Academic Exchange Quarterly         Spring  2003: Volume 7, Issue 1

A Study of Bilingual Chinese/English Children's Code Switching Behavior


Jiening Ruan is an assistant professor of Reading/Literacy Education at the University of Oklahoma. 



This paper reports the findings from a study that explores young Chinese/English bilingual children’s code switching behavior in a Chinese language program.  In particular, it describes one bilingual child’s patterns of language use.  The findings suggest that code switching was used as a communicative device by the children in the study.  They switched languages during their speech in order to realize social function, pragmatic function, and meta-linguistic function.  Educational implications are also provided.


Moving in and out of Languages:  Bilingual Children’s Code Switching Behavior in a Native Language Program


In the past two decades, an increasing number of students from diverse linguistic backgrounds entered American public schools.  This trend is continuing.  However, researchers have noted that many teachers are poorly prepared to meet the challenge of educating diverse student populations because they are not well informed of how linguistically different children acquire and use language in the current educational milieu (Tabors & Snow, 2001). 


The purpose of this study is to explore young Chinese/English bilingual children’s code switching behavior in a Chinese language program.  In particular, this paper describes one bilingual child’s language use patterns.  The study seeks to answer the following questions: a) What are some major patterns of language use with bilingual Chinese children? b) What are some factors that influence their language choice?


By answering these questions, the researcher aims to bring insights into the complex issue of language acquisition and its use with bilingual student populations.  The answers in turn will add to our understanding of how to tap into and capitalize on bilingual children’s linguistic repertoire so that we can maximize their learning.


Code switching is a frequently occurred phenomenon in bilinguals’ discourse  (Domingue, 1990; Myers-Scotton, 1993).   Many linguists consider code switching a very critical issue in bilingualism  (Myers-Scotton, 1993; Romaine, 1994), and it has a significant impact on bilingualism both at the societal level and individual level (Romaine, 1994).


Code switching is defined by Gumperz (1982) as “the juxtaposition within the same speech exchange of passages of speech belonging to two different grammatical systems or subsystems” (p. 59). With bilinguals, the term code switching refers to the behavior of switching between different languages in discourse, oral or written. 


Code switching in adult conversations has been widely studied by researchers using sociolinguistic, grammatical, and psycholinguistic approaches.  Among them, the sociolinguistic approach has been most influential.  This approach focuses on bilinguals’ communicative competence and motivation for code switching and code choice.   Sociolinguists argue that one should investigate bilinguals’ language use and code switching not only in terms of linguistic rules, but more importantly, the rules of language use that are shared by the members of the community to accomplish communicative functions (Romaine, 1989).


In a sharp contrast to prescriptive linguistics, Gumperz (1982) suggests that code switching has important discourse functions for bilinguals.  They constantly make choices about what language to be used during interactions.  Bilingual speakers jointly construct social meaning situated in the interactions.  The functions of code switching range from conveying intentional meaning to signaling the social identities of the parties involved. 


Some research has also been conducted to specifically explore bilingual children’s code switching behaviors (e.g., Bauer & Montero, 2001; Fantini, 1985; McClure, 1977; Saunders, 1982).  Findings suggest that bilingual children switch languages according to the cognitive demands of the tasks and the contextual demands such as participants and topics.  However, these linguistic case studies usually focus on how children use languages in the home setting with adults/parents or their siblings.  Little research effort has been paid to investigate how young bilingual children use languages in an educational/school setting.


Therefore, although an increasing amount of evidence from sociolinguistic studies indicates that code switching serves important communicative functions, its nature and functions in educational settings are generally unknown to most educators and teachers.  Code switching has long been stigmatized in education (Crowl and MacGinitie, 1974; Lara, 1989; Ramirez & Milk; 1986).  Myers-Scotton (1993) pointed out that earlier studies of bilingualism treat code switching as a linguistic deficiency of the bilinguals who are not well developed in either language that they use.  Children who switch between languages tend to be considered as less developed in their abilities to master standard English, a prerequisite for academic success.


In a recent joint statement, International Reading Association (IRA) and National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) (1998) once more brought our attention to this negative view of linguistic diversity in education.  They stated, “Unfortunately teachers too often react negatively to children’s linguistic and cultural diversity, equating difference with deficit” (p. 208).  In schools, bilingual children are generally assessed according to how well they can read and write in the standard English.  Non-standard or mixed speech in particular has been considered problematic.  Bilingual children who engage themselves in code switching are questioned about their academic abilities and potentials, and they are more likely to be placed in remedial classes (Lara, 1989). 


Overall, many researchers realize that bilingual children’s language development is less well researched and understood when compared to that of monolingual children (Romaine, 1989; Tabors & Snow, 2001).  In addition, within the small body of studies about bilingual children, the major focus has been on the second language acquisition (Tabors & Snow, 2001) and in home settings (e.g. Bauer & Montero, 2001).  The education community has paid little attention to the simultaneous development of the two languages in bilingual children.  In particular, bilingual children’s mixing of languages in the process of language acquisition has been viewed unfavorably by the mainstream society, and it has been “the least systematically studied” (Romaine, 1989, p. 166).  As a result, there is a great need to examine bilingual children’s code switching behavior in an educational setting so that a more comprehensive understanding of this phenomenon can be reached and be used to inform the instructional practices of the teachers of bilingual children in American schools.




Sites and Participants


This study was conducted in an after-school Chinese language program for bilingual Chinese/English children in a mid-western university town.  This school was a heritage community language school that offered language and culture courses on weekends.  Although the Chinese School and the teachers encouraged children to speak Chinese when they were at the school’s premise, their attitude toward code switching was overall neutral. 


The first grade classroom was selected because of the diversity in student backgrounds.  There was a good mix of social and racial identities among these children.  Eight of the students in the class were the children of the Chinese graduate students who came to study for advanced degrees at the local university. Two of the students were from inter-racial marriage families with one of the parents a Chinese and the other an American.  One child was from Taiwan, and two others from Hong Kong.  All children had average or above-average English proficiency.  Among the children in the class, Lingling was selected as the focal participant.  Lingling was a typical Chinese bilingual child with Chinese as the home language and English as the dominant language, and she was fluent in both English and Chinese.  She came to the United States at five, and completed the kindergarten satisfactorily.


This was a descriptive study.  The Chinese class was observed for one hour every Saturday afternoon for 14 weeks.  The researcher was a Chinese/English bilingual who fully understood the culture of this particular community.  The researcher took the role of a participant observer (Patton, 1990).  A good rapport was established between the researcher and the children in the class and especially with the focal child Lingling. 


Field notes were taken during classroom observations. In addition, four segments of ten-minute conversations were taped during recess periods in the classroom’s play area.  The audiotapes were transcribed.  The field notes and transcripts were analyzed to flesh out major patterns in the children’s discourse. 


Data Analysis


Discourse analysis (Gumperz, 1982) and the constant comparative method (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) were used to analyze the data.  The data included the field notes and transcripts of children’s conversation.  Several steps were involved in data analyses.  First, the researcher searched the field notes and transcripts to identify all instances of code switching.  Second, each instance was coded and labeled according to its potential function.  Third, all the codes were screened and instances labeled with the same or similar codes were grouped together.  This was followed by a careful examination of the relationships between and among different codes.  Codes with similar nature were then grouped into major categories to suggest patterns.  Finally, each pattern was reexamined to ensure that it truly reflected the nature of its supporting data, and example(s) representing each pattern were selected to illuminate the nature of the pattern.    


Results and Discussion


Findings suggest that all bilingual children in the study engaged in the code switching behavior although the frequency of this behavior varied.  A focused analysis on Lingling’s language use yielded several patterns. 


Overall, Lingling’s choice of language was frequently motivated by the changes in participants involved in the discourse.  Contrary to common expectation, English was her language of preference at this stage of her life.  She talked to her classmates mostly in English.  However, Lingling switched to Chinese if adults especially when the Chinese teacher joined the conversation.

Lingling:  I got lots of candy from Trick-or-Treat.

Di:  Me too.  I have a lot of candy and my mom won’t let me have all.

(Teacher coming into the classroom)

Lingling:  Lao shi, ni yao bu yao yi ke tang?  (Teacher, do you want a piece of candy?)

Teacher:  Xie xie.  Bu yong.  (Thanks.  No.)


In this data clip, Lingling was observed switching her language from English to Chinese prompted by the appearance of her Chinese teacher.  Lingling understood that she came to the Chinese school to learn Chinese, and the teacher might expect her to use Chinese.  Her sense of the status of interlocutors led to her motivation to switch.


Culture-related topic selection also brought about changes in Lingling’s choice of language.  When talking about the subjects taught in the Chinese school, Lingling was more likely to use Chinese than English.  For example, when Lingling talked to her friend Di about her Wu Shu class (Chinese Martial Art) and the things that she learned in that class, she made the switch from English to Chinese.  Although they were taking the same Chinese class, Di was not enrolled in the Wu Shu class.

Lingling:  I need to go to wu shu ke.  (I need to go to Wu Shu class).

Di:  Yeah, punching and kicking people.


To Lingling, Wu Shu was a Chinese topic, and it was unlikely and inconvenient for her to translate it into its corresponding English term.  Her awareness of culture-related topics was also obvious when she talked to her classmate Kai about the most popular toys.  At the time of the study, Pokemons was the hottest topic among the children.  Many conversations during the recess periods were about Pokemons.  The following conversation occurred when Lingling was drawing a Pokemon character on the blackboard during the recess.  Another child Meilun was admiring her drawing.

Meilun:  Lingling, ni hua shen me? (Lingling, what are you drawing?)

            Lingling:  Zhe shi Pichachoo (This is Pichachoo).  I will draw Charizard the Flame Thrower too.


This data clip again illustrated her awareness of culture-specific topics.  The conversation started out in Chinese, but Pokemon characters prompted the switch to English.   


Code switching was also used by Lingling for the practical purpose of quoting her teacher.  Lingling quoted her Wu Shu teacher in Chinese in the same conversation with Di when they were talking about the class.

            Lingling:  I need to go to wu shu ke.  (I need to go to Wu Shu class).

Di:  Yeah, punching and kicking people.

Lingling:  The teacher said, “Bu ke yi da ren!  (You are not allowed to punch other people!)


Most interestingly, in the Chinese class, code switching was frequently used as a metalinguistic device by the Chinese teacher and the children to expand and monitor teaching and learning.  The teacher sometimes explained new or complex concepts or words in Chinese and then again in English to make sure that her students understood the concepts.  The students demonstrated similar behaviors. They asked or answered questions in both languages so that they could make sure that the teacher or their friends understood their intended meaning.  Oftentimes, they answered a question posed by the teacher and then elaborated on what they meant in English.  This can also be observed from Lingling’s verbal exchange with her teacher during a lesson on garden.

            Teacher:  Lingling, shen me shi hua yuan?  (Lingling, what is hua yuan?)

Lingling:  Hua yuan jiu shi you hen duo hua, shi garden.  (Hua yuan has lots of flowers, is garden.)



Code switching studies have “pedagogical implication for bilingual teaching, the development of bilingual instructional materials, and the evaluation of bilinguality” (Soh, p. 187).  This study suggests that as with bilingual adults, code switching is employed as communicative devices by bilingual children.  Young bilingual Chinese/English children code-switched during their speech in order to realize different functions, such as social function, pragmatic function, and meta-linguistic function. 


The results clearly show that code switching should not be used as an indicator of bilingual children’s English language learning abilities. Children should not be discriminated against by the school or the teachers if they are engaged in code switching behaviors.  Instead, when teachers understand this language phenomenon and the advantages it provides for bilingual children, they can help these children improve their literacy through using their own linguistic “funds of knowledge” (Moll, 1992).  


The evidence from this study strongly supports the argument that there is a great need for educators to view bilingual children’s code switching behaviors in a positive light.  IRA and NAEYC (1998) express a similar stance by stating,


Linguistically and culturally diverse children bring multiple perspectives and impressive skills, such as code switching (the ability to go back and forth between two languages to deepen conceptual understanding), to the tasks of learning to speak, read, and write a second language.  These self-motivated, self-initiating, constructive thinking processes should be celebrated and used as rich teaching and learning resources for all children. 

(p. 208)


When we accept code switching as a natural and constructive behavior in bilingual discourse, we can enhance the instructional effects when teaching linguistic minority children in American schools.  Allowing bilingual students to use their linguistic and cultural resources supports their learning needs (Laliberty and Berzins, 2000), and building on children’s understanding of their native languages can increase their chance for academic success (Flood, Lapp, & Hurley, 1996).


Currently, bilingualism and bilingual education are under heated debate and scrutiny in the public and political forums.  Although a small-scaled study, the information gathered from this cross-linguistic study has significant educational implications.  The researcher also calls for more studies on code switching and other language contact phenomena in public school settings so that educators can obtain a better understanding of how bilingual children use languages and learn through languages.  With more students coming from different linguistic backgrounds, teachers are more likely to face children demonstrating code switching behaviors.  Studies of this nature can help teachers provide appropriate instructional support to maximize bilingual children’s learning.






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