What is code-switching?

What is code-switching?

What is code-switching?

By Christina Cunningham

A common misconception about bilingual children is that they will confuse their languages, affecting their ability to communicate with others. Parents might start to worry when their bilingual child babbles away in Spanish to an English-speaking friend or tosses in English phrases when chatting on the phone with their grandparents in Chinese. Sometimes, this fear causes families to abandon their bilingual journey completely. However, these are actually examples of a well-known phenomenon called code-switching that is not as worrisome as it may initially appear. We dove into the research to learn more about when and why bilingual kids might code-switch and what it means for their language development. Here’s what we’ve learned:

Code-switching occurs at all ages for bilingual and multilingual speakers, not just in young children; the most common instances involve beginning a sentence in one language and finishing it in the other. Studies show that, despite the change in language, speakers often keep the grammatical structures of the initial language across the entire sentence. Linguists believe that this proves children who mix languages are not confused, but instead have more nuanced reasons for switching things up. 

When young children code-switch, they’re not doing so carelessly. Various studies of young bilingual learners have demonstrated that children actually mix languages in order to clarify what they are saying and ensure that the listener understands. It’s also just more evidence that bilingual children possess large vocabularies in both languages – they simply know two words for the same object or concept and are approaching the conversation from multiple perspectives. 

Some evidence shows that children tend to code-switch toward the language that is most dominant in that setting or the one that has the most perceived prestige. For instance, in an English-speaking country, a bilingual child might begin a sentence in their home language but finish in English. Children also code-switch more often when they feel more comfortable in one language than another, most often due to exposure. If a child is attempting to communicate in Chinese but has primarily been raised speaking English, it makes sense that when they’re uncertain of the Chinese word for something, they replace it with an English equivalent.

In short, code-switching is a normal stage of language acquisition, and it persists into adulthood as bilingual speakers’ speech is influenced by sociocultural factors. Consider the myth dispelled – children who mix languages are not confused or delayed in their speaking abilities, but rather demonstrate the flexibility of their brains and vocabularies. It’s just another piece of evidence that bilingualism is an asset.

Want to learn more? Here’s research we found on the topic: