Words Matter: Language-Affirming Classrooms for Code-Switching Students
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Any Lauryn Hill fans out there would instantly recognize the opening chords to her classic hip-hop song, “Doo Wop (That Thing),” but how many of us could explain the line, “Don’t forget about the deen/ the Siratul Mustaqim” without googling it? If you’re not familiar with the term, I can save you the search: Siratul Mustaqim is Arabic for “the straight path.” But why didn’t she just say that? It’s not by accident—she’s code-switching.
What is Code-Switching?
Code-switching. Some of us have heard of it, most of us have witnessed it, many of us do it on a regular basis. But what is it, exactly? Why do people code-switch? And what does it have to do with teaching?
Code-switching is the act of alternating between languages during conversation. (For the purposes of this post, language is used as an umbrella term encompassing forms of speech including formally recognized languages, dialects, and nonverbal communication.) Code-switchers seamlessly switch back and forth without pause, often starting a sentence in one language and ending it in another. Sometimes they insert words from another language in the middle of a sentence, a behavior referred to as code-mixing. And it’s not just words that change—when code-switching, people might speak faster or slower, louder or softer, mix up the pitch of their voice, change their laugh, and even vary their facial expressions and body language.
Why do people code-switch? Well, it depends. Code-switching is a very personal and complex behavior that occurs for a number of reasons. It’s used to clarify or emphasize a point, and at times, to elude eavesdroppers. Strong emotions can prompt a switch, as does a sudden change in topic. Sometimes a word simply comes to mind faster in one language. Other times it’s just simpler to say one word in another language (deen) than produce an English approximation on the spot (“living according to one’s religious principles”).
Code-switching helps us express ourselves in a way that makes sense for us at that moment. Some people code-switch in every conversation, while others use it more strategically, depending on the situation. For example, your children might speak one way with you but sound totally different when they’re off with their friends. People who code-switch are experts at navigating social situations and determining how to use language to our advantage. It helps us stand out; show who we are, unequivocally and unapologetically. It’s how we establish community—a greeting of ¡Hola! or Assalamu Alaikum instantly signals cultural or religious solidarity. Conversely, people code-switch to assimilate, downplaying or modifying their natural speech to fit in where they’re made to feel they don’t belong.
Code-switching is both art and tool, subtext and premise, bridge and platform on which we build a conversation. Code switchers use language to deliver ideas with efficiency and style. When Ms. Hill called in her Muslim fans in that lyric, she chose the language of Islam to speak directly to them. That choice served her both lyrically and linguistically, expressing a complex idea to a specific audience in a single word. And with it, she reminds us that because we matter, so do our words.
Why Language Matters
Language is identity. It shapes and informs our thinking, our values, and our relationships. It binds us to our roots and informs how we interact with the world. This should be reflected in our teaching. Gloria Ladson-Billings says, “The goal of cultural competence is to ensure that students remain firmly grounded in their culture of origin (and learn it well) while acquiring knowledge and skill in at least one additional culture” (Ladson-Billings, 2014). Code-switching is a feature of that multiculturalism, a skill set to be nurtured and developed. Language-affirming practices help us better understand what our students need to learn and grow.
The trouble is that not all students feel they can bring their whole selves into the classroom. Even the most well-meaning teachers can unwittingly do more harm than good. Many bicultural and bilingual children report experiencing a sense of loss when they acquire their second language (Casesa, 2013) and it’s not by coincidence that their educational setting plays a part in this. Over and over again, students are interrupted, corrected, and told to speak proper English by their teachers. This seemingly benevolent practice has long-lasting negative effects on many of them long beyond their school years.
Black English and the Culture of Power
Often when we think of multilingual learners (MLLs) we think of immigrants or children of immigrants who speak languages other than English, but many code-switchers actually speak a dialect of English as their heritage or home language. Despite there being no official national language in the U.S., one particular version of English has become so synonymous with academic language that not only is it the preferred dialect for reading, writing, and speaking, but other dialects are viewed as inferior. This has mostly to do with how dynamics of race and culture affect our perception of language.
In her 2020 book, Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy, Dr. April Baker-Bell explains how racism and linguistic injustice are linked. She says the white mainstream dialect known as Standardized English is held up as a model language while Black English or AAVE (African-American Vernacular English)—though widely spoken—remains underutilized and underappreciated in academic settings. Even though Black English and other racialized dialects do not exist in opposition to academic language, the students who speak them are discouraged from speaking their heritage languages in school, and their bilingualism is rarely viewed as an asset.
Why are certain languages treated differently? For one, it’s still widely believed that Black English is simply slang or informal speech, when the fact is it has its own grammar, syntax, and vocabulary like all other languages (Kamm, 2015). Another common line of thinking is that Black students need to code-switch to better navigate the academic or corporate world later on (Baker-Bell, 2017). This is a response to what Lisa Delpit describes as “a culture of power,” in which marginalized people learn to code-switch for survival instead of as a means of self-expression, feeling they have to speak a certain way if they want to get ahead (Delpit, 1988).
Though code-switching can be an effective way to gain access to traditionally white-dominated spaces, the downside of this type of survival code-switching is Black children are being taught to leave parts of themselves behind when entering academic or professional spaces, and by continuing to uncritically affirm the dominance of Standardized English (Lippi-Green, 1994), we reinforce it as the norm.
Here’s where examining our own implicit biases is crucial. Do we think of language in terms of “right” and “wrong?” Constantly fight the urge to correct people’s grammar or dismiss someone outright because they sound “uneducated”? Equate English speaking (especially non-accented English) with being American? A bulk of this harmful thinking is the result of our own schooling which we now as adults have to work to unlearn.
We should want better for our students. The fact is, code-switching is not a sign of linguistic incompetence, but a normal occurrence for a multilingual brain. (Yuhas, 2021). Rather than attempt to micromanage how they use their language, we can guide students to the realization that they can decide for themselves when and how they code-switch.
Setting the Record Straight: Common Questions About Language in Schools
Let’s be honest. Sometimes it feels like as soon as we’ve begun to master this teaching thing, another element gets thrown into the mix that has us feeling like a rookie all over again. Adding strategies that specifically address equity of language into our repertoire may seem like a daunting task, but if we know it can help our students, it’s worth a try. Hopefully in time it will become clear that even small changes can have a big impact.
My students need to learn English, and fast. Won’t code-switching slow down their progress?
Short answer: it won’t.
If you want to create a language-inclusive classroom for your multilingual learners, don’t expect or enforce “Standardized English only” policies in your classroom (Ethical Englishes, 2019). It’s fine to encourage them to take risks, but actively limiting or making rules about how they’re allowed to talk will shut down communication and damage your relationship with them.
It’s a myth that allowing students to speak their home language in school slows down their acquisition of English (Kamenetz, 2019). Regular practice of both languages will help maintain their bilingualism. In the beginning stages, use scaffolds to make the material more accessible. They’ll eventually transfer their conceptual understanding to their new language once they have the vocabulary.
If I don’t correct my students when they make an error, how will they learn?
Short answer: It’s fine. Just let them talk.
Some believe we should take every opportunity to address errors. We even have a term—teachable moment—for stopping to correct a student in the moment. But cutting someone off in the middle of a thought is not only an ineffective instructional tactic, it’s disruptive to the flow of conversation. It’s unnecessary to interrupt their train of thought just because they said “goed” instead of “went.” They probably won’t remember the correction anyway, and their classmates who were listening attentively also have to refocus. If it truly is an error (and not a language difference) you can always make a mental note to do a lesson on it at another time.
What about the standards?
Short answer: Yes, you still have to teach the standards.
While it’s true we have English language standards in our curriculum, we don’t need to prioritize Standardized English at the expense of all other forms of language. Making space for linguistic diversity doesn’t mean eliminating what already exists; it’s about creating a balance. Teachers can teach the standards without asking students to compromise their identities, and ultimately, language-inclusive instruction will only advance rather than jeopardize their academic growth.
I only speak English—won’t that limit my ability to do all of this?
Short answer: Start with a curious mind.
You don’t need to be able to speak every language in order to support students who code-switch in our classrooms. Showing genuine interest in your students’ language skills can go a long way. Also, demonstrate an appreciation for languages in general. Whether you teach history, music, or algebra, there are plenty of interesting and fun connections you can make to your subject area.
Instructional Practices that Support Multilingual Learners
Multilingual learners (MLLs) are often assumed to be at a disadvantage in a school setting, but this cannot be further from the truth (Bialystok, 2011). Nor are they a monolith: Every one of them comes to us with unique strengths, needs, and gifts. That’s why there’s no single strategy that works for everyone: Some of the following suggestions will feel more appropriate for learners of English as a new language while others make sense for more fluent speakers. As always, do what makes sense for your particular class.
Get Them Talking
MLLs need lots of opportunities to engage in meaningful conversations in class. This can be challenging if they tend to sit quietly during discussions and let others do the talking. Sometimes they’re just listening, but other times fear of critique or correction truly stops them from participating. If we want everyone talking, we need to build inclusive talk structures into our lessons.
To do this, vary the different types of discussion. Students who never raise their hand in whole class discussions will open up once they’re in a small group, while others prefer to share their thoughts with a trusted partner. Offering variety in talk structures increases student-to-student interactions and generates opportunities for us to informally assess understanding, but most of all, it lets students talk in ways that are comfortable for them.
Processing ideas can take longer for students used to speaking two or more languages, so we need to make effective use of “think time.” That’s when you ask a question and pause. Don’t rephrase the question. Don’t call on anyone. Let students absorb the question and formulate an answer. This is especially helpful for MLLs because they often have to mentally rehearse their response before saying it out loud. If they appear hesitant, see if they need more time and then circle back after the next speaker. Once they do start speaking, resist the urge to interrupt or speak on their behalf. If there is any confusion, you can always ask them to repeat or rephrase, but more often than not, those few extra seconds can be a game-changer.
Make Text Accessible
The literacy block is typically one of the most demanding times of the day for multilingual learners. Many encounters with texts end in frustration and confusion because students weren’t properly supported throughout the lesson. Not only do they need multiple chances to absorb new information, three additional points to consider when making a text accessible are background knowledge, representation, and means of delivery.
- Background Knowledge: If students are having trouble accessing informational texts, consider pre-reading activities that activate and build background knowledge. It may be useful to show a short video or have students click through a slideshow of images related to the topic. Have them preview key vocabulary words they’ll find in the reading (ideas for building vocabulary are linked here). Take time during lessons to identify cognates or root words related to the topic. A multilingual word wall is also a great way to help MLLs share their word knowledge with their peers. New words can be collected in a personal dictionary as a side project.
- Representation: Part of making texts accessible is choosing stories our students can relate to both in terms of language and message. We should be regularly selecting culturally diverse texts, especially those that use languages or dialects other than Standardized English. In addition to learning about other cultures, students should see themselves reflected in the literature they read. We also need to vet our instructional materials for potential issues with the representation or portrayal of cultural and racial groups. There are a lot of questionable resources out there—be vigilant!
- Means of Delivery: Multi-modal instruction makes content engaging and accessible to all our learners. Station teaching is a perfect way to differentiate for MLLs using varying levels of text complexity. One way this could work is while one group reads a grade-level text, another group can have a simplified version of the same text. (Newsela offers texts in multiple languages and on differing Lexile levels for this exact purpose). Combine that with a video station and a vocabulary station and you have a robust multi-modal work session that can be repeated at any time with a new text or topic.
- Additional Scaffolds: If students are not yet proficient enough in English to follow along, they can still participate in other ways: Providing translations of text or subtitles in a video can help students keep up with the material, and offering credit for work in languages other than English is always an option, too. They may benefit from a paired text or video or some other way to reconnect with the material. Later, have students review what they’ve learned using retrieval techniques (listed here) to solidify concepts and help make new words stick.
Be Flexible with Assessments
When so many assessments require a level of English proficiency that may not even be relevant to the assignment, how do we ensure we’re getting an accurate snapshot? By using a variety of assessment formats such as open-ended prompts, performance tasks, or projects and adjusting our own assessments to ensure they’re culturally relevant.
You can also employ flexibility in reviewing and grading students’ written work. Focus the majority of assignments on content, not conventions, and remember variations in language shouldn’t result in a lower grade. Obviously, every language has grammar, syntax, and spelling conventions that can be taught, practiced, and mastered, so this is not to say conventions don’t matter. It’s just that not all assignments need to be graded against the conventions of Standardized English. If a student shows consistent need for explicit instruction with grammar or spelling, you can always offer targeted instruction during small group lessons.
Finally, progress-based assessment criteria such as checklists and rubrics clarify your expectations for each task and make feedback actionable. It’s especially helpful to co-create those with your class. Not only will they have a better idea of what you’re looking for but they’ll be encouraged by seeing what they already can do.
If you’re looking for a bolder way to incorporate students’ existing language abilities into your lessons, translanguaging is a great way to develop literacy skills in multiple languages (España & Yadira Herrera, 2020). That’s the practice of designing activities to allow students agency over their languaging practices. For example, students might read a text in Spanish and respond to a discussion prompt in English. This gives them access to the material while supporting their conversation skills. Or, they might watch a video in subtitles, discuss what they learned, and write a response, all using both languages. The idea is that alternating between forms of input, processing, and output supports fluency in multiple languages at once. The advantage of translanguaging (Otheguy, García & Reid, 2015) over code-switching is that it eliminates any artificial or teacher-controlled separation of languages.
Other Inclusive Practices
In addition to the instructional strategies outlined above, there are a handful of other practices that might happen more casually alongside the pedagogy. Creating language-inclusive classrooms is more than a technique; it’s a mindset.
- That mindset means we never mock or criticize anyone’s accent or grammar. It means we support our students’ languaging practices. It means moving away from the idea that there’s a right and wrong way of speaking, that Black English and other dialects are “slang” or “informal” versions of the true and proper English. It means affirming, not just tolerating, language diversity.
- An inclusivity mindset also means expanding the walls of the classroom. Field trips, service projects, and community events are a great way to tie learning to the real world. It means inviting families to publishing parties and heritage celebrations. It means conversations without judgment and relationships that matter.
- Inclusivity means we make space for diversity: diversity of thought, experience, culture, language, and more. It means we make sure our students know they belong.
“Respect is Just the Minimum”
As we commit to becoming more culturally responsive educators, we need to not only respect, but nurture and protect our students’ cultural, racial, and linguistic identities. How we talk about language and what we allow (and don’t allow) to go unchallenged in our classrooms is hugely influential and the choices we make as teachers carry weight. We may not always know the right thing to do in every situation, but as long as we make ongoing, conscious efforts to include all voices in the conversation, well, we’re on the right path.
Baker-Bell, A. (2017). I can switch my language, but I can’t switch my skin”: What teachers must understand about linguistic racism. The guide for White women who teach Black boys, 97-107.
Baker-Bell, A. (2020) Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy. (1st edition). Routledge.
Bialystok, E. (2011). Reshaping the mind: the benefits of bilingualism. Canadian journal of experimental psychology = Revue canadienne de psychologie experimentale, 65(4), 229–235. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0025406
Casesa, R. (2013). “I Spoke It When I Was a Kid”: Practicing Critical Bicultural Pedagogy in a Fourth-Grade Classroom. Schools: Studies in Education, 10(2), 171–191. https://doi.org/10.1086/673329
Delpit, L. (1988). The silenced dialogue: Power and pedagogy in educating other people’s children. Harvard Educational Review, 58(3), 280-298.
España, C. & Yadira Herrera, L. (2020). Heinemann Blog. What is Translanguaging? https://blog.heinemann.com/what-is-translanguaging
Ethical Englishes (2019, August). The Dangers of “English-Only” Policies (for ESL students) in School. https://www.ethicalesol.org/blog/hhryxasqrobl9b8gzcza24aj6x5w5q
Kamenetz, A. (2019). 6 Potential Brain Benefits Of Bilingual Education. Npr.org. https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/11/29/497943749/6-potential-brain-benefits-of-bilingual-education
Kamm, O. (2015, March). There Is No ‘Proper English’ Wall Street Journal.
Ladson-Billings, G.J. (2014). Culturally Relevant Pedagogy 2.0: a.k.a. the Remix. Harvard Educational Review, 84, 74-84.
Lippi-Green, R. (1994, January). Accent, Standard Language Ideology, and Discriminatory Pretext in the Courts. Language in Society, 23(2), 163-198. https://rosinalippi.com/weblog/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Lippi-Green1994Accent-standard-language-ideology-and-discriminatory-pretext-in-the-courts.pdf
Otheguy, R., García, O., & Reid, W. (2015, October). Clarifying Translanguaging and Deconstructing Named Languages: A Perspective from Linguistics. Applied Linguistics Review, 6(3): 281–307 https://ofeliagarciadotorg.files.wordpress.com/2011/02/otheguyreidgarcia.pdf
Yuhas, Daisy. (2021, November). How Brains Seamlessly Switch between Languages. Scientific American.
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