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CODE-SWITCHING IN THE CLASSROOM

Finally, I turn to a discussion of code-switching in the classroom. As I pointed out in the introduction to this chapter, many language teachers discourage code-switching because they believe that it hinders students’ learning of the target language. In a study of the code-switching practices of Taiwanese EFL teachers, Raschka et al. (2009) state that policy-makers, at both the national and school level, tend to view code-switching as undesirable within the language classroom, and promote an “English-only” rule. However, as the authors point out, total immersion in English is virtually impossible in foreign language classrooms, especially when everyone in the classroom (including the students and the teacher) speaks the same first language. They argue that “English-only” is a lazy rule in that it means that teachers do not have to think about when and where code-switching occurs and in what contexts it may be pedagogically useful.

Similarly, Levine (2011) discusses his experience as a director of a university German language program, who required his graduate student instructors to adopt a “German-only” approach in the classroom, only to find out that the instructors and the students frequently and openly broke the rule. He explains how he came to abandon his “German-only” policy (Levine, 2011: xiv):

This became especially apparent in the occasional, candid remarks made by some students on course evaluations and elsewhere about the L2 use “policies” in their classes. Some people expressed that they felt not only frustration about it, but even anxiety. These comments . . . led me to rethink my position on exclusive L2 use, fueled also by my observations during classroom visits that even in the most stringent exclusive-L2-use classes, many learners still made frequent use of that forbidden code: English!

Levine notes that not only was his “German-only” rule unrealistic, it also prevented him from providing students with effective language instruction that built on the students’ knowledge of their first language.

If the above-mentioned “English-only” and “German-only” rules are ineffective, unrealistic, and even lazy, then why do educators insist on them? Turnbull & Dailey-O’Cain (2009) note that much of the “target-language- only” assumptions are based on several influential theories on language learning. Krashen’s (1985) comprehensible input hypothesis, for instance, argues for exposing learners to a great deal of comprehensible target-language input (i.e., give learners lots of opportunities to hear and read the target language). Swain’s (1985) comprehensible output hypothesis contends that not only do learners require comprehensible input, but they also need meaningful opportunities to produce output in the target language (i.e., speaking and writing). As Turnbull & Dailey-O’Cain (2009) point out, extreme proponents of “target-language-only” have interpreted these theories to mean that all the listening, reading, speaking, and writing must always and only be in the target language, with no recourse to the students’ first languages. Likewise, translation between students’ first and second languages is discouraged as this is viewed as a reversion to the outmoded grammar translation method of language teaching (Cummins, 2008).

However, as Cummins (2008) points out, there already exists extensive empirical evidence for interdependence between students’ first and second languages (for a review, see Cummins, 1996). Cummins (2008) states that within bilingual and second language immersion programs, strong relationships between the first and second language are observed for literacy-related aspects of language—that is, students use their first language to make sense of second language input, and the second language in turn exerts an influence on the first language. He notes that students in bilingual programs spontaneously focus on similarities and differences in their languages despite the lack of explicit support for this strategy in the classroom.

Furthermore, we have seen in this chapter that code-switching is a useful communicative resource for bilinguals. Whereas monolinguals rely on style switching and voicing, bilinguals employ these strategies in addition to their bilingual resources (Gumperz & Cook-Gumperz, 2005). In a study of bilingual third graders in Arizona, Sayer (2008) points out that insisting on artificially separating bilingual students’ two languages in the classroom is counterproductive as this does not reflect their normal language use patterns. He analyzed a structured reading activity involving bilingual students, and showed that the children used Spanish-English code-switching as a resource for meaning-making and negotiating literacy. Similarly, Gumperz & Cook- Gumperz (2005) argue that students’ use of their first language allows them to apply their knowledge of one language to learn the grammar and semantics of another language.

Given what we know about code-switching and the role of students’ first languages, what can teachers do? McKay & Bokhorst-Heng (2008: 173) recommend that educators minimize negative attitudes toward code-switching and encourage a view of bilingualism as a resource. They argue that educators need to consider how students’ other language(s) can productively be used within the educational context, and examine their own assumptions about code-switching. To promote literacy engagement in both students’ first and second languages, Cummins (2008) recommends creating dual language multimedia books or projects. (To see sample student works, visit the Thornwood Public School Dual Language Showcase at: http://www.thornwood ps.ca/dual/index.htm.) Cummins also recommends engaging students in computer-mediated sister class exchanges to create literature and art in both L1 and L2 and to explore socially relevant issues.

 
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