers, and that any positive effects of code-switching are not yet widely recognised. As a consequence of this, it would be reasonable to assume that the attitude of both teachers and students towards code-switching may have been somewhat influenced by this common viewpoint. In the near future however, signs are that code-switching may possibly be seen as a tool for learning. In that event, some restrictions on the use of code-switching must be established by teachers in the classroom, and learners should code-switch only when there is an in urgent case. Eventually, it might yet become a beneficial tool for both learners and teachers.


Allatson, P., 2007. Key terms in Latino/a cultural and literary studies, Oxford: Blackwell.

Baker, C., 2007. A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism, Clevedon: MPG Books.

Light, I., 2007. ‘Global Entrepreneurship and Transnationalism’. In Ed. L. Paul Dana. Handbook of Research on Ethnic Minority Entrepreneurship: a Co-evolutionary View on Resource Management, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing. pp.3-15.

Arrifin, K. and M. Susanti Husin, 2011. ‘Code-switching and Code-mixing of English and Bahasa Malaysia in Content-Based Classrooms: Frequency and Attitudes’. The Linguistics Journal, June, pp.220-47.

Bista, K., 2010. ‘Factors of Code Switching among Bilingual English Students In the University Classroom: A Survey’. English for Specific Purposes World, Volume 9, pp.1-19.

Chan, J. Y. C., H. Cao, P. C. Ching, T. Lee, 2009. ‘Automatic Recognition of Cantonese-English Code-Mixing Speech’. Computational Linguistics and Chinese Language Processes, September, pp.281-304.

Li, D. C. S., 2008. ‘Understanding Mixed Code and Classroom Code-Switching: Myths and Realities’. New Horizons in Education, December, pp.75-87.

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