Code-Switching in the Classroom


Code-switching is essentially the idea that any given person uses different types of speech depending on the social setting that he or she is in.  Code-switching is something that every single person does, even if he or she is not aware that it is being done.  In the classroom, this is a topic that teachers and other faculty members generally stray away from discussing because of the fear that it has the potential to be taken offensively when addressed with some individuals.  However, the topic of code-switching is imperative to discuss in the classroom because of the role that it has in everyday life.  Students need to be introduced to code-switching and what types of language are appropriate to use in certain settings at a young age because as society progresses, it is becoming more and more important to communicate effectively in a multitude of settings and situations.

In the video above, Barack Obama is recorded ordering at a fast-food restaurant.  In the video, he says, “Naw, we straight” indicating that he is using a less formal dialect.  This is a direct example of code-switching and furthermore an example of the concept that everyone code-switches--even the President of the United States, who is generally seen in a very formal and official role.

Code-Switching Defined

According to, there are three main definitions for code-switching.  However, the information on this site is primarily connected to the Sociolinguistic definition.


  1. Linguistics: The alternating or mixed use of two or more languages,especially within the same discourse.

  2. Sociolinguistics. the use of one dialect, register, accent, or language variety over another, depending on social or cultural context, to project a specific identity:

  3. The modifying of one's behavior, appearance, etc., to adapt to different sociocultural norms.


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While the exact time period that code-switching was first acknowledged, it is known that “in 1977, Carol Myers-Scotton and William Ury identified code-switching as the “use of two or more linguistic varieties in the same conversation or interaction” (Myers-Scotton).  Following this primary definition, there were lawsuits that arose in school districts because of the differences between “standard English” and primarily African American language, also known as black dialect or ebonics. Then, from 1977 on, linguists began to study the ways in which people speak and move from one discourse to another in conversation.  Since the concept of code-switching has been studied, they have had many findings that have further developed the concept as a whole.   


Professional Opinions on Code-Switching

The National Center for Education Statistics (2002) Report:

- 2000-2001 school year: There were over 3.4 million English language learners (ELL) in public schools across the country.

- 2000-2001 school year:  There was a percentage of 8.4 % of 2,880,000 public school (ELL) students in New York State and 17.8 percent of New York City’s public school enrollment (New York State Education Department, 2002).


Theories on Code-Switching from Universities:

“Bilingual speakers often code-switch from one language to the another, especially when both languages are used in the same environment.” -Texas A&M International University, Department of Psychology and Sociology


“The National Center for Education Statistics (2002) has recently reported that, in the school year 2000-2001, over 3.4 million English language learners (ELL)2 were enrolled in public schools in the United States. Given the pervasiveness of bilingualism and the projections for increasing diversity in this country, continued research on the nature of bilingual speech is of crucial importance and has significant implications for educational research and bilingual classroom discourse alike.” -Columbia University, Teachers College


“Code-switching frequency and types of code-switches were analyzed in language samples of 12 bilingual children at high and 12 at low risk for specific language impairment (SLI). Results indicated that the frequency of codeswitching was similar for both risk groups in Spanish, but not in English. In English, the high risk group code-switched significantly more than the typically developing group (18.76% vs 7.20%, p<.05).” -The University of Texas at Austin, Texas Scholar Works


“The types of code-switches most often produced also differed by language and risk group. In Spanish, single-word lexical code-switches were preferred significantly more than syntactical or lexical-syntactical, but no differences were found between risk groups.” -The University of Texas at Austin, Texas Scholar Works


Relevance of Code-Switching Today

Code-switching is very relevant in modern day culture. In order for teachers and students to be fully successful in the classroom, teacher must consistently work to make connections with their students. However, these connections are struggling to be made because of the diverse cultures that foster different dialects, language differences, and registers. While it is vital for all teachers to have an understanding of the fact  that language can be used in various circumstances and environments, it is also important for them to discuss the concept of code-switching in the classroom so that students have an understanding of when it is and is not appropriate to use certain forms of language in specific settings.  By having this discussion with students, teachers are ensuring their future success in and out of the classroom, as well as in and out of other settings--whether formal or informal. Because of the importance of this topic, linguists have found some approaches that are deemed effective in order to address this topic.  


Culturally Relevant Teaching and Code-Switching

Culturally Relevant Teaching (CRT) draws on students’ cultural and linguistic knowledge as a foundation for effective instruction in school. Essentially, it is instruction that is designed to use students' experiences to support their learning (More Mirrors in the Classroom).  In order for teachers to effectively and appropriate discuss code-switching with students, they must understand the importance and connection with CRT itself.  The connection between CRT and code-switching comes from the fact that if a teacher does not understand the cultural backgrounds of students, then he or she cannot sensitively approach this topic.  Therefore, before a teacher attempts to address and teach about code-switching in everyday written and verbal communication, he or she must complete the following steps.

  • Knowing the Students!

    • Teachers have to know the students and build a sense of trust and understanding for one another in order to have an open and honest discussion about this topic.

  • Use a Range of Culturally Sensitive Instructional Methods & Materials

    • When discussing code-switching in the classroom, teachers must prepare a variety of materials and sources of information on the topic to students so that they feel as though they can connect with at least one source.  Failure to provide culturally sensitive materials that students can connect to will result in students not wanting to learn about the topic and/or students failing to recognize the legitimacy of the topic.

Approaches for Discussing Code-Switching

There are two central ways to approach code-switching, the Correctionist approach, and the Contrastivist approach.  The Correctionist Approach is defined as the approach teachers use when acknowledging that proper english is the only proper form of language appropriate in the classroom. The Contrastivist Approach is defined as the approach teachers use when communicating to the student that their home and school language are important to their identity.  Generally speaking, most professionals argue against using the Correctionist approach, because it is considered to be negative.

Arguments Against the Correctionist Approach in the Classroom

When a teacher communicates to the child that their home speech contains poor english and should not be used at school. This approach supports that Standard English should be the only language used and supported in schools, (Coffey).


  1. Student will feel isolated in classroom and discouraged.

  2. Student will lose cultural identity and attempt to conform to standard english and American culture.

  3. Student will lash out and misbehave in classroom to seek acceptance of culture.



Arguments For the Contrastivist Approach in the Classroom

The teacher communicates with a child through an understanding lense. They know that language comes in diverse varieties. The teacher also places importance on a child’s home language and helps the child to become aware of the changes they can make to their language to stand grammatically correct when speaking proper standard english. The student will learn how to code-switch from home to school and the difference of contexts for each language, (Coffey).



Heredia, Roberto, and Jeanette Altarriba. Mental Opportunities. Psychological Bulletin , 125 , 701–736. Bilingual Language Mixing: Why Do (n.d.): n. pag. Bilingual Language Mixing: Why Do Bilinguals Code-Switch? Blackwell Publishers Inc. Web.


Boztepe, Erman. "Explaining Ambiguity: Competing Theories." Schools and Special Needs: Issues of Innovation and Inclusion (n.d.): 146-59. Issues in Code-Switching: Competing Theories and Models. Web.


Silva, Bertha Alicia. "A Comparison of Frequencies and Patterns of Codeswitching in Spanish-English Bilingual Children at High and Low Risk for Specific Language Impairment." Repository Home. N.p., 01 May 2011. Web. 03 May 2017.

Terry. "Code-Switching: Language, Cultural Identity, and Community Membership."Oglethorpe University. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 May 2017.

"How Black to Be?" The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 10 Apr. 2013. Web. 03 May 2017.


National Center On Cultural And Linguistic Responsiveness. Code Switching: Why It Matters and How to Respond (n.d.): n. pag. Code-switching: Why It Matters and How to Respond. Web.


Coffey, Heather. "Learn NC." Code-switching. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 May 2017.


Bigk3695. "Barack Obama Real Cool." YouTube. YouTube, 13 Jan. 2009. Web. 03 May 2017.


"Code-switching." Google Search. Google, n.d. Web. 03 May 2017

Bigk3695. "Barack Obama Real Cool." YouTube. YouTube, 13 Jan. 2009. Web. 03 May 2017.