Why children's and adults' code switching ought to be treated alike

Academic Paper, 2016

13 Pages, Grade: 1


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Code switching
2.1 Definition
2.2 History

3. My own bilingual history

4. Adults’ code switching
4.1 Attitudes towards adults’ code-switching
4.2 Reasons for code switching in adults

5. Children’s code switching
5.1 Attitudes towards children’s code-switching
5.2 Reasons for code switching in children

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Even if there has been a change in time, code switching in children, in contrast to adults’ code switching, is still regarded as a ‘problem’ by several people, professionals included (see section 2.2). This has affected me personally, as at the age of three when I started with German kindergarten, I was sent home for half a year to ‘learn’ that I wasn’t allowed to respond in Italian when being addressed in German. Even if the idea that a child should learn to answer in the appropriate language is per se right, it was the context in which it all happened which was wrong. Some people in my town believed that in a German-speaking kindergarten Italian shouldn’t be used as it would contaminate the language of other children (see section 3). This is not a single case but part of a large number of misconceptions which have led parents and teachers to think of code-switching as a kind of linguistic disorder and, consequently, sending children to professionals, who might also not fully understand the field of code-switching. This can lead to wrong assumptions, stigmatizing children who are intrinsically ‘normal’ as ‘bad’ speakers. All this fears don’t apply to adults’ code-switching as it is seen as something more rule-governed.

That is why the aim of this research paper is to present several arguments to support the idea that code-switching in multilingual children is not the result of a lack of proficiency, but rather the consequence of a strategic use of both languages to facilitate the achievement of linguistic and social goals (Bullock 2009: 242). Furthermore, it will be argued that there are not so many differences between adults’ and children’s code/switching and that, as a consequence, they should be treated equally. To demonstrate this, several studies will be presented in which adults’ but, first and foremost, children’s code-switching fulfil a complex socio-pragmatic function. In the end, evidence shall be given to prove that a third grammar of code-switching doesn’t exist, and that therefore no description of a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of code-switching can be postulated. This all shall attest that code-switching is an individual process which changes not only because of the different languages involved but also because of cultural phenomena.

After a short definition of the term code-switching and its historical background, my personal connection to it will be presented, followed by the last two sections explaining the difference between adults’ and children’s code-switching through a juxtaposition of both.

2. Code switching

2.1 Definition

Multilingual people will make use of all their language resources, depending on the situation they find themselves in. In general, the shift from one language to the other occurs when the setting of the conversation changes, but with codes-switching the setting doesn’t necessarily have to change. Code-switching is the usage of two or more languages in a single utterance. Generally speaking, one can distinguish between inter-sentential and intra-sentential code-switching. Inter-sentential switches occur at the clause level, whereas the intra-sentential type occurs within a sentence or a clause, like in this example taken from a study done with German/Italian speaking children (Cantone 2005: 490):

Sono giá angekommen

Are 3 P.pl already arrived

The latter is harder to master as both language systems and the equivalent grammars have to be taken into account to form a ‘grammatically’ correct sentence. Several studies (among others Gumperz 1976, Poplack 1980) have been done on how to assess if the grammatical correctness of a switch is given, most of them assuming that there is something that can be called a third grammar that determines which switches are correct and which are violating structural constrains. This theory could be partly right, as it has been proved that switches tend to “occur at specific points in [a] sentence” (Cantone 2005: 478), but it has also been demonstrated that there are uncountable exceptions from the rules a third grammar would impose, as code-switching is an extremely individual process (see section 5.1).

2.2 History

Multilingualism was regarded as a problem, and as code-switching is something that only occurs when people know more than one language, this too has had a negative connotation (Bullock 2009: 7). People believed bilinguals to be two monolinguals with deficit in each language, calling them ‘semi-lingual’ (Baker 2006: 10). Nowadays, the attitude towards multilingualism has changed in most countries, even turning the previous situation upside down: it is now regarded as counterproductive to only know one language, especially in Europe. In comparison, code switching, especially in children, is still widely regarded as something more negative than positive. There is this misconception that it could be an indicator for “lack of proficiency or linguistic confusion” (Bullock 2009: 242). Nonetheless, times are changing and in a lot of domains, like on the web, in music or in poetry, code switching is starting to be welcomed. For example, the Italian singer Zucchero constantly includes English words to make his music sound more international (Bullock 2009: 12).

3. My own bilingual history

When reading about how code-switching is regarded as a linguistic impairment, I feel personally attacked. Code switching has been, and still is, part and parcel of my linguistic biography and I personally can’t imagine my life without it. I have been brought up with the one parent one language principle, my father speaking to me in German dialect and my mother in Italian. Being the youngest of three kids, I had the opportunity to converse with them in German as well. From the very start, it was clear to me that Italian was the language that everybody in my family understood, as my mother isn’t fluent in German but the other members of my family are in Italian. For this reason and probably because my mother had retired before I was born and was constantly at home, I started out with Italian as my dominant language. I would answer in Italian even when being addressed in German.

As already mentioned in the introduction, this became a problem when I began German kindergarten at the age of three. Some people of my village thought I exerted a bad influence on the other children, as I was constantly talking in Italian. I was to stay away until I was able to talk in German. This didn’t take long, as I already understood German but just hadn’t realized that in certain occasions and with certain people in authority, like teachers, I’d better use it, even if the participants knew both languages.

German slowly became my dominant language because of school, and my Italian started to weaken. This resulted in two different code-switching reasons: on the one hand while talking in Italian, I code-switch because of a lack of terminologies. On the other hand, when talking in German, I switch to Italian to emphasize what I say and to declare myself as part of the Italian community (Bullock 2009: 10). Both reason will be further discussed in section 5.2. The difference between the two languages not only affects how I speak, but also how I feel and behave. I am much more open when talking in Italian, whereas the German language makes me feel more introverted. That is why I switch to the Italian language to express strong emotions.

Nowadays, at the age of 22, I can make use of all my language skills without people reprimanding me. It is even seen as a good sign when I code-switch, as it shows people my linguistic knowledge. This reflects the question this research paper tries to analyse: is it right to discriminate children’s code switching when adults’ isn’t? A section on code-switching in adults will now follow to examine aspects that might not apply to children’s code-switching.

4. Adults’ code switching

4.1 Attitudes towards adults’ code-switching

As already shown in section 2.2, attitudes towards code switching have changed, but not completely. There is still the assumption that code switching, especially in children, is due to a lack of vocabulary and small linguistic competence. This opinion has changed regarding adults’ codeswitching as it has been proved that especially the most proficient speakers are indeed those who often engage in code-switching (Bullock 2009: 204). It has to be pointed out that to call oneself a proficient code switcher in adulthood the grammatical features of both languages have to be taken into consideration and the switches have to respect both grammars. This principle can’t be fully applied to children’s code-switching, as they are still in the process of learning the grammar (Bullock 2009: 247). Even if it is now widely accepted, adult bilinguals still apologize for their use of code-switching and attribute it to sluggishness (Baker 2011: 106).

4.2 Reasons for code switching in adults

Not all Multilinguals do necessarily have to code-switch, and when they do there hasn’t always to be a special reason for it, as adults as well as children might sometimes even not be aware of doing it or regard it as their normal way of talking (Bullock 2009: 11). Multilinguals, even the youngest ones, code-switch when they know that the interlocutor understands the languages, at least at some extend (Bullock 2009: 10). Furthermore, adults’ code-switching is mostly connected to the prestige of the languages involved, therefore the country one lives in and the social factors play a major role when it comes to language choice (Bullock 2009: 10). For example, on the one hand, code-switching can be regarded as a taboo, like in the northwest of Amazonia, where the mixing of a Tucano in a Tarianan utterance is considered a disgraceful thing to do (Bullock 2009:11). On the other hand, code-switching is welcomed in South Tyrol, as it is a sign for Bilingualism.

Code-Switching is often used to change the conversation from a formal to an informal, or the other way round. People who don’t know each other will often start talking with the more prestigious language and then switch to a more regional variety. This signals a friendly attitude towards the speaker and creates a familiar atmosphere. (Baker 2011: 109) Contrastingly, these inter-sentential switches can also start with the minority language and end with the more formal, majority language. In this way, the speaker tries to distance him/herself from the conversational partner or displays authority. (Baker 2011: 109) This feature of code-switching is to be found in children as well, and they might even use the intra-sentential code-switching type, as it will be shown in section 5.2.


Excerpt out of 13 pages


Why children's and adults' code switching ought to be treated alike
University of Innsbruck  (English Linguistics)
Systemic and/or Applied English Linguistics: Language Development in Multilingual Children
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
code switching, bilingual children, South Tyrol, adult's code switching, reasons for code switching
Quote paper
Stefanie Dalvai (Author), 2016, Why children's and adults' code switching ought to be treated alike, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/456430


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