What is code-switching?

Is it an outdated theory of language? Does it suggest that individuals have separate compartments for separate languages in the brain? Is it the researcher’s perspective on language use, imposing language labels such as Spanish, English, etc., in contrast to how research participants experience languages as fluid and lacking clearly defined borders? Or is “codeswitching” just a difference in the name, but the same thing as translanguaging, practically speaking? Hmm… none of the above! In this post in which I attempt to define “code-switching,” I present a summary of evolving understandings of the term in the fields of language acquisition and education.

In 1989, when academic articles were shorter, had fewer references, and were arguably more accessible, François Grosjean, a scholar of bilingualism at Université de Neuchâtel in Switzerland, published a 13-pager in Brain and Language vol. 36 with the catchy title “Neurolinguists, Beware! The Bilingual is Not Two Monolinguals in One Person.” He basically made the same argument that Ofelia García did in her metaphor of an all-terrain vehicle, using a metaphor from track and field sports:

The bilingual is NOT the sum of two complete or incomplete monolinguals; rather, he or she has a unique and specific linguistic configuration. The coexistence and constant interaction of the two languages in the bilingual has produced a different but complete linguistic entity. An analogy comes from the domain of track and field. The high hurdler blends two types of competencies, that of high jumping and that of sprinting. When compared individually with the sprinter or the high jumper, the hurdler meets neither level of competence, and yet when taken as a whole the hurdler is an athlete in his or her own right. … A high hurdler is an integrated whole, a unique and specific athlete; he or she can attain the highest levels of world competition in the same way that the sprinter and the high jumper can.

In many ways, the bilingual is like the high hurdler: an integrated whole, a unique and specific speaker-hearer, and not the sum of two monolinguals. He or she has developed competencies (in the two languages and possibly in a third system that is a combination of the first two) to the extent required by his or her needs and those of the environment. The bilingual uses the two languages—separately or together—for different purposes, in different domains of life, with different people. Because the needs and uses of the two languages are usually quite different, the bilingual is rarely equally or completely fluent in the two languages. Levels of fluency in a language will depend on the need for that language and will be domain specific… (p. 6).

Grosjean was writing for psycholinguists, not teachers, so, unsurprisingly, the theory of translanguaging that became well known in educational studies is that of Ofelia García, whose seminal book was published in 2009 — 20 years after he wrote the above. García and colleagues’ main assumptions are the same as those of Grosjean and colleagues, but García et al.’s work has (1) some broader views compared to Grosjean et al.’s, as well as (2) some misconceptions of the work of Grosjean et al., both of which I will go into shortly. [Here is an interesting interview in which Grosjean interviewed García; it will probably make more sense after you read this post.]

First, note that Grosjean and other psycholinguists who did research in the same tradition are reviewed by MacSwan (2017) in an argumentative literature review titled “A multilingual perspective on translanguaging,” published in American Educational Research Journal. In this article, MacSwan challenges García, Li Wei, and their colleagues for claiming or implying that Grosjean et al. (who tended to use the term “code-switching” in those days) assumed that people had different processing compartments for different languages. As the above excerpt from Grosjean shows, the early psycholinguists did no such thing — quite the opposite! The limitation of their studies is that they were mostly interested in studying young children picking up two L1s simultaneously at home, often up until the point when the languages start to become unbalanced, leading to only one fully developed adult L1. Such studies of bilingualism conceptualized bilinguals as those who had early childhood immersion in both languages: first language (L1) and heritage language (HL) speakers who could form a mixed language utterance without breaking the grammatical rules of either language, somehow reconciling them through a “magical” ability that is only present in childhood (for example, how I TL or code-switch between my HL, Tagalog, and fully developed L1, English). They gave little account of late bi/multingualism, involving L2, L3, etc. speakers who do not TL/code-switch systematically (e.g. the way I do with English and French) and those who only have emergent, or beginning, proficiency in the additional languages. In other words, early psycholinguistic work on bilingualism had strong nativist orientations. It acknowledged that languages could be developed unequally in individuals’ minds (which was OK), but at the same time focused on grammatical flawlessness of a sort. However, this is not to say that this work did not also have a social justice aim, like García’s and Li’s work on translanguaging. For example, psycholinguistic research proved that bilingual children who mixed two languages, such as ethnic minority children, were not deficient in either language; in fact there was something phenomenal in their systematic two-grammar juggling act (MacSwan, 2017).

Then, in the 1990s, Peter Auer, a sociolinguist (someone who studies language use in naturalistic settings, and not just in the classroom) argued that code-switching was too muddy a term, and that it was being used to describe two phenomena that required different names:

  1. The bilingual child’s ability to mix languages without breaking the grammatical rules of either, which Auer called speaking a mixed code (because it is one code that anyone who grows up immersed in, say, English and Spanish will generally follow), and
  2. Code-switching as Auer thought it should be defined — which relates to the graphic of this post, i.e. interactional code-switching. (Auer, 1998)

When people switch between Language A and Language B in conversation, they usually are signalling a shift in topic, task, phase of the conversation, or addressee, and the language switch signals this. A distinction between two codes is noted by participants in the conversation — this cues them that the “shifting gears” is taking place. Here is an example from an article on classroom code-switching by Angel Lin (2013):

Teacher: (in English) Close all your textbook and class workbook. (in Cantonese) There are some classmates not back yet. Be quick! (in English) Now, any problem about the class work? (R. Johnson, as cited in Lin, 2013, p. 200; original Cantonese not provided).

The aside about hurrying up, Lin observes, could have been achieved without a switch into Cantonese, such as a change in volume or tone of voice. Why then use Cantonese? Lin argues that only a switch into students’ L1 would have relayed the message’s urgency and the teacher’s annoyance, tempered by the informal tone carried by the code in this context. That is, only Cantonese would have achieved all the social meanings the teacher wanted to achieve simultaneously. When code-switching happens in classrooms (Filipi & Markee, 2018), reasons may include shifting in and out of different tasks, directing attention to specific addressees, signaling alignment or disalignment with others, or negotiating the medium of communication in small group interaction.

Moreover, when distinct codes are drawn on to accomplish important interactional work in any place — see the graphic that comes with this post (Alam & Quyyum, 2016) — this does not necessarily mean that there are designated high/low prestige codes in that conversation, or that people even expect each code to be spoken in a standard way. Even though assigning of languages for high/low prestige purposes can happen in code-switching (see the term “diglossia”), it does not define code-switching. In the example of code-switching from the Hong Kong classroom above, the English teacher is giving instructions in two languages: open your books (in English), hurry up (in Cantonese), and okay now are there any questions about what is in the books? (in English). The teacher uses the codes’ perceived difference to make two sets of instructions, those re: homework-checking and those re: coming back to the classroom, stand out more, as these things are happening at the same time. Being perceived as different, the codes highlight each other and the teacher’s instructions are more organized.

There are a host of reasons why people may code-switch, besides not knowing the word in the other language, and all the functions can be theoretically served by any code (though of course, due to social and cultural factors, particular codes tend to serve particular functions for that group of people in a particular setting). To go back to Auer (1998), he defined interactional code-switching simply as a contrast between codes that leads people to figure out what function the code-switch is supposed to signal based on context. He also explains two additional points about this kind of code-switching:

  • Interactional code-switches can be done by monolinguals. This is accomplished through actions like changing the dialect or register, clearing the throat, changing one’s posture/gaze/body language, changing the volume, pace, or tone of speech, etc.
  • It is possible to code-switch between a mixed code (perceived as one code by children growing up bilingual) and another code that is commonly thought of as a standard national language. That is why Auer doesn’t call it language-switching or dialect-switching but code-switching: it is not what linguists identify as languages or dialects but what participants identify themselves as codes. This is why code-switching is an emic perspective on interaction, which takes the perspective of participants, rather than an etic perspective imposed by the researcher based on pre-existing theory (see Auer, 2019).

People often mix languages freely without thinking much about it (dynamic translanguaging); but if a code-shift is perceived as interactionally salient, it is code-switching. Likewise, a monolingual may or may not think someone clearing their throat in the middle of a monolingual conversation implies something. A switch in language (or a gesture) may be a code-switch; seconds after that, the same switch in language (or the same gesture) has no interactional meaning and individuals are simply using their entire language repertoires to communicate (translanguaging). We all translanguage and code-switch fluidly and often!

Since code-switching is a vital part of human sociality, and code-switching phenomena are bound to be found in classrooms as anywhere else, code-switching will never be an outdated concept. What I like about Auer’s definition of code-switching is that, like Garcia’s definition of translanguaging, it does not matter when you learned the language(s) you are using, whether you were born into them, or how proficient you are in them — you can translanguage or code-switch in much the same ways as anybody else! Using an integrated language repertoire to make sense of the world (as we have known since at least Grosjean’s 1980s writings) is as important as deploying specific language resources in interaction, in a myriad of ways.


Alam, A., & Quyyum, S. (2016).  A sociolinguistic survey on code switching & code mixing by the native speakers of Bangladesh. Journal of Manarat International University, 6(1). https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Ahmad_Alam9

Auer, P. (1998). Code-switching in conversation: Language, interaction, and identity. London, UK; New York, NY: Routledge.

Auer, P. (2019). “Translanguaging” or “doing languages”? Multilingual practices and the notion of “codes.” https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Peter_Auer4

Filipi, A., & Markee, N. (Eds.) (2018). Conversation analysis and language alternation: Capturing transitions in the classroom. Amsterdam, Netherlands: John Benjamins.

García, O. (2009). Bilingual education in the 21st century: A global perspective. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Grosjean, F. (1989). Neurolinguists, beware! The bilingual is not two monolinguals in one person. Brain and Language36(1), 3-15. https://www.francoisgrosjean.ch/bilin_bicult/3%20Grosjean.pdf

Lin, A. (2013). Classroom code-switching: Three decades of research. Applied Linguistics Review, 4(1), 195-218. http://dx.doi.org/10.1515/applirev-2013-0009

MacSwan, J. (2017). A multilingual perspective on translanguaging. American Educational Research Journal54(1), 167-201. https://doi.org/10.3102/0002831216683935

Published by annamend

Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education, University of Hong Kong

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