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Code Switching in Student Writing

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What is code switching?

Code switching (or code-switching) is a sociolinguistic concept that describes the use of more than one language or grammatical system, usually by multilingual speakers or writers, in the course of a single conversation or written text (Gumperz 1; Heller 1). The term “code mixing” is also used more or less interchangeably with these terms. The difference is that code mixing emphasizes language structure and linguistic competence (form), whereas code switching stresses linguistic performance (function).


  1. Switches that occur within a clause or sentence: a Yoruba/English bilingual speaker says: Won o arrest a single person (won o they did not).
  2. Changes of language occur where each clause or sentence is in one language or the other: a Spanish/English bilingual speaker says: Sometimes I'll start a sentence in English, y termino en español (and finish it in Spanish).

Why might students code switch in writing?

To address a particular topic: Students generally switch codes while writing about a particular topic, since the topic requires specific language related to the topic.

This morning I hantar my baby tu dekat babysitter tu lah (This morning I took my baby to the babysitter).

This is an example of a writer code switching between Malay and English. In writing about a domestic activity, the Malay/English bilingual writer relies on their home language.

To quote someone: Students may switch codes while quoting someone or their references.

Chairman Mao has asserted, “All the reactionaries are 纸老虎 (zhilaohu, paper tiger).

This is an example of a writer code switching a term originally coined in Chinese by Mao Zedong. The term refers to something that seems threatening but is ineffectual and unable to withstand challenge.

To address a particular audience: Students may intentionally code switch or code mesh to appeal to a particular audience who understands the different codes presented.

To say that fútbol plays an important role in Latin American cultures would be an understatement. Fútbol is life, tradition, family, love, anger and history (fútbol=soccer).

This is an example of a writer code switching the Spanish term for “soccer” into academic writing.

To express group identity: Sometimes students change language to express identification of different groups.

The teacher clothed herself and slowly said “nalshiga aju chewuyo (the weather is cold)” and shivered (Canagarajah 59).

The writer retains the teacher’s use of the Korean phrase to stress group identity.

To address lexical need: Students often use some technical terms or words written in other languages. In this case, trying to translate those words into the primary language (usually English) might distort the exact meaning and value of the term or word.

The promotion season is approaching, some of my co-workers started working on their guanxi (relationship) with the project manager.

Guanxi (Chinese: 关系) describes the basic dynamic in personalized networks of influence and is a central idea in Chinese society, which stresses the importance of associating oneself with others in a hierarchical manner, in order to maintain social and economic order. It is difficult to find an English equivalent to replace this term with.

For more interesting words without English translations, see this article published in the Huffington Post.

How might teachers negotiate students’ code switching in writing?

  • Be open-minded and acknowledge that the student might be purposefully code switching for one or more of the aforementioned reasons, rather than mark it as poor practice or error;
  • If the teacher or reader finds the switched code(s) (language, language variety, style, register) interrupting whether or not they can make sense of the writing, they may first make an educated guess according to the context, and mark it as a site of negotiation;
  • When negotiation is not viable in other rhetorical contexts, the teacher should suggest using footnotes or other clarification techniques to facilitate meaning-making;
  • Teachers need to distinguish between purposeful code switching and inadvertent error, and ensure that it is the student’s conscious decision to switch/mesh codes through the practice of negotiation;
  • Teachers also need to ensure that code-switching does not compromise coherence and readability;
  • Teachers should avoid practicing and encouraging “linguistic tourism”—the use of exotic words or sentences from a different language or language variety just to appeal to readers;
  • Teachers should always stress the importance of the rhetorical situation—audience, context, purpose when the student attempts to justify the use of code switching or code meshing.

Works Cited

Canagarajah, A. Suresh. “Negotiating Translingual Literacy: An Enactment.” Research in the Teaching of English, vol. 48, no. 1, 2013, pp. 40-67.

Gumperz, John J. "The Sociolinguistic Significance of Conversational Code-Switching." RELC Journal, vol. 8, no. 2, 1977, pp. 1-34.

Heller, Monica, editor. Codeswitching: Anthropological and Sociolinguistic Perspectives. Walter de Gruyter, 1988.