English Learners

Code-Switching vs. Translanguaging

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Going to school in south Florida, it was typical to hear multiple languages spoken in school halls. In conversations with friends, sometimes I’d unintentionally weave in a Spanish phrase between words in English. Other times a friend would slip in a word from Haitian Creole. Even though I didn’t know Haitian Creole and my friends didn’t know Spanish, we used our knowledge of languages to better understand each other. What seemed second nature for us were the linguistic practices of code-switching and translanguaging.

When I later became a dual language teacher, I noticed that many of my multilingual learners navigated languages in these same ways. Understanding that my students came into my class with existing language backgrounds and lived experiences helped me better support and enhance their learning. Learn more about translanguaging and code-switching and how they relate to addressing the needs of multilingual learners.

What Is the Difference Between Code-Switching and Translanguaging?

Code-switching is the practice of alternating between two or more languages or dialects during conversation. It often occurs in bilingual or multilingual communities. Speakers can purposefully code-switch but can also do so subconsciously. Code-switching can sometimes mean something slightly different, referring to the change of register, accent, or behavior depending on social or cultural context. For example, a monolingual speaker may use more formal language when leading a presentation in a work setting as opposed to using informal language when around friends. Here, we will focus on the former definition of code-switching.

Translanguaging is an individual's use of all their linguistic, cognitive, and cultural resources from all their languages to communicate, interact with, and understand the world around them. Unlike code-switching, translanguaging is also a pedagogy. This learner-centered and asset-based approach to teaching honors and leverages multilingual learners’ complete linguistic repertoire. Through pedagogical translanguaging, two or more languages are intentionally integrated within instructional strategies to support student learning and elevate students’ lived experiences.

Comparing Translanguaging and Code-Switching: Are They the Same?

There is often a misconception that translanguaging and code-switching are one and the same. However, code-switching is often characterized by grammatical and syntactic features generally associated with treating languages as two separate monolingual systems. In fact, researchers have noted that code-switching comes from the view that multilingual learners have separate language systems. Translanguaging, on the other hand, acknowledges that people have one integrated language system that consists of features of all the languages they know. Translanguaging highlights the fluidity of language and how languages interconnect.

The belief of separate language systems may have contributed towards a negative perception of code-switching. One study notes that code-switching was once seen as a weakness and unwelcome in classrooms. Multilingual learners alternating between languages was perceived as a lack of knowledge in either language. However, this train of thought has shifted as more research has revealed that there are social and interpersonal functions to code-switching. For example, multilingual speakers may switch between languages to establish their multicultural identities.

With the growing research on language development, schools are moving toward embracing translanguaging pedagogy. Programs like dual language immersion provide students with a true translanguaging space, where two languages are always available. But translanguaging should not only be reserved for multilingual learners and bilingual classrooms; general education classrooms and students who are monolingual benefit from this pedagogy too. For example, when studying an Old English poem like “Beowulf,” even monolingual students engage in translanguaging and make connections using their knowledge of modern-day English. Through translanguaging, teachers create a welcoming learning environment that recognizes students as whole people and empower them to use their full linguistic resources to read, write, and talk about all subject areas.

Translanguaging and Code-Switching Examples

Multilingual learners across English proficiency levels can use translanguaging to better communicate and make sense of what they are learning. In my dual language classroom, students drew from their language repertories to better understand the Spanish language. For example, one of my students, whose family was from Bulgaria, realized during a reading that the Spanish word “torta” sounded much like the Bulgarian word “торта,” both meaning “cake.”

The following are more examples of how translanguaging can look in the classroom.

  • Reading a book in one language and summarizing it in another language
  • Using multiple languages during a classroom discussion
  • Note-taking in any language 
  • Writing a draft in a first language

With code-switching, students are alternating between languages during a conversation. Code-switching tends to follow the grammatical patterns of the languages involved. As noted in one study, there are three types of code-switching.

  • Inter-sentential code-switching: This type of code-switching involves switching between languages at the boundary of sentences, either at the beginning or end. For example, the speaker introduces a topic in one language and switches to another language to provide more detail. This is most common among fluent multilingual speakers, as the clauses and sentences conform to the rules of both languages. Example: We are going to the movies y después vamos a ir a cenar. [We are going to the movies, and then we are going to dinner.]
  • Intra-sentential code-switching: This is when code-switching occurs in the middle of a sentence. The sentence contains elements of both languages. Example: I sat down en el sofá to watch the show. [I sat down on the sofa to watch the show.]
  • Extra-sentential code-switching: Also referred to as tag switching, this is when the speaker uses a tag phrase from one language, like the phrase “you know,” in the boundary of a sentence that is in another language. Adding the phrase does not violate the grammatical rules of that sentence. Example: He is like that, sabes. [He is like that, you know.]

Having a better understanding of code-switching and translanguaging will help address the needs of multilingual learners and provide an inclusive learning environment where students’ linguistic repertories are valued.


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