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Discuss the importance and function of code-switching in bilingual children and/or learners of a second language. (2.2. grade)

By jeni97 Feb 18, 2014 2378 Words
Discuss the importance and function of code-switching in bilingual children and/or learners of a second language.

This essay will consist of arguments for and against the importance of code-switching (or CS). The positive aspects focus on CS as a conscious choice, CS a social tool and CS requiring a fluency in all languages involved. The negative aspects will consist of the stigma attached to code-switching in general and in children, the difference between CS and ‘code-mixing’ and whether CS occurs randomly. The main function that CS has is that it is a social tool. All functions I have found are an elaboration of this. The functions I will talk about most are using CS to manage conflict, to reiterate a point and to get attention.

CS is defined by the OED as, “the practice of alternating between two or more languages or varieties of language in conversation.” Although this does cover the basic definition, I also looked at a linguistic definition of the term. The Cambridge Handbook of Linguistic Code-switching defined it as,

…a specific skill of the bilingual’s pragmatic competence, that is, the ability to select the language according to the interlocutor, the situational context, the topic of conversation, and so forth, and to change languages within an interactional sequence in accordance with sociolinguistic rules and without violating specific grammatical constraints. (Bullock and Toribio, 2009: 242)

I would say that this definition gives a more accurate perception, as it elaborates upon the factors that can influence CS.

The majority of the research on CS in bilingual children that I have looked at does not look at adult bilingual CS. Other researchers agree with this, for example Gardner-Chloros said it only occurs when comparing differing reasons for CS (2009:145). I will however, first give a general outline. This will show the benefits of CS in later life and will show a comparison between the way children and adults CS. An advantage of being able to fluently CS is that it can be used as a social tool. Heller stated that CS is a conversational strategy and has many purposes such as, “...conversational acts as requests, denials, topic shifts, elaborations or comments, validations or clarifications...” (1988: 77). She said it could be used to manage and avoid conflict. This is especially true when the different varieties of language are associated with different roles in that society. She uses an example to clarify this from Gal (quoted in Heller, 1988: 77). Here, CS was used in an argument between a German-Hungarian husband and wife, with their daughter listening. The daughter code-switched to gain their attention in an attempt to diffuse the situation. Heller also uses an example from Calsamiglia and Tuson (1988: 77) between Catalan teenagers (monolingual talking to bilingual). Again, it was used in an attempt to diffuse a situation. Heller said that by using, “the language of the interlocutor; the speaker realigns his relationship to his interlocutor as in-group, thereby permitting him to say things only an in-group member can get away with.” (1988: 79). Leading on from this, it would make sense to assume that CS is often used as an identity marker (also a social tool). There is a considerable amount of evidence to suggest that using CS shows group membership and solidarity within a group (Bullock and Turibio, 2009: 10). Bullock and Turibio (henceforth known as B & T, as this is my main source) state that it is used to find out if someone else is also bilingual (2009: 138). The example they look at is the use of Turkish in the Netherlands; the base language is Dutch, so Turkish-Dutch will CS to Turkish for this reason – to find out if others are too.

Children have also been found to CS as a social tool. Jorgenson found in his study of Turkish-Danish classroom debates that children used CS to show dominance and power. For example, they would switch when making an important point (found in Cromdal, 2004: 34). This shows they used it to manage conflict. However, he also found that in some cases, the switching was a simply an attempt to diverge from other children in the debate (found in Cromdal, 2004: 34). Guldal found in Norwegian-English children that they would sometimes CS to exacerbate the situation, but were equally likely to use it to demonstrate co-operation (Cromdal, 2004: 35). Therefore, in some cases children use CS as a social function in the same way as adults do.

Another argument for the importance of CS comes from Gumperz (one of the pioneers in CS research). He believed that CS is a conscious choice and expanded on this. He stated that it has many functions, some of them being emphasis, reiteration, elaboration, marking quotations and realignment of speech (quoted in B & T, 2009: 10). Although many researchers in this field agree that CS happens consciously (B & T, Koppe & Meisel, Gumperz), there is some debate to this as not all do. For example, Gardener-Chloros said that there is no way to tell whether CS is deliberate, and sees this as a downfall in distinguishing between adult and child CS (Heller, 2009:145). This argument suggests that CS is unimportant and happens at random.

An argument against the importance of CS is that it often has a negative stigma attached to it. B & T stated that not all bilinguals will CS for this reason. This can be known as 'semilingualism'. Sometimes, when people hear someone CS, they will assume that the person is not very good at either language (2009: 11). This is especially true for bilingual children; they are often discouraged from speaking one of their languages. An explanation for why this occurs more so for children, is because they are not as linguistically developed. Therefore they are more likely to 'code-mix' rather than code-switch (Koppe and Meisel quoted in B & T, 2009: 242). Koppe and Meisel (and many other researchers) say that the difference between the two is that CS takes a conscious effort; the speaker must be fluent in both languages, as they will have to abide by both syntactic and grammatical rules. Code-mixing does not do this; it does not really follow the morpho-syntatic rules necessary for CS (quoted in 2009: 243). This can cause alarm for monolingual speakers, particularly teachers, when they do not understand the different development of bilingual children. Although this is more likely to happen in non-fluent speakers, it can happen at any level (B & T, 2009: 243). Therefore, the idea that CS shows linguistic incompetence is merely a conclusion of people that are unaware of language acquisition.

There are a lot of variables involved in the use of CS in children. This demonstrates awareness that CS is being used. B & T said that the use of CS in children depended on whom they were talking to (2009: 245). They said that the closer the relationship between two speakers, the more likely the child is to use CS. It also depends on what language the interlocutor speaks; if they are only speaking one language, the child is more likely to use it more. Children will CS more when in a familiar setting, such as at home, rather than an unfamiliar setting. The amount used depends on what function it is being used for, for example children may be more likely to CS when trying to emphasise something or get attention. It also depends on the form of the conversation e.g. if they are quoting someone or telling a story (B & T, 2009: 245). A good example of this is Comeau et al's study in 2003 (as quoted in B & T, 2009: 245). They looked at French-English children, aged 2-4 years on average. An assistant was told to talk to the children in the study, and purposely use a relatively high or low rate of CS. The children were likely to accommodate their own rate of CS in accordance to the assistant. This showed that even from a very early age, children have a strong ability to use 2 languages at once and adjust to others rate of switching (2009: 245).

An argument supporting the importance of CS comes from a study from 2002. Quinto-Pozos found that CS was used for a variety of functions, just as Gumperz did. It was sometimes used to accommodate another speaker, to get attention, to clarify a statement plus other reasons. However, he admitted that there were some cases where the function of CS was not clear (as found in B & T, 2009: 229). He studied the function of reiteration (2009: 229). He stated that reiterative CS could be used as a way of negotiating a collective social identity. He found that, in adults, more than half of the code-switches made were nouns, “In these cases, each of these code-switched elements was produced after a participant would articulate a semantically equivalent sign from the other language that differed in form.” (2009: 229). This shows the usefulness of CS for reiteration.

CS in children is a bit different to its use in those completely competent in both of their languages. In a study by Lanza in 1992 of English-Norwegian 2-year old children, the main function of CS was found to be only 15% nouns, compared to Quinto-Pozos's findings of adults using CS for nouns more than half the time. This suggests that children use CS for reiteration less than adults. In Lanza's case study, CS was used primarily for prepositions. These occurred 43% of the time (B & T, 2009: 245). Vihman's previous study associates with this. It found that in English-Estonian 2-year olds, they used function words 67% of the time. A similar result happened with Deuchar's study in 1999 when he studied Spanish-English children - they used function words 85% of the time. B & T suggest that this is probably because function words are not as important for expressing meaning as, say, verbs or adjectives (2009: 245). This could suggest that CS in children is unimportant. However, studies of the later development in bilingual children show that this develops as their language knowledge does. Hulk and van der Linden (found in B & T, 2009: 246) looked at children’s use of CS past the 2-word stage. They found that after this stage, the use of CS for function words lessened, whereas nouns and adjectives increased. The stage after this is the holophrastic stage, when children acquire more complicated grammar. This is when the change in CS use occurred. The same thing happened in Koppe and Mesiel’s study of CS use in bilingual children (quoted in B & T, 2009: 246). After this stage, they found an increase of CS use for nouns. This implies that this stage is when children become linguistically more like adults.

CS in children will normally follow the grammatical structure of the language it is put into. Paradis et al (as quoted in B & T, 2009: 246) backs this up. They studied French-English children younger than four. These children would CS a single pronoun based on the structure of pronoun usage in the language being primarily used in that instance. This shows they have an understanding of the syntactic rules of both languages used, which is a good example of why CS is a good thing and can be important. A study by Genesee et al in 2004 provides further evidence of this. They found that younger children tend to CS using only one or two words rather than using complex sentences. This comes later. Genesee et al found in their earlier study in 1995 that children tend not to use code-mixing for intra-utterances, and instead will code-mix for inter-utterances. They found this occurred in children that were at the one or two word stage but once they got past this, to a multi-word stage, they began switching intra-utterance as well (as found in B & T, 2009: 246). This demonstrates the development stages of bilingual children; it shows that CS develops as their linguistic knowledge does and shows that as CS develops it becomes more important and has more functions. However, this study can also be viewed negatively. An explanation offered is that this CS of single words is possibly due to the child not knowing that particular word in the language they are currently speaking. So, for example, a French-English child might use a French word when speaking English if they can't think of the English lexicon. Unfortunately, this is sometimes the case. It is often hard to tell when and to what extent a bilingual identifies that the languages they use are separate (B & T, 2009: 246). It is possible, to some degree, to instead view this as an advantage, as the children have access to both language systems. So, it could be that the lexicon in one language is simply a better fit for a particular situation. Also, this argument could simply be evidence of my earlier point, that children will code-mix in the early stages of their linguistic development. I have come to the conclusion that CS is important for bilingual speakers generally and therefore is important for bilingual children. It is a conscious choice, which is evident from the amount of variables surrounding it, although it can sometimes be hard to tell to what extent. It is important because it can be used for many different functions and has many advantages, such as reiteration, an expansion of vocabulary, access to another language system and convergence or divergence to manage conflicts. It is a conversational strategy which demonstrates an individual’s identity. Although CS has a negative stigma attached, this is probably due to it being confused with code-mixing, as in fact it indicates intelligence. It requires an awareness of both languages, an understanding of both grammatical, pragmatic and syntactic structures and how to manipulate them. It would be interesting to look at this subject in more depth; particularly the psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic aspect and also the difference between CS in people brought up bilingually and people that learnt a second language fluently. To conclude, code-switching is important for bilingual children, as it has many useful functions that can be used in everyday speech.

Word count: 2368
-Bullock, B. E. and Toribio, A. J.,(2009) 'The Cambridge Handbook of Linguistic Code-switching’, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

-Gardner-Chloros, P. (2009) 'Code-switching', Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

-Heller, M. (1988) 'Code-switching: Anthropological and Sociolinguistic Perspectives', Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & co.

Journal Articles
-Heller, M. (1995) 'Language Choice, Social Institutions, and Symbolic Domination.' Language in Society 24 (3): 373-405

-Cromdal, J. (2004) 'Building Bilingual Oppositions: Code-Switching in Children's Disputes.' Language in Society 33 (1): 33-58

Oxford English Dictionary
-Oxford English Dictionary (2012) ’Code-switching’ [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 29th October 2012].

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