What is code-switching?

code switching elt Oct 22, 2021

By Dr Jeremy Koay

A limited view

According to the online Oxford Dictionaries (2017), code-switching is ‘the practice of alternating between two or more languages or varieties of language in conversation’. Traditional approaches to language teaching and learning typically frown upon this practice and promote a target language-only policy. They reason that using L1 in an L2 classroom reduces exposure to L2. However, it is arguable that using only L2 can prevent some learners from accomplishing particular tasks.

Some teachers believe that learners code-switch because they have limited English proficiency. This belief is inconsistent with Sampson’s (2012) analysis of classroom interactions among adult language learners in two groups: upper-intermediate and pre-intermediate. His analysis shows that the frequency of code-switching in the groups is the same.

A holistic view

Code-switching is used for a number of reasons, such as to construct solidarity, and to express identity and humour (Carless, 2007).

Sampton’s (2012) analysis of classroom interactions shows that two main functions of code-switching are to compare L2 words and their L1 equivalents (e.g., Is cat the English word for Katze?), and to talk about the procedural aspects of a particular task. The first function can be seen as a way to support learning. In other words, learners draw on L1 knowledge to learn L2. For the second function, if the goal of a task is to provide opportunities for authentic communication, learners should be encouraged to use L2 as much as possible.

Theory and practice

With an understanding that using L1 in the classroom can support L2 learning, there should be room for L1. In order to avoid an overuse of L1, it is important to make learners aware that L1, if used appropriately, benefits their L2 development. Some teachers tell their students that they are allowed to use L1 when they look for an L2 equivalent vocabulary.

If teachers and learners share a common L1, teachers can use their L1 to check whether learners understand a particular word. For example, teachers can ask their students What is the Chinese word for ‘distinct’? If teachers do not understand learners’ L1, teachers can ask the class to confirm the word.


Carless, D. (2007). Student use of the mother tongue in the task-based classroom’. ELT Journal, 62(4), 331–318.

Sampson, A. (2012). Learner code-switching versus English only. ELT Journal, 66(3), 293-303.

Dr Jeremy Koay is a New Zealand-based Independent Researcher and a Research & Development Consultant at EduMaxi. He obtained his PhD in Applied Linguistics from Victoria University of Wellington in 2015. His research interests include Discourse Analysis, Genre Analysis and TESOL.

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