Code-Switching in the classroom…

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A review of Iliana Reyes’ article, “Functions of Code Switching in Schoolchildren’s Conversations.”

My curiosity in reviewing this specific article started with an observation. There are two recent observations actually. The first has been an on-going one, and always in the bilingual classroom. Student’s code-switching (CS), which is normal. The distinct feature in the bilingual classroom is that the teacher is also fervently switching languages! The second was here, in my graduate course titled, “Critical Issues in Bilingual/Bicultural Education,” throughout our discourse people CS, though less frequently than in the bilingual classroom and with the exclusion of Spanglish terms. I was challenged by the notion that fervently CS in the classroom was okay, and in fact a good strategy to utilize in order to, for example, communicate with children who use it as a means to bridge misunderstandings. I decided to read the article, Functions of Code Switching in Schoolchildren’s Conversations by Iliana Reyes because I thought it would be a good place to start to better understand why individuals, specifically children, CS in the first place. The article touched on the most popularly known reasons among bilingual teachers. For instance, students draw from words in either the L1 or L2 if they don’t know the word(s) in one of the languages, to express an emotion, or because it is common practice in their community. I did not expect the article to answer the questions I have about teachers CS in the classroom, but I did expect it to shed some light on how it develops among school aged children. For instance, though the community students live in CS, does the teachers’ use of CS discourage a students’ knowledge of proper use of Spanish or English, or more specifically, does it discourage a student from increasing their academic vocabulary in English or Spanish? Reyes observed 20 pairs of 7 and 10 year olds and concluded that children CS for different reasons. She had these 20 pairs, each child was allowed to choose a grade-level counterpart, work on a science activity. The observers left the room, while the children worked on the activity. Each child had a microphone attached to their waist. Overall the context in which children CS was not one of the determining factors as far as frequency is concerned. In other words, the amount of CS displayed on the playground was about as frequent as the CS they displayed during the assigned science activity.Reyes included a sociolinguist analysis in her study which stated that, “…only code switches that constitute more than one lexical item were included in the analysis.” (pg.83) she went on to explain how, “Many investigators in the field of language CS do not consider single switches, ‘true switches,’ therefore, only those longer switches that clearly indicated a syntactic switch into the other language have been included in the present analysis.” (pgs.83-83) I was enlightened because it clarified that the “CS” done in my graduate class is not actual CS, but I am still concerned about the classroom teachers’ use of CS. They do actually fit into the definition of CS. For instance, Reyes describes CS as two categories: the metaphorical and the situational. She says, “Under the metaphorical category, CS varies according to discourse function (e.g, to include or exclude someone from a conversation, to convey intimacy, or to emphasize a message).” (p.78) The observations I have made seem to indicate that the reasons why children CS are the same reasons why teachers seem to be CS, according to Reyes study there are six reasons why, all of which are evident in the classrooms I have observed throughout the years. The six reasons, which fall under either metaphorical or situational include clarification about the meaning of a words or concept, in order to put emphasis on what they were trying to say, when the topic of conversation shifts, to accommodate the listener, when they were shifting questions, or when the situation (context) shifted. Which begs the question, are teachers who fervently CS actually fully bilingual in English and Spanish? As I took notes about the article and paused to think about what the writer was saying; the whole time I kept remembering what the proponents and opponents for African-American Vernacular English in the classroom would argue. The proponents would state that students need to be taught in the language they know in order for literacy skills to transfer, in addition to feeling comfortable with the way they speak. The opponent’s arguments ranged from the need to acquire Standard English in order to be successful in school, let alone life to realizing that Blacks speak improper English and it should be corrected. So, do CS and Spanglish in the classroom fit into the same category as the teacher’s use of Ebonics in the classroom?The struggle I have with CS sways between adults’ use of it and children’s use of it and what that means in the classroom. Both Genesse and Reyes research interests include, “The nature of language development in…developing bilinguals…,” which, “…must be understood in relation to their development of bilingual communicative competence (Genesse, 2002; Reyes, 2001). Towards the end of Reyes article she states that children develop their ability to CS as they acquire “language.” In other words, as the child gets older they learn to manipulate the six different facets within CS, although in the transcripts, which she included in the article I still wonder how well these children know the proper way to speak English or Spanish. In addition, if teachers refrained from fervently CS, and instead taught one content area in one language and the next in another depending on how they have designed their class to function within the transitional bilingual education model, then maybe students would know to say words, in both English and Spanish with proper use of grammar and articulation. For instance, throughout the transcript students mispronounced the following words or phrases or did not use the appropriate word in Spanish: “…she don’t need to go to summer school”, “…mira mira los magnets”, “..we do not need this no more”, “..asi ira”, and “compass?” Reyes article did enlighten me in terms of how well children learn to CS as they acquire language. The seven year olds used three types of CS more frequently, while the ten year olds used the five different types of CS during their conversations. In other words, the older children CS more than the younger children because they have a firmer grasp of both the L1 and the L2 (see figure 1 on p.88.) Although, I do believe there is value in CS and it certainly is a skill, I am still not convinced that teachers constant CS in the classroom is a good strategy, especially when the way they CS reflects the way children use it. Hmm….do the words Oakland and Ebonics ring bell? Read Iliana Reyes entire article: (copy & paste the following link) brj.asu.edu/content/vol28_no1/art5.pdf

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About suzannemateus

I write about my bilingual life on my blog, Interpretations of a Bilingual Life: http://suzannemateus.com/ I am also a monthly contributor for http://www.spanglishbaby.com/ where I write about my attempt to raise a trilingual baby. I have written (and am interested in continuing to do so) for other blogs focusing on my experiences about nursing my baby and about having an amazing intervention-free and med-free birth.

2 responses »

  1. I think you are grasping at straws here. Your comparison of CS to Ebonics is way off base. In my experience, CS is indicative of progressive L2 acquisition and is used to facilitate vernacular understanding. Your evaluation and critique of CS in the classroom, specifically the use of CS by the teacher would more accurately be an assessment of grammatical correctness rather than language acquisition.

  2. Hi Raul,

    Thanks for taking the time to write a comment on my blog. I appreciate your thoughts. If you read a more recent posting titled “Language Varieties in the American School System” you will read that I have changed my opinion about code-switching in the classroom. It is more aligned with your comment. As I have mentioned in my blog I write to learn about my observations and thoughts, so again thank you for sharing.
    Suzanne

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