Factors of Code Switching among Bilingual English Students

Text-only Preview

English for Specific Purposes World, Issue 29 Volume 9, 2010

Factors of Code Switching among Bilingual English Students
in the University Classroom: A Survey
Krishna Bista
Center for Excellence in Education
Arkansas State University, Arkansas
[email protected]

Bio Data:

Krishna Bista received his Master’s Degree in English Language/Adult Education
from Troy University of Alabama. He is currently pursuing his graduate terminal degree
in Language and Leadership at Arkansas State University, Arkansas.

This study proposes to identify and evaluate the factors that affect code switching
in the university classroom among 15 bilingual international students. The findings from
the study conducted in a southern American university revealed that the primary factor of
code switching in international classroom is incompetence in the second language. Other
noted factors were: to maintain privacy; to make it easier to speak in their own language
than to speak in English; to avoid misunderstanding; being unfamiliar with similar words
in English. However, code switching can be a useful strategy in classroom interaction if
the aim is to make meaning clear and to transfer the knowledge to students in an efficient

Key words: code switching, bilingual, English as Second Language, international

English for Specific Purposes World, Issue 29 Volume 9, 2010

Factors of Code Switching among Bilingual English Students
in the University Classroom: A Survey

1. Introduction:
People who have learned two languages demonstrate an interesting phenomenon
known as “code switching” by mixing words or phrases from the two tongues together
during the course of speech or writing. A ‘code’ is defined as a language or a dialect.
Code switching (CS) is an alternation of words and phrases between two languages or
dialects. This usually occurs between people who share those particular languages.
Alternation between languages in the form of code switching is a widely observed
phenomenon in foreign language classrooms. Various bilingual speakers switch their
languages with ease at different points in conversation or in writing. People commonly
shift code in the course of their daily conversation. Many educated people who are fluent
in English as their second language (L2), often employ code-switching by inserting
English words, phrases or sentences into their communications. Although participants
may unconsciously perform code switching there is always a reason that this occurs.
Code switching is determined by a number of social and linguistic factors. It is a
widely used in multilingual and multicultural communities. In Asian countries such as
Nepal, India, Pakistan and China, speakers who are bilingual usually have English as
their second language (L2) and their first language (L1) is their mother tongue and
dialect. Similarly, in European bilingual communities, French, German, Spanish or
Italian may use alternatively as the language of classroom instruction.
In university classrooms, code switching comes into use in both the teachers’ and
the students’ discourse. (Sert, 2006). ESL teachers, linguistics and researchers believe
that code switching is not necessarily a blockage or deficiency in learning a language.
Bilingual speakers alternate the codes for various reasons during conversation.
Code switching is studied to learn why people who are competent in two languages
alternate words or phrases in a particular situation.
This study proposes to identify and evaluate the factors that affect code switching

English for Specific Purposes World, Issue 29 Volume 9, 2010
in the university classroom among bilingual international students. Primary data has been
collected, analyzed and compared with related research for the purpose of reaching
comparative conclusions about these factors. The research was conducted at Troy
University located in Troy, Alabama.
While code switching has been examined in previous studies researchers have not
focused on the factors affecting bilingual international students learning English in
universities. Reyes (2004) noted the absent of such studies. This paper explores the
factors that determine code switching among non-native speakers of English in university
level English classes.

2. Types of Code Switching:
Code switching takes a variety of forms. It can occur within or at the end or
beginning of sentences. In intersentential code switching, the language switch is done at
sentence boundaries. This is seen most often between fluent bilingual speakers. In
intrasentential code switching, the shift is done in the middle of a sentence with no
interruptions, hesitations, or pauses indicates a shift (Lipski, 1985). Intersentential
language switching is known as mechanical switching. It occurs unconsciously, and fills
in unknown or unavailable terms in one language. This type of code switching is also
known as “code-mixing”. Another type of code switching is called “code changing”. It is
characterized by fluent intrasentential shifts, transferring focus from one language to
another. It is motivated by situational and stylistic factors and the switch between two
languages is conscious and intentional (Lipski, 1985).

3. Review of Previous Research in Code Switching:
Several researchers have studied the functions, characteristics, determining factors
and effects of code-switching in a wide range of linguistics domains. In a seminal work
by Gumperz (1982) he identifies six functions of code switching which are: Quotation,
Addressee specification, Repetition, Interjection, Message qualification and

English for Specific Purposes World, Issue 29 Volume 9, 2010
In a study by Sert (2006) about the possible applications of code switching in
educational contexts in bilingual community, he finds its function is to bring an
authenticity to conversation and to help the reader better deduce the ideas being
communicated. In this study further factors that determine Code Switching among
students include: Equivalence, Floor holding, Reiteration, and Conflict control.
Auer (1998) identifies eight functions whereas Baker (2000) lists 12. Auer admits
that such functions are ‘ill-defined’ and they are actually a “mixed bag” of different
dimensions such as linguistic form, conversational structure and function. Furthermore
they ignore community specific norms which motivate code switching (Chan, 2003).
According to some scholars of linguistics, as quoted in Ayeomoni (2006), the
factors of code switching are: intra-group identity, poetic creativity and the expression of
modernization. Reyes (2004) writes that children switch codes when they do not know
the word in the acquired or target language. Other research findings have indicated that
one of the major factors of code switching is that elements of the other language convey
the meaning of the intended idea more accurately (Gumperz, 2004).
Researchers have observed that code switching among Spanish-English bilinguals
focus on ‘lexical items’, Turkish-Danish bilinguals focus on ‘power-wielding purposes’
and French-English bilinguals focus on ‘competence and performance.
In summary, the following factors have been suggested as determinates of code

(Gumperz 1982)
Addressee specification,
Message qualification

Sert (2006)

English for Specific Purposes World, Issue 29 Volume 9, 2010
Floor holding,
Conflict control.

Intra-group identity,
Poetic creativity,
The expression of modernization.

4. Methodology:
Participants in the Study
The participants of this study were 15 international students from Troy University
located in Troy, Alabama. Of them, 10 were graduate students and 5 were
undergraduates. All of them came from different countries with various cultural and
linguistic backgrounds. All students who participated in this study were Nepalese-
English, Indian- English, Chinese-English, and Korean-English bilinguals. The ages of
participants ranged from 19 to 31. One third of the subjects came from a 22-25 age
groups (figure 1). An equal number of subjects had ages of 19-22 and 25-28 respectively
whereas four ranged in age from 28-31 and these were graduate students.

The study was conducted at Troy University which is a center for bilingual
studies at the graduate and undergraduate levels.

English for Specific Purposes World, Issue 29 Volume 9, 2010
Language Proficiency of Participants
For all the participants, first language (L1) was their national language, and
second or target language was English (L2). The proficiency of English for this study was
measured using their standardized test scores of Test of English as Foreign Language
(TOEFL). While the subjects’ proficiency in their native tongue was assumed to be of a
higher level, one or two questions in the questionnaire (appendix 1) were intended to
assess their proficiency level of first language.
Students who participated in this study were enrolled in English classes where
they learned and exercised the second language in a classroom setting. The subjects
spoke both L1 and L2 outside the classroom as well as during classes. It was found
significant that students sometimes switched from one language to another during the
general medium of instruction. Information regarding each participant’s English language
background was obtained from questionnaire (see appendix 1). More than half
participants came from graduate classes and most had higher scores in standardized tests.
In some cases when some ESL and graduate students tested lower a conference was held
with the student to determine concomitant factors.

As seen in the figure 2, more than half students achieved a score 60-80 on TOEFL
test. Only one student secured the highest range 100-120 whereas four out of total got in
the range of 80-100 and just half achieved the range of 40-60. An interesting fact that
emerged during data analysis is that many undergraduate students have obtained higher

English for Specific Purposes World, Issue 29 Volume 9, 2010
TOEFL score than the graduate students.

5. Data Collection: Design and Procedure
Design and Procedure
Data was collected through the use of questionnaires and by classroom
observation (see Appendix 1). Participants were not informed that their code switching
behavior was the subject of observation by the researcher in the class. Observation was
carried out in two graduate level classes and in undergraduate ESL classes for six days as
a substitute teacher. In graduate observation classes, there were 14 international students -
---4 from Korea, 1 from Nepal, 6 from China, 1 from Saudi Arabia, and 2 from India.
These students were seated with their friends from the home country. While observing
these graduate level classes, the researcher had had a chance to record the classroom
interactions and the particular circumstances where code switching occurred. It was
noticed that when students come across an unfamiliar word in the lecture or reading the
text, they used to put the word in their electronic translators and thus let their friends
know the meaning in their native languages. This was especially true with Korean,
Chinese and Indian students. Even when responding to questions from the teacher, some
students suddenly replied in their native language as if the teacher understood those
terms. Students were comfortable talking in their native language. They would ask the
teacher for the meaning of unfamiliar terms, or seek possible equivalents in English and
local languages.
In the undergraduate ESL classroom, the observation was made among 30
International students—4 Korean, 6 Chinese, 7 Indian, 8 Saudi Arabian, 3 Nepalese, and
2 others. The majority of students in each day class were seated according to their
nationalities although such seating was not the intention of this research. Students
voluntarily choose to be together with their friends from home country like those
graduate students. Lessons on various topics were developed in the speaking class so that
participants would have enough room to express their views, opinions and arguments.
The frequencies of language exchange came from those observed instances of
students in which they either ask questions with friends or share private message during
the time just before the instructor asked question in the classroom. Similar to graduate
students, these undergraduate students also employed word switching to share a meaning
with a friend. When they come across a new word in the lesson they would jot it down
quickly and pass it to each other, sharing the meaning with their friends. Many of them

English for Specific Purposes World, Issue 29 Volume 9, 2010
whisper to convey to their friends the possible meaning. The observations were
conducted for a periods of 45 minutes. It was also noticed that students also talk to each
other in their native language during class to share thoughts of their family or friends
although such issues were not related to their ongoing lesson. Their private and personal
communication seemed consist of a word or few sentences spoken when the teacher’s
attention was elsewhere. Factors influencing code switching included the students’
degree of English language proficiency, their self confidence due to their appearance and
cultural background and their speech with an accent, and the pressures and demand of the
classroom situation. It was normal for those students to use their own language in the
English classes.
Respondents filled out the questionnaire in both classroom and out of classroom
settings. Each questionnaire contained 12 multiple choice questions asking for general to
specific information. The questionnaire emerged from observer’s personal experience as
an international graduate student, from classroom teaching experience, from earlier
studies of code switching and from interviewing international students in the university
setting. In addition to personal interviews with participants, the use of questionnaire was
considered to be an effective tool for data collection and analysis. The main motivation of
using questionnaire is to capture the whole scenario of observed situation in the way it
was. Tape recorder and camera were not used in data collection process.

Data Analysis & Interpretation
The data was analyzed step by step in the order that the questions appear. It was
compared and contrasted with related studies. Aspects of the findings were graphically

Participants’ Knowledge of First and Second Languages
In responses to the question “Which language do you often speak at Troy
University”, 47% of the participants said that they often speak both languages (figure 3).
46% reported that they often speak only their native language. The remainder, about 10
times smaller than the other two groups, speak only English at Troy University. This
shows that most of the subjects speak English less frequently than their native language
in English classes (Figure 3).

English for Specific Purposes World, Issue 29 Volume 9, 2010

In another question from the questionnaire “What language was used in teaching
you in primary and middle school?” 46 % participants answered that they were taught in
native language where 7% participants were instructed only in English. This indicates
that many students are instructed in their native language in primary and middle school
classes in many countries.

When asked “What language do you often speak?” 27% listed English as their
acquired language (L2). 46% named their native language (L1). 27% said that they often
spoke both languages.
To determine the competence of participants in their second language the question
was ask: “what language did you use to interact with your English teacher in your home
country?” In response it was found that majority of them (47%) spoke in native

English for Specific Purposes World, Issue 29 Volume 9, 2010
language, 40 % in English and 13% in both languages to interact with teaches in home
school or the university (Figure 5).
It shows that many students do not practice their second language very much in
their native places.
When the question was ask “What language did you use to interact with your
English teacher in your home country?” 13% said both, 47% named their Native tongue
(L1) and 40% listed English as their second language (L2).

In order to determine the second language competence of the participants the
questionnaire asks “what language do you use to communicate your friends at Troy? ”

Since foreign students do not have as many friends from their home country with