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Essay: Use of codeswitching by bilingual students

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The educational system has undergone several changes over the past few decades ranging from increased accountability through measures such as state mandated standardized testing, as well as through educational legislation dealing with English proficiency, and second language acquisition skills. Most teachers are not fully aware of the communication barriers English Language Learners face within the educational setting, much less fully know which communication tools students use within their everyday conversations. Within the contents of this paper, the communication tool known as codeswitching used by bilinguals will be defined, as well as discussed in regard to second language acquisition. Furthermore, this paper will demonstrate how codeswitching is an invaluable tool that can be utilized by bilingual students in order to fill in gaps within the language, as well as to create a sense of confidence, which in-turn helps them comprehend, and excel at the instructional material being taught within the classroom.

When examining the issues pertaining to English only environments, proponents of the movement base their reasoning on the idea that when foreign language speakers/students are allowed to remain in classrooms that cater to their native language, it in turn will prevent them from ever becoming fully accustomed to the English language. Furthermore, supporters of this viewpoint state that when ELLS are kept in bilingual programs for several years, gaps within their learning will continue to grow to the point in which educational success will be unattainable when put in comparison to English speaking students (Chavez, 1995). After all, accountability legislation for the most part requires all students to pass the same testing requirments and standards in order to graduate or be promoted from grade level. If students are not required to learn the English language, they inevitably will not be able to understand or pass core subject matter and/or minimum testing standards (Walter & Ringenberg, 1994). Additionally, the monetary strain that these sheltered programs have on campuses across the nation are devastating when they are put into context with the current state of the economy.
The ever-building trend of high stakes testing and increased accountability rates has spawned legislative acts such as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 to hold all campuses, educators, and administrators responsible for the success and prosperity of all students regardless of learning ability, language proficiency, or lack thereof. Due to the current policies and trends, the educational world has steadily moved toward classrooms and instruction designed in English alone. Gone are the days in which immigrants and/or minorities new to the country could be placed in and remain within ESL type classrooms for years upon years. Now, campuses must continually ush students out of such types of language support enviornments and into English only classrooms. This issue has created several conflicting viewpoints as to what works best not only for our schools, but for the individual student as well. Which directs us to all of the standards being implemented to learn the target language, does code switching among bilinguals affect their learning capabilities in the classrooms?
There are more Spanish speaking students entering the school system which keeps increasing through the years. Many of these students are labeled ELLS or Limited English Proficiency (LEP) with varied levels of English if any. As they keep coming in to the public education system, schools find the needs for their linguistic level of need. Bilingual programs develop the native language in students while developing their second language through the constant use of content. As their level of comprehension of both languages increases, it is common for students to codeswitch in various conversations in and out of classrooms. Code switching is the ability to use more than one language within a single utterance, regardless of the level of integration between the languages (Palmer, 2009). Many educators have speculated that bilingual students that code switch are less likely to have the target language attained while learning. On the other hand many educators also state that code switching is a tool that helps develop their learning capacity in both languages and within time comprehension in their target language increases in the learning process. The mixed perception of code switching can alter the school environment as this may have affect the students learning.

English Language Learners commonly utilize both languages with emphasis on developing the target language. Teachers see this use of code switching as hindering their learning and not allowing them to learn the English language, which leads to the assumption that codeswitching as not fully understanding or obtaing the comprehension in the target language. Therefore, the second language students have to rely on their first language (Reyes, 2004). This is a common misconception among teachers in bilingual programs because reseachers have found that code switching does not always show incompetency in one language, but instead requires a high level of thinking of the grammars and structures of both languages tha monolingual speakers do not have (Moore, 2002). There is more than one function with the use of code switching within classrooms which extends the support for students learning a second language. Negative misconceptions by teachers does not help or develop the comprehension of bilinguals since it can hinder their motivation to engage in classroom activities, learning, and negatively impacts their value and has serious impact on the overall achievement of these students.

Studies have shown that code switching may or may not have an effect on student learning in schools. Miesel (1987) states that mixing languages in bilingual classes can be seen as a deficiency in a student’s pragmatic competence. In addition to this statement educators see students that code switch as at-risk of not succeeding in schools and years to come resulting in a misinterpretation by teachers, that code switching interferes in the learning process. In a research study done in a border city in the Journal Border Educational Research, six questions were brought into the study. 1) Does codeswitching intefere with learning? 2) Does codeswitching affect comprehension, language production or the use of language in different contexts? 3) Are students who code switch academically successful? 4) Does code switching interfere with communication? 5) Is codeswitching a result of bilingual education programs? 6) Is codeswitching a limitation, advantage, disadvantage, or speaking style? Although this study is not being researched in detail nor part of this synthesis paper nor direct results from a local school, the data and results from it resemble a border town and school similar to Clint, Texas and only used as informational purposes.

The following results were provided with the questions 1-6 being asked to principals at elementary schools in the south side of the border, where the south are more populated with bilingual students and teachers.


Table 1

Do you feel that codeswitching interferes with learning? (n=278)
Responses South Schools North Schools
Yes 24.34% (n=37) 20.63% (n=26)
No 53.29% (n=81) 55.56% (n=70)
Uncertain 19.74% (n=30) 19.84% (n=25)
No Response 2.63% (n=4) 3.97% (n=5)

This shows an illustration that many of the teachers from the north think that code switching does have an effect or interference in learning as opposed to bilingual teachers in the south that feel there is no interference from code switching in learning.

Table 2

What type of codeswitching have you observed in your students? (n=278)
Responses South Schools North Schools
Oral 62.5% (n=95) 68.25% (n=86)
Written 1.97% (n=3) 3.17% (n=4)
Both 32.89% (n=50) 20.63% (n=26)
No Response 2.63% (n=4) 7.94% (n=10)
Total Percentages 100% (n=152) 100% (n=126)

Code switching happens in oral and written responses by both sides of the city. The north schools have more oral use of code switching than the south.

Table 3

Does codeswitching affect learning in students? (n=278)
Responses South Schools North Schools
Comprehension 36.84% (n=36) 34.92% (n=44)
Language Production 21.05% (n= 32) 24.6% (n=31)
Language Use in
Different Contexts 8.55% (n=13) 7.14% (n=9)
Does Not Affect Learning 33.55% (n=51) 32.54% (n=41)
Total Percentages 100% (n=152) 100% (n=126)

Surprisingly enough, both schools indicated that code switching affected learning comprehension. But in the south side it is indicated that codeswitching does not affect learning.

Table 4

Are the students who codeswitch successful academically? (n=278)
Responses South Schools North Schools
Yes 43.42% (n=66) 48.41% (n=61)
No 3.29% (n=5) 3.97% (n=5)
Sometimes 48.68% (n=74) 38.89% (n=49)
Total Percentages 100% (n=152) 100% (n=126)

Both sides of the city agreed upon that the use of codeswitching does help students to be academically successful, with a small percentage of teachers that were uncertain.

Table 5

Is codeswitching an advantage or disadvantage? (n=278)
Responses South Schools North Schools
Advantage 42.11% (n=64) 42.04% (n=53)
Disadvantage 13.82% (n=21) 21.06% (n=27)
Uncertain 38.82% (n=59) 26.4% (n=33)
No Responses 5.25% (n=8) 9.6% (n=12)
Total Percentages 100% (n=152) 100% (n=126)

Majority of teachers believe that codeswitching is an advantage in the learning process, with a small percent that disagree.

Table 6

Do you see codeswitching as a limitation or a speaking style? (n=278)
Responses South Schools North Schools
Limitation 28.29% (n=43) 23.81% (n=30)
Speaking Style 43.42% (n=66) 34.13% (n=43)
Uncertain 23.68% (n=36) 32.54% (n=41)
No Response 4.61% (n=7) 9.52% (n=12)
Total Percentages 100% (n=152) 100% (n=126)

Table 7

Do you think that codeswitching is a result of bilingual education programs? (n=278)
Responses South Schools North Schools
Yes 30.92% (n=47) 24.6% (n=31)
No 46.71% (n=71) 53.97% (n=68)
Uncertain 19.74% (n=30) 15.87% (n=20)
No Response 2.63% (n=4) 5.56% (n=7)
Total Percentages 100% (n=152) 99.46% (n=126)

These tables are a sign of how codeswitching can be an invaluable tool for many teachers and bilingual students. Some parts of codeswitching can be conrtroled by teachers (written) and the other (oral) cannot. Students will automatially switch into this tool depending on the conversations and the use of both languages will depend on the high levels of linguistic skills. Codeswitching can have an affect in the learning process in one way or another, this communicative tool should be used as a strategy for bilinguals to achieve success.

Code switching is used in any setting where to languages are being used, commonly by speakers that use tow languages. This is seen more often in a dual classroom setting where students display conversations using both languages through the learning content and using each other’s native language for learning purposes. This is how code switching works in the classroom, the students are learning and acquiring a new language while maintaining a conversation back and forth in both languages and acquiring information through the process. Interestingly enough, this tool is commonly used often in bilingual hispanic students within the English and Spanish languages in order to fill in gaps of comprehension. Research on code switching demonstrates that fluent bilinguals use code switching as they use many other linguistic resources, drawing upon both or all of the codes available to them in a patterned and structured way in order to express their comprehension (Palmer, 2009). In order for this tool to be effective, bilinguals must be able to code switch between languages understanding the rules of grammar and the structure of each language with consistency throughout conversations in any classroom setting.

As previously mentioned, it is common to see bilinguals code switch in classrooms as they develop language acquistion in the target language. How do teachers in the classroom perceive the use of code switching? Again, as stated before teachers and researchers have signaled this tool as a sign of wekaness or lack of proficiency in the target language, believing that students learn a language more fluently if they only use one. Some educators seem to believe that if a student relies too much in their mother tongue, that eventually the acquisition of the second language will not be fully developed while code switching. This is one of the many reasons that educators think this tool should be discouraged in classrooms and make instruction an English only setting in order to have more of a positive setting and a welcoming learning environment. The more they are “forced to use the target language, the better they learn it (Palmer, 2009). With English being the dominant language spoken in communities and schools, the heritage language brought in by bilinguals is not seen as being as important as English. Reason being because of the state exams and the requirements that are expected especially with ELA state exams.
An important factor other than meeting state exam guidelines for bilinguals is how they feel in class invironments. Bilinguals are usually placed in dual language programs until they meet the standarized testing minimum. But, their value is not appreciated in classrooms where teachers make them feel uncomfortable or unwelcomed during their code switching conversations with others. The negative feedback that teachers have towards code switching flows into the classroom setting/environment where learners are not given the opportunities to participate in classroom participation. This negative perception has been around the block several times in the past, with the constant use of the dominant language and teachers not embracing this tool for the betterment of these students. There are teachers that do not allow students to participate or expres their understandings unless they speak English (targeg language), which it can be a very difficult task since this is the second language they are acquiring and do not feel comfortable in the classroom environment. It is imporant to make it clear to all students that they are valued and tha any differences between them have no bearing on how they will be treated in the classroom (Van Stone, 2013).

Educators in monolingual classes have a reasonable doubt of not allowing code switching as it may hinder their lesson plan for that day and feel that trying to explain the lesson twice will slow down the process of learning. From a practical point of view, many educators agree that there are times when explaining in the first language is easier (Sert, 2005). Some feel that it is a burden going back to explain the lesson rather than just teaching it once, since it is their responsibility to teach in the target language. It is not an easy task dealing with two languages that sometimes do not share the same qualities, culture of the proposed lesson. These learners are being put in classrooms where they find it impossible to understand phrases, vocabulary throughout the course of learning and teachers begin to express negative opinions that eventually will have students not care about that particular class or subject. They may lose interest and eagerness to learn the second language and cause some confusion with the target language, with frequent use of code-switching it might influence the way learners communicate in the second language (Bhatt, 1997). Although, many researchers do agree that explaining a lesson the first time is easier as it saves time and minimizes confusion helping the learners factor in the second language and do not perceive it as too difficult to understand. This is a concept that is used in classrooms where many learn through peer assistance or sharing in which bilinguals are paired in groups with a more dominant bilingual speaker that will assist with the learning process, implementing code-switching.

In contrast to teachers being against code-switching, many are now embracing the tool within the classroom for teaching heritage language learners. Either introducing vocabulary, reading, or writing code switching is an integral part of language acquisition in dual language classes where bilinguals use their ability to interpret information utilizing both languages and utilizing their bilingual ability. Code switching employed by teachers and students as a resource can be used for constructing and transmitting knowledge, classroom management, and intepersonal relations (Saxena, 2009). Teachers are using this tool in a variety of ways in their lesson objectives in order to construct and determine the learning levels of bilinguals. This is comparable to cross curriculum teaching where both languages are utilized and teachers are also code switching as well. Going back and forth in discussions, participation, and presentations they are building a bridge between both languages (Toribio, 2004). There must be a constant flow of engagement in the lessons for bilinguals as code switching is being allowed they are now demonstrating their knowledge and comprehension of the content material that is being presented along with their responses. Teacher code switching in lessons helps heritage learners to better understand the lessons, especially with the high increase of diversity in schools code switching has become a norm in asking teachers to implement culturally sensitive methods to accommodate heritage learners. This method is called responsbible code switching, when the teacher plans ahead of time when they should code switch in the lesson to enhance the students’ cognitive skills and to clarify or reinforce the lesson material (Lewis, 2012).

As previously mentioned, the use of code switching with ELLS and in bilingual classrooms is a valuable asset. Not only are the students learning in two languages, but receiving information that will be understood for state exams and end of year assessments. The negative aspect of code switching will always present itself to many bilinguals arriving across this nation. The data that was presented showed and proved the misconceptions and views of educators that need to be educated on how to use this valuable tool for their own personal growth and the accomodation of heritage learners. If the ultimate goal of language instruction is to create bilinguals they argue, then the aim of incorporating systematic code switching behavior into the classroom is both worthy and appropriate (Liebschner and O’Cain, 2005).

In conclusion, code switching has been in education for many years especially in border towns and bilingual programs. Students are labeled bilingual and placed in bilingual classrooms all across schools in Texas, with many of them will be carrying this label until they graduate from high school. Many will find success and accomplishment with state exams and graduating from high school as educators that accepted their tool of code switching as an asset to get ahead in learning and obtaining a second language. This tool should not be eliminated in any way, but accepted to further help bilinguals in public schools. Code-switching is a reality of today’s bilingual students. Teachers have the opportunity to decide how to respond to these behaviors. By reflecting on student work, and designing a thoughtful approach, educators can be sure they are responding to code-switching in the right way. Being a bilingual student has its advantages in the learning a second language and advantageous as a result of teachers given them the necessary attention and dedication to succeed and rely on those students who code switched and indeed academically were successful.


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