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What Is Code-Switching in EFL Classrooms and When Should You Use This Practice?

a female teacher stands in front of her adult students smiling as they talk.

People living in multicultural communities are familiar with the phenomenon of code-switching. Code-switching in the EFL classroom can enhance communication and has several functions. The term code-switching (CS) refers to the practice of switching among different linguistic codes. EFL classroom code-switching may be most useful in certain situations and with certain language proficiency levels. Let’s look at what code-switching is and how code-switching in EFL classrooms may be used.

Learn about the advantages of non-native English-speaking teachers in the TEFL classroom.

What is code-switching in EFL classes?

Code-switching definitions or functions may differ a bit between the students’ perspective and the teachers’ perspective. A linguistic code can be understood as an accent, a dialect or vernacular, a register (for example, formal and informal), or a language. At the language level, code-switching is alternating between two languages, usually the speaker’s native language (L1) and another language (L2), during communication.

In linguistic studies, there are three main types of code-switching that occur in certain situations.

two young adult students practice conversational skills sitting on stools in front of their smiling classmates.
There are many different situations in which code-switching occurs.

From a linguistic studies perspective, the following functions for code-switching are identified:

  • Inter-Sentential switching occurs when the speaker utters one clause or sentence in one language and one in another language. “Tenia zapatos blancos, un poco. They were off-white, you know?”
  • Intra-Sentential switching occurs within the same clause or sentence, as when a speaker starts a sentence in one language and ends it in another: “I had a hard time finding tu casa ayer.”
  • Tag or Extra-Sentential switching is the insertion of a word, phrase, or exclamation in a language different from the one used in the rest of the sentence, for example, the insertion of phrases like “you know,” or “I mean” in a sentence otherwise in Spanish.

Although code-switching mostly happens in bilingual contexts when the speakers are proficient in both languages, it is also a common practice in EFL classes as a strategy to enhance communication between teachers and students. This is often referred to as code-mixing. But is code-switching in EFL classrooms desirable? If so, how is it useful? Before answering these questions, let’s have a closer look at the features of code-switching in EFL classrooms.

a female teacher and student sit outside at a table smiling and talking.
Code-switching is a great way to ease anxiety and explain complex subjects.

A study, The Functions of Code-Switching in ELT Classrooms, by Olcay Sert, looks at the different functions of code-switching from the students’ and teachers’ perspectives.

For teachers, three uses of code-switching are identified:

  • Topic switch occurs when the topic requires it. A classic example of a topic switch occurs during grammar instruction. The teacher switches to the native language to make sure the students understand a grammar point.
  • In its affective function, code-switching is used by the teacher to express emotions and build rapport with the students. Praise expressed in L1 is an example.
  • In the repetitive function, the teacher switches to L1 to ensure the students understand the content. A teacher who delivers instructions first in the target language and then in L1 is using code-switching in its repetitive function.

    Students may see code-switching from a different perspective, using the practice for a variety of purposes.

    a female teen student gesturing with her hands during class while she talks.
    Because code-switching is something many people do unconsciously, EFL teachers may use it as a powerful teaching tool.

    From the students’ perspective, the following functions for code-switching are identified:

    • Equivalence: The student replaces a word in the target language with one in his/her native language. Equivalence may signal a lack of competency in the target language.
    • Floor holding: “During a conversation in the target language, the students fill the stopgap with native language use,” possibly to avoid gaps in communication.
    • Reiteration: The student repeats the utterance first spoken in the target language using L1. Reiteration seems to occur when the student wants to make sure that the meaning has been transferred correctly.
    • Conflict control: The student wants to avoid misunderstanding or there is “a lack of some culturally equivalent lexis among the native language and target language.”

    In most cases, and from both the teacher’s and student’s perspectives, code-switching in EFL classrooms is adopted as a strategy to optimize the transfer of meaning.

    Learn how to implement strategies for a global teaching approach in the ESL classroom.

    Is code-switching a useful foreign-language teaching tool in EFL classrooms?

    EFL classroom code-switching seems to happen more frequently in beginner to intermediate-level classes. This is not surprising since advanced students have better tools to decode meaning and need fewer clarifications. Although some teachers object to the practice, most EFL teachers consciously or unconsciously code-switch during their classes. Even teachers who aim to use English-only in the classroom occasionally resort to L1. In fact, many teachers consider code-switching necessary or useful.

    When is code-switching necessary and most valuable in EFL classrooms?

    When teaching grammar or introducing new vocabulary, CS may be necessary. In classes where grammar is taught explicitly, CS is practically inevitable. Because students are not proficient in understanding grammar explanations in the target language, code-switching eases anxiety and improves learning capacity for non-native speakers. Even teachers who teach grammar implicitly by practicing certain grammar structures find it helpful sometimes to code-switch to answer students’ questions. When introducing complex new vocabulary, CS is a valuable and time-saving practice. The teacher can provide a translation and a brief explanation in L1, thus avoiding the possibility of misunderstandings.

    How else can code-switching be implemented in common classroom activities?

    Another situation in which teachers tend to use CS is in the delivery of instructions or other similar situations where they want to ensure the students understand the message. This type of CS, also referred to as “repetitive function,” should, however, be carefully calibrated. Teachers should avoid routinely giving students instructions first in L2 and then repeating them in L1. When students get used to this practice, they stop paying attention to the instructions delivered in the target language because they know an explanation in L1 will soon follow.

    Interested in learning more about Content and Language Integrated (CLIL) methodology? Read about the benefits of teaching students in their target language.

    How will code-switching help ESL learners?

    An overreliance on CS should be avoided as it negatively impacts the students’ motivation to learn English. However, moderate, well-thought-out use of L1 can assist students’ learning in several ways:

    1. EFL classroom code-switching helps in mitigating students’ anxiety. In its affective function, CS contributes to creating a rapport between teachers and students. It makes students feel that the teacher understands their linguistic/cultural background and helps them understand they can communicate with the teacher in their native language if necessary.
    2. Code-switching in EFL classrooms helps to resolve confusion or misunderstanding regarding vocabulary and grammar.
    3. In its equivalence function, CS assists students in keeping the flow during conversation and expressing themselves without gaps. Even in monolingual classes, where teachers insist on the use of English only, CS should be allowed in this function and as a tool to introduce new vocabulary.
    a female teacher and her young students gathered around a world globe as she points to a location.
    Every student will have a unique background and present an opportunity to engage in code-switching while learning English.

    What is an example of code-switching in education?

    Along with the functions and examples of code-switching outlined above, there are other instances of code-switching and its uses in education. EFL teachers should consider exposing students to at least some of the many accents, styles, vernaculars, and cultural variations present in English and English-speaking countries. This is also a form of code-switching. After all, English is not only spoken in the UK, the USA, Australia, and Canada but in many other countries worldwide.

    The Lingua Franca, Language of the People

    English has also become the lingua franca people from different linguistic backgrounds use to communicate. Chances are that your students will have to be able to understand multiple accents and vernaculars in the real world. If achieving this goal seems overwhelming, the Bridge article, “English as a Global Language – The Case for Teaching Different Accents and Dialects,” has some practical suggestions. Also, consider that many English teachers are non-native speakers and may have an accent. You can use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), a speech sound transcription system in which each symbol represents a phoneme, to teach pronunciation and highlight the differences among the wide varieties of English.

    Code-switching is a phenomenon that occurs in bilingual contexts as well as in the EFL classroom. Although teachers should avoid its excessive use, code-switching can be helpful in teaching English when employed strategically. As an alternation between linguistic codes, code-switching happens between different languages and within English as a switch among different accents, dialects, vernaculars, or registers. As such, CS is part of the complexity of the English language and has its role in the classroom.

    Want to stay ahead of the most innovative methodologies in the industry? Check out Bridge’s CLIL Methodology Specialized Certifications.

    Linda D'Argenio is a native of Naples, Italy. She is a world language teacher (English, Italian, and Mandarin Chinese,) translator, and writer. She has studied and worked in Italy, Germany, China, and the U.S. In 2003, Linda earned her doctoral degree in Classical Chinese Literature from Columbia University. She has taught students at both the school and college levels. Linda lives in Brooklyn, NY.