Is Code Switching Always a Crisis in the Classroom? How to Successfully Allow or Avoid It

The forbidden, guilty pleasure of code switching.

We all do it. But when it comes to language teaching, it’s kind of a dirty little secret.

We’re all busy pursuing that sacred goal of language immersion, and slipping into a language other than our target feels sacrilegious.

But is it possible that we’ve been wrong about code switching all this time? Is it really that bad in every context? Is it possible that code switching could be a useful teaching tool and not some kind of evil distractor from our goals?

The answer is complex. But it does seem that this may be a good moment to rethink some of our ideas about code switching in the classroom.

In this post, we’ll discuss some of the motivations behind code-switching for both teachers and students (spoiler alert: it’s not always just laziness!).

Then we’ll show you some situations where code switching can actually be helpful and situations where it should be avoided, plus some helpful alternatives to keep your class in immersion-mode.

Code Switching in the Classroom: Convenience or Catastrophe?

Why We Code Switch

Let’s abandon the pretense and just admit that we all code switch from time to time. But when? And more importantly… why?

Research on the topic shows that these are the most common reasons that teachers code switch:

  • To address complex topics: Verb conjugations and masculine/feminine articles are already difficult enough to explain without any sort of language barrier. Many language teachers might briefly switch to students’ native language to better explain complex topics such as grammar.

As we’ll discuss more below, this can be a helpful use of code switching as long as the instruction is brief. Spending an entire class period elaborating on irregular verbs in the native language won’t encourage students to think, work or communicate in the target language.

  • To build rapport: It’s well known that students learn better in a warm and supportive environment, especially with potentially nerve-wracking subjects like foreign languages. Students just feel more comfortable when they’re addressed in their native language, and it makes it easier to build relationships with them.

In the interest of a positive classroom environment, code switching may be a good trade-off. But don’t fall into any bad habits by overdoing it. Encouragement can be meted out in the target language, too.

  • To further clarify instructions: Time’s limited, and we want to make sure that students clearly understand all the instructions for any given learning task. Sometimes the most efficient way to accomplish this is by reverting to their native language.

This use of code switching deserves the most caution, as it has the potential to make students lazy about their use of the target language.

Why Students Code Switch

Although it’s somewhat inevitable, student code switching can be problematic, depending on the reasons for it. Here are the most common reasons that students code switch:

  • To fill gaps in a conversation: It’s human nature to feel awkward when there’s a lull in conversation, and those lulls are inevitable in foreign language communication. Students often lapse into their native language to fill the silence.
  • To clarify their message: Students sometimes lack the confidence that they expressed their message clearly enough in the target language. Often, they’ll repeat or add to a response or question in their native language to make sure that they’re understood.
  • To compensate for a lack of competence: By far the most common reason for student code switching—they simply lack the knowledge and skill to express their thoughts in the target language effectively.

How to Use Code Switching to Your Advantage

As you can probably tell for yourself, some of these are good (or at least okay) reasons to code switch. Other times, it’s not as helpful.

We’re generally thoughtless about our code switching and do it almost subconsciously. But used with care and intentionality, code switching can become another useful tool in your repertoire.

Here are a few ground rules about code switching.

Be clear about when code switching is allowed and when it isn’t.

Rather than embracing an admirable but idealistic “Target Language Only” policy, consider spelling out some exceptions.

As we’ll note below, there are some cases where code switching can be acceptable and even beneficial for student comprehension and morale. Then there are cases when it’s distracting or counter-productive.

Setting concrete boundaries around classroom code switching will help you use it effectively and prevent confusion or sloppiness among students.

Allow students to code switch when they have difficulty continuing a conversation in the target language.

Allowing code switching as a bridge between familiar and unfamiliar vocabulary often helps students get more comfortable conversing spontaneously in the target language.

For example, if a student is stuck on remembering one word, consider allowing her to substitute the word in her native language in order to continue the conversation. Otherwise, she may get so hung up on that one word that she loses the flow of her overall message.

Afterwards, teach or review the missing word and discuss target language synonyms or explanations the student might’ve used to get her point across without code switching.

You could also allow filler words (such as “well,” “like,” etc.) because this can help students feel more relaxed when they’re struggling to find just the right words.

Use code switching to help students feel encouraged and supported.

The comforting familiarity of the native language can give students more confidence. It also helps solidify a congenial and supportive relationship between students and teacher.

It’s easy (and recommended!) to administer lots of simple praise in the target language. But for more meaningful encouragement, you’ll occasionally want to show students with specific detail where they’re excelling. Depending on their comprehension level, this may require using the native language—which can in turn make them feel more recognized or connected to you.

If you notice that a student is upset about something, use her native language to find out what’s wrong and to see if you can help.

It’s easier for students to learn when they feel personally cared about!

Avoid repeating instructions in the native language after you’ve already explained them in the target language.

Your intentions are noble: you simply want to make sure that everyone understands.

But repeating directions in the native language encourages bad habits. Why should students try to understand target language directions if they know that these directions are simply going to be repeated?

Be wary of code switching in classrooms where students have different native languages.

If all your students are native English speakers, occasional code switching may be helpful.

But for exchange students or immigrants, shifting between different target languages will be prohibitively confusing.

Alternatives to Code Switching

As you can see, code switching isn’t always bad. But as with anything, it should be done in moderation. Besides, you do want to shoot for as much immersion in the target language as possible.

So what can you do instead of code switching? Here are some ideas.

Pre-teach vocabulary thoroughly.

Go over new vocabulary before lessons, readings, etc. by writing phrases on the board. Incorporate gestures and visual aids to make your meaning clear without lapsing into the native language.

When the students have already encountered the vocabulary, they’ll learn and absorb it more efficiently in the context of a learning task.

Provide plenty of comprehensible input.

Use the target language consistently so they find it easy to understand and absorb new words. The more they hear the language, the more students will feel confident about reproducing it.

An easy way to achieve this in your classroom is to surround the students with the target language through posters, signs, books, magazines and audio recordings.

Innovative tools like FluentU can also be very helpful for this purpose.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

Each video comes with interactive captions they can click to get an instant definition of any word they don’t recognize. They’ll also hear the word pronounced and see other videos the word is used in. Then they’ll get flashcards and exercises based on the video to make sure they retain the new words.

It’s a great way for students to practice listening comprehension and expand their vocabularies, all while gaining valuable exposure to the target language as it’s used in real life.

Make use of cognates.

These helpful words are a language learner’s best friend! Cognates help make the language more comprehensible and boost student confidence.

Foster a supportive classroom environment.

Above all, it’s important that students aren’t afraid to make mistakes in the target language.

Get to know your students and show you care about them. This will ensure that they make the effort to communicate in the target language even when they’re nervous.

Remember that when it comes to conversing, you don’t have to correct every mistake. It’s less important that students avoid errors and more important that they speak at all.


Is code switching ideal? No, not really—but neither is it the face of evil. We all want to go for that goal of classroom immersion. Like any other tool, code switching shouldn’t be relied on solely. Instead, it should be just another item in an already full toolbox.

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